Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books

See you back here on January 8th. Have a safe and splendid holiday season.

Toni L.P. Kelner suspects the Brains Books influenced her "Where are they now?" series--they have real settings, are filled with odd facts, and she hopes Tilda Harper is a character you'll like hanging out with. Curse of the Kissing Cousins was released by Berkley Prime Crime in May, and Who Killed the Pinup Queen? is due out in early January. Come visit her at

The Brains Benton Books: The Case of the Forgotten Series

When Patti first invited me to participate on Friday's Forgotten Books, I was all excited to have a chance to talk about an author I just adore and who is seldom talked about any more: Dorothy Gilman. Then it was announced that Ms. Gilman is getting a much deserved MWA Grand Master Award in 2010. This is wonderful news, without a doubt, but I don't think she can legitimately be called forgotten anymore.
So I've decided to go back even further to the series of mysteries I loved I was growing up: the Brains Benton books. I read and reread those books more times than I can count.

I know, most of you are scratching your heads over these books. I admit that it's a pretty obscure series. According to Wikipedia, the books came out in the late 1950s and early 1960s, They were originally published by the Golden Press, and later reprinted by Whitman Books. Charles Spain Verral wrote the first one, then George Wyatt continued the series with lots of rewriting from Verral. I don't think it was ever wildly popular, and there were only six books in the series.

Actually, as far as I was concerned, there were only three. That's how many of the books my big sister Brenda had and then passed on to me. (One of the best gifts any young reader can ever have is a big sister willing to share her books--I was luck enough to have three!) Brenda had the first three of the series: The Case of the Missing Message, The Case of the Counterfeit Coin, and The Case of the Stolen Dummy. I didn't even find out there were other books until years later, and it wasn't until the web came around that I tracked down the volumes I was missing. And though it's hard to look at them with any trace of objectivity, I think they're still pretty good reads.

Read this paragraph, the first from The Case of the Missing Message, and see if you aren't charmed:

"I might as well explain right away that my name is Jimmy Carson and I live at 43 Maple Street in the town of Crestwood. I'm a detective. And if anybody tries to tell you that a boy like me can't be a real detective and get mixed up in an honest-to-goodness mystery...well, I wish he'd been along the night my partner and I investigated the spooky old Madden house."

Jimmy was an average kid in the almost painfully average town of Crestview. But he had one thing most kids don't: a best friend and partner like Brains Benton, who was a certifiable genius. Together they formed a detective agency complete with secret passwords, code names, and a secret hideout about the Benton family garage. As they tackled kidnappers, counterfeiters, and swindlers, Jimmy was the Watson to Brains' s Holmes, sometimes the Archie Goodwin to Brains's Nero Wolfe. While Brains was amazingly intelligent and worthy of admiration, sometimes he was kind of a snot. Jimmy, on the other hand, was a great guy to hang out with. He made mistakes like trusting the wrong person and misusing equipment, and wasn't nearly as smart as Brains, but he was loyal and tenacious, and never gave up on a case.

The books had a comforting sense of realism. Jimmy didn't have a roadster like Nancy Drew--he had a bicycle. His father wasn't as exotic as the Hardy Boys' father--I think he was an insurance salesman. He and Brains didn't go to exotic locales, unless you count the circus or the nearby lake where they went for the summer. Yet I learned the oddest facts from those books, information about topics ranging from infrared photography to ancient coins to stock car racing. There was some danger, of course, but nothing over-the-top--just enough to get my heart racing. They were just so much fun!

And since I had to pull out the books to write this blog, I just might start reading the series all over again.

le0pard13 is the internet moniker of a father of two, spouse to one, who blogs out of The City of the Angels. He owns a first edition copy of the book below and one day hopes to have the author autograph for him.

The Ninth Configuration, by William Peter Blatty (Harper & Row 1978)

Just say the name, William Peter Blatty. It does have its own sense of meter as it rolls off the tongue, now doesn't it? You'll most likely recognize it, too. Just the same, saying it three times in front of a mirror won’t cause anything bad to happen, either -- contrary to urban legend. If you love books and reading, whether you are a baby boomer or Generation X, Y, or even Z, odds-on you've heard of him. Such is the legacy of authoring a horror novel as famous as 1971's The Exorcist (which would go on to even greater notoriety when it was adapted to the screen in 1973's film of the novel). However, along with the popularity and fame for a book that became an all-encompassing event, it can be too much of good thing. 'Event' novels can take on a life of their own, and they can build to the point that all other work by the same author lies in its shadow. Obscured because they are not anything like that book. Such was the consequence for the next novel by author Blatty that it seemed to fall by the wayside when it was published in 1978. That forgotten, but wonderful, piece of elegant writing was, The Ninth Configuration.

What was released that year actually germinated from a hasty 1966 novel titled, Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane! From his author's note: "Its basic concept was surely the best I have ever created, but what was published was just as surely no more than the notes for a novel -- some sketches, unformed, unfinished, lacking even a plot." Luckily, for those of us who read the re-envisioned work in the late 70's (and those who would go on to discover and appreciate it decades later), it is an overlooked book worth remembering. Ironically, WPB has said more than once he considers it his unofficial sequel to The Exorcist. Although The Ninth Configuration shares a very loose connection (via an unnamed character) from that novel, the genre and plot line couldn't be more divergent. Plus, it works whether or not you've read the legendary blockbuster that preceded it.

The novel's story centers upon a select small group of military men secluded away with what are believed to be inexplicable mental disorders. Or, being highly intelligent men, they could be faking it--which could be the reason nothing has worked and why they continue their stay at a decaying Gothic mansion. Their treatment, and sanity, ultimately hinges upon one Marine Colonel Kane (a psychiatrist who may have his own issues) brought to the sheltered facility to seek the answers in the most unexpected of ways. Blatty crafts the story as a mystery to be solved, planting its seeds in the unusual interactions that take place. The author’s dialogue between the patients and staff are quite purpose-built, madcap, and unexpected. I cannot describe it any better than what a good friend wrote in a review of his, "Because the story is relatively brief, no words are wasted in an attempt to be lyrical or poetic. Yet somehow there are moments of utter poetry in the exchanges between doctor and patients, and in Kane's own introspective reasonings." While the material covered is meaty, it is one of the few novels that made be laugh out loud, and had my eyes welling by the time I finished it.

One could describe WPB as an author who writes eloquent, thought provoking fiction that draws in his readers with clever, humorous dialogue (keep in mind, he also wrote the screenplay for the comedy, A Shot In The Dark). Or put another way, he’s a humorous, clever writer who puts out eloquent novels that catch the readers off guard by being thought provoking. I'd say both are true. He just happened to author a chart topping novel of horror that eclipsed everything before, or since, in his bibliography. However, The Ninth Configuration remains perhaps a more intriguing read, and worth exploration by those who haven't experienced it. As well, for those of us who are film buffs, sprinkled throughout, the author references classic movie moments and dialogue within this novel. A few years after its publication, William Peter Blatty would pen and direct its film adaptation in 1980. Not surprisingly, it has developed a strong cult following, and many believe the story is more immersive on the screen (consider me in both groups). The 1978 novel is a svelte 135-page work, and next year TNC will be re-released by Centipede Press as a new edition. Purportedly, it will combine both novels and will include a long essay by film scholar Mark Kermode in a 292-page hardcover. So on this Friday, The Ninth Configuration is not forgotten (at least, by me anyways).

"Every kind thought is the hope of the world."

Patti Abbott-Because I couldn't decide which series to pick last week, here is the other one.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series by Betty McDonald

The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series tells of a grandmotherly woman who lives in an "upside-down" house in a neighborhood with more than its share of children with bad habits.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has a chest full of magical cures left to her by her deceased pirate husband, Children with bad habits often find themselves in her care. This sounds like there is a scolding quality about these stories, yet Betty McDonald somehow avoids it by making it light-hearted and fun.

According to Wilkipedia-

The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories were based on bedtime stories Betty made up for her daughters, nephews, and nieces (and later grandchildren and grandnephews/-nieces).

The final book in the series, published fifty years after the original, is largely written by MacDonald's daughter, Anne MacDonald Canham (the two share a writing credit for this book). The first story in the book is an unpublished MacDonald story, while Anne explains in the book that the remaining stories are based on "notes for other stories among her mother's possessions."

Ed Gorman is the author of TICKET TO RIDE, the latest Sam McCain novel and many other fine stories-long and short. You can find him here.

Herbert D. Kastle wrote a number of science fiction stories in magazines of the 1950s. That's where I first read him. Later in the 1960s he was writing those fat sexy bestseller-type novels that owed more to marketing and Harold Robbins than his presumed muse.

Then in 1974 he wrote CROSS COUNTRY. Here's a quote from one of the reviews: "This novel seems to occupy the same dark and twisted territory as the works of Jim Thompson. Characters interact in a dance of barely suppressed psychopathological urges and desires that is as
grotesquely fascinating as a multi-car pileup on the freeway. It
may leave you feeling unclean afterwards, but chances are you will not forget it."

Damn straight. It really is a sewer of sex and terror and blood-soaked suspense. I read it in one long sitting. If it's trash, as some called it at the time, it is spellbinding trash.

IMDB sums up the story line succintly: "After a woman is found butchered in her New York apartment, suspicion falls on her estranged husband, an ad executive who has suddenly left town on a cross-country road trip. He takes along a beautiful girl he met in a bar and a drifter he picked up along the way. A cop sets out after the husband, but he's more interested in shaking him down than bringing him back."

Kastle masterfully controls his long nightmare journey and you buy into his paranoia. He shows you an American wasteland of truck stops, motels, convenience stores connected by interstate highway and darkness. By book's end everyone will betray everyone else. This is survival of the fittest enacted by a Yuppie businessman, sociopathic hippies and a crooked cop. The sheer nastiness of Kastle's existential vision make this book impossible to forget. Thirty-some years after I first read it I still think of it from time to time when hundreds of other novels have fled from memory.

As a vision of hell, it's a small masterpiece.

Paul Bishop

Bill Crider

Mike Dennis

Martin Edwards

Ray Foster

Randy Johnson

George Kelley

B.V. Lawson

Evan Lewis

Todd Mason

Scott Parker

Eric Peterson

James Reasoner

Rick Robinson

Kerrie Smith

The Rap Sheet

Women of Mystery (for a great discussion of whether all books in a print format will soon be forgotten.


Laurie Powers said...

I just want to thank you Patti for continuing to babysit this series and for letting me a part of it. I think it's one of the best things going on the blogosphere right now. Happy holidays.

Unknown said...

My wife is a huge fan of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, though she doesn't talk about her as much as she used to. "The Fighters-Quarrelers Cure" is a story she used to mention often.

Richard Robinson said...

Wow. I'd never heard of those Brains Benton books, and they look like a lot of fun. I imagine they're pretty hard to find these days, though, even with the internet.

And Patti, I 2nd Laurie's remark. Thanks for doing this. Have a great holiday season and we'll meet again, right here, in 2010.

Joe Barone said...

Patti, You have a blessed Christmas too.

Corey Wilde said...

Patti, I'm glad you roped le0pard13 into this project. He writes very few book reviews, but the ones he pens are wonderfully incisive. He's also pointed me toward more good reading than I would have found on my own.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am waiting for my grandson to be old enough. My mother was hoping for the doesn't pick up her clothes cure. Instead I married someone who could top me.
Yeah, Brains is new to me, too. Maybe after our time?
Joe-Thank you so much. And please do another forgotten book sometime soon.
Corey-I hope you both do more.

Evan Lewis said...

Patti - my sister had Piggle-Wiggle books. If I'd known about the dead pirate I might have taken a look.

Toni - wish I'd seen these as a kid. Unlike the Hardy Boys, I think they'd have grabbed me.

Le0pard13 - Never thought of Blatty as a laugh-out-loud writer. This deserves a look.

Ed - You had me at "the same dark and twisted territory as the works of Jim Thompson.

Travis Erwin said...

Enjoy your holiday as well. I'm really going to try and be a better blog friend in this coming year.

le0pard13 said...

Thank you again, Patti, for this forgotten book series and for inviting me to participate. It's always great to check out what bubbles up each week in this series. And, thank you all very much for the feedback.

Todd Mason said...

Well, before THE EXORCIST, Blatty was probably most famous for JOHN GOLDFARB, WON'T YOU PLEASE COME HOME...

In an odd confluence, one of Maria Bamford's routines involves a pug dog named for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

As always, thanks for hosting this weekly adventure, Patti, and thanks to all who kick's both a fun and useful exercise...

Editor Bill said...

I thought I was the only person who had fond memories of the Brains Benton books. It was one of my favorite series as a kid - I had the first four and tried in vain for years to find the others. Nice to see the books get a shout out.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Editor Bill-if you have a forgotten book to contribute, let me know.