Sunday, September 14, 2014

Two Disappointing: Why Shoot a Butler?, & Endless Night



Losing one's way and ending up in a strange and (oft times) sinister situation is a plot technique often used by mystery writers. [See Death Knocks Three Times, and The Whispering House]


 Georgette Heyer's Why Shoot a Butler? also begins with our hero Frank Amberley (a brilliant barrister as the blurb has it) helplessly lost as he tries to make his way to Greythrone, the home of his uncle and aunt. It is not that he has never been to Greythrone, it is only the fact that he was trying to follow a shortcut that seems to meander forever. Finally, on a deserted road, he encounters a car and a girl standing beside it. He asks for directions but the girl (a sulky beauty - courtesy the blurb) behaves as though he is extracting her tooth for all the information she volunteers. Not used to such a treatment - because usually it is he who is treating people like dirt - Amberley decides to bother her all the more and subsequently discovers that there is a dead body in the car and that the girl (a Miss Shirley Brown as we come to know later) has a gun with her. This first encounter between the two sets the tone for the rest of the novel which consists in large part of bantering and fencing between the two of them. After a point this gets so tiresome that I just wished them to declare their true feelings for each other and spare us.

In between all these - I am more smart than you - exchanges there are three murders, a sinister house, a dusty book, cousins and siblings, dumb and dumber policemen, an omniscient aunt, and an adorable uncle who is the only redeeming feature in this otherwise mess of a mystery.







Sometime in 2012, I did a post on my Top 12 Agatha Christies. One of the books that was strongly recommended was Endless Night. Now I know very well that amongst her novels, there are only three I haven't read: Postern of Fate, Passenger to Frankfurt, and By the Pricking of My Thumbs. So obviously, here was a book that I had read but forgotten. Then at the start of this year, Tipping My Fedora had a wonderful post on the same book that made me all the more determined to read it. Unfortunately, I found the narrative a drag and the characterisation uninspired.

Michael Rogers, estranged from his mother, is a loner and a drifter. He meets American heiress Ellie and after a whirlwind romance marries her. The couple settle at Gypsy's Acre where they build a dream house. However, the land is supposed to be haunted and soon the dreams turn into nightmares. The novel's premise is good but the unconvincing ending spoiled the book for me. Also the characters were insipid and I could hardly relate to anyone of them.

In fact, I found only two points of interest in the book. (Since these are SPOILERS, please don't read any further if you have not read the book)








Didn't you find the hypocrisy of Andrew P. Lippincott (Uncle Andrew indeed!) just sickening? He knew the truth and yet he concealed it. How double-faced!

And then there is this moment: Ellie is singing and Michael comes in and they have this cryptic dialogue:

"Why are you looking at me like that, Mike?"
"Like what?"
"You're looking at me as though you loved me...."(126)

Did she know then? Had she guessed? This is the only thing that intrigued me in the whole book.








*

First Line: THE SIGNPOST was unhelpful.

Title: Why Shoot a Butler?
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publication Details: NY: Bantam, 1970
First Published: 1936
Pages: 248
Other books read of the same author: (Among others) The Black Moth, The Reluctant Widow

*

First Line: In my end is my beginning....That's a quotation I've often heard people say.

Title: Endless Night
Author: Agatha Christie
Publication Details: London: Collins (The Crime Club), 1967
First Published: 1967
Pages: 224
Other books read of the same author: (Among others) And Then There Were None, Ordeal by Innocence, Sparkling Cyanide

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Mas Negro Que La Noche (Blacker than the Night)

An arm clad in black with lace at the cuffs ending in a wrinkled beringed hand is shown petting a cat even as a disembodied voice speaks to the cat, Bequer, as you'd to a child. The credits roll on even as the wrinkled hands knit expertly... but suddenly a heart attack. Bequer mews in terror.



A struggling actor, Ophelia (Claudia Islas)  reaches home after a shoot only to find an unknown girl sleeping in her bed. Turns out the girl is Marta (Lucía Méndez - who reminded me of a young Aishwarya Rai) , a model, and cousin to Aurora (Susana Dosamantes), one of Ophelia's two flat-mates The other being Pilar (Helena Rojo) , a divorcee, called jokingly a vampire by Ophelia since she lives on the money given to her by her ex-husband. Marta too has been let-down by a man since her boyfriend turned out to be a married man with a daughter to boot. Now Marta has nowhere to go and thus moves in with the other girls after agreeing to share in the rent and other house-hold expenses. 



Meanwhile, Ophelia is informed by a lawyer that her aunt Susana is dead and has willed her house to her. Ophelia is skeptical: she had not parted with her aunt on very good terms and people do not bequeath their possessions just like that. She is sure there is a catch somewhere. The lawyer assures her there is no condition attached except for one - and that too is a request - that she take care of Bequer, the cat. Aurora (who has accompanied Ophelia to the lawyer's chamber) is disgusted - it is clear she is no cat-lover but Ophelia has no problems.

The four excited girls make their way to the old mansion only to be (non) greeted by Sophia (Alicia Palacios), their aunt's maid - who would give Mrs.Danvers a run for her money. Stone-faced Sophia shows the girls around -all of them chattering like magpies. To them, the artifacts round the house are nothing but junk - Sophia comments acidly that modern tastes are horrendous. She takes them to the aunt's bedroom and Ophelia declares that she will keep the room locked in memory of her aunt but Pilar scoffs at this sentimentality and declares that she has no qualms in sleeping in the room and on the bed (on which the dying woman was laid). However, a few hours later she regrets this foolhardiness as she wakes up to find the rocking chair in the room - rocking. She screams and everybody comes running but it is only Bequer (Blacker than the night - as Sophia sepulchrally declares) who has come home after its wanderings. Pilar declares she is sleeping in the room no longer. 


The girls settle down though they feel that Sophia grudges them being over there and that Bequer is nothing but a nuisance. One fine day, Ophelia returns home with her fiance Pedro (Julián Pastor) , only to find Sophia calling for Bequer. On inquiring, she is told that the cat has been very naughty that day having gobbled up Aurora's canary. From that day, Bequer disappears and its body is discovered four days later in the cellar. It apparently died of hunger. That night, Aurora is awakened from her sleep by the sound of someone crying. The others do not hear anything except for Sophia who declare that the old lady has come back to haunt them.





 They scoff at her but soon enough terror is unleashed. How many of them will survive the darkness of the night?





If you like horror without blood, gore, or grossness, you will like this movie. Directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada,  this Mexican film was released in 1975 and is today's entry for Tuesday's Overlooked Films and/ or Other A/V @ Sweet Freedom.







SPOILER:







Though, of course, one should not look for too much of reasoning in a horror movie, I wonder why the old lady's ghost did not stop the girls while they were carrying out their heinous act?












Monday, September 1, 2014

1st september: War and Crime

The second world war is generally said to have began on this date in 1939. This year I have been reading quite a few mysteries that have the war setting the context of the novel. Elizabeth Farrars' Murder Among Friends which is set in London during the time of Blitz has already been reviewed. Here are short reviews of four more:

JOURNEY INTO FEAR by ERIC AMBLER (1940)



This book which followed Ambler's 1939 masterpiece, A Coffin for Dimitrios, again puts an unsuspecting individual in the midst of international espionage moves and countermoves. Graham, an English engineer with an arms manufacturing company is in Turkey finalising a deal with the Turkish government. One night, he goes to a nightclub where a dancer warns him that there is a man following him. When he returns to his room, he is shot at. The Turkish Intelligence officer, Colonel Haki (certainly one of the greatest literary creations who appears in quite a few of Ambler's books) tells him that the Nazis want him dead. Graham is incredulous, all this appears so outlandish but the bullet did injure his hand and so he agrees to Haki's proposal of boarding a passenger ship from Istanbul to Genoa via Greece.

He felt only as if he had lost something valuable. In fact, he had lost nothing of any value but a sliver of skin and cartilage from the back of his right hand. All that had happened to him was that he had discovered the fear of death.

At sea, both literally and metaphorically, Graham encounters people of various nationalities: the Serbian dancer Josette and her husband Jose, a card-sharper; a mis-matched French couple; a grieving Italian widow with her son; a scholarly German professor with his sick wife; a Turk exporter, Mr. Kuvetti, and later on a Greek businessman. But who amongst them is the man who wants Graham dead?



I enjoy novels where the tension rises amongst an isolated community. And Ambler does it real well. However, the scene that really made an impression on me was when there is a botch up by the ship's personnel and Graham is asked whether he would mind sharing the table with the German, Dr. Fritz Haller. He acquiesces and Haller and he have a pleasant conversation (though there are whispers of 'traitor' floating around). Things do not always remain the same but that scene did suggest so many other possibilities that Europe could have taken.


DEATH BY NIGHT by JOHN CREASEY (1940)



Published in the same year as Journey into Fear, this book is vastly different in its tone and treatment. This book is the usual chest-thumping espionage story where the English men are valiant and people of other nationalities are devious. The handsome Errol cousins, Mike and Mark, and their senior colleagues Gordon Craigie, Bill Loftus, Edward Oundle are brave men trying to thwart a plan to take over the world (with the help of a new advanced product developed by scientific experiment) by certain dictators, vile Nazis, and some misguided idealistic Britishers.

I had heard about Department Z [ Craigie had started the ultra-secret branch of British Intelligence, which he ran independently of the more widespread Espionage Branch] but this was my first reading of a Creasey novel. It might remain the only one.


GREEN FOR DANGER by CHRISTIANNA BRAND (1944)



We encounter an isolated community again in Christianna Brand's Green for Danger. The war is now going ahead full throttle and the Germans are bombing England with unfailing regularity. People are dying all around and yet it is the death of one man on the operating table that disrupts the order of things.

Seven people - doctors, anaesthetists, nurses, VADs join the Heron's Park hospital as the war escalates. A postman, Joseph Higgins, delivers their applications to the hospital, little realising that he'd one day be murdered by one of them. But why would anybody want to kill a postman and how does it happen in full view of so many people? Inspector Cockrill is called to investigate but even before the investigations could begin in earnest, the murderer strikes again.

I did not like the first book of Brand's that I read: Heads You Lose but this book with its war-time setting and a delicious red herring that had me completely fooled is not only worth reading but has re invoked my interest in the writer. Brand has lately received quite a bit of attention on blogosphere. You can read about recent reviews of her other books over here, here, and here.


THE BLANK WALL by ELISABETH SANXAY HOLDING (1947)



This is a little different from the preceding three. First of all, it was published after the war was over and secondly it is written by an American.

The novel deals not with espionage in high places but tension in the domestic sphere as the men go out to war and women are left to cope with the problems back home. Lucia Holley is a wife whose husband Tom is away fighting. Living with her father and her two children,  Lucia fells that she and her husband are becoming strangers to each other. The letters she writes to him do not detail the trouble she is facing coping with an increase in the cost of living, a scarcity of things, and two headstrong children who are becoming undisciplined. The novel also suggests that Tom does not write about the terrible time he is having of the war. She does not want to trouble him, he does not want to trouble her but for all their concern for each other, they have become distant.

Lucia's real troubles start on that day when her daughter falls in love with a man whom she considers to be most inappropriate. Reasoning with her daughter Bee and appealing to the man, Ted Darby, produce no result. Things come to a head when she catches Bee going out for an assignation with Darby. Even as mother and daughter argue, old Mr. Harper, Lucia's father enters the room. On hearing that Darby is waiting for Bee in the boathouse, he decides to go there himself. On returning, he tells Lucia that Darby will not be troubling them anymore. Lucia is relieved but when she goes to the boathouse at early dawn, she finds Darby's body in the water, a spare anchor has pierced his throat. Convinced, that it was an accident caused by her father and desirous of saving him from the ensuing scandal, Lucia rows the body across to a small island.



But her troubles do not end because soon there are blackmailers crowding at her door. As she strives hard to save her family from ruin, she has nobody to turn to except for her Black American maid Sibyl. Even as the two women come close, Lucia also develops conflicting feelings about the man Donnelly who enters her life as a blackmailer but then surprisingly proves to be helpful. Can Lucia survive the war?

*

Of the four, the one that I liked the most was Ambler's In fact, writing about it has made me feel like picking up another book of his.

*

First Line: THE STEAMER, Sestri Levante, stood above the dock side , and the watery sleet carried on the wind blistering down from the Black Sea, had drenched even the small shelter deck.

Title: Journey Into Fear
Author: Eric Ambler
Publication Details: NY: Berkley, 1983
First Published: 1940
Pages: 260
Source: Open Library

Other books read of the same author: A Coffin for Dimitrios, Light of the Day, Dirty Story

*

First Line:

Title: Death by Night (Dept. Z # 14)
Author: John Creasey
Publication Details: London: Arrow, 1970
First published: 1940
Pages: 192
Source: H.M. Library

Other books read of the same author: None

*

First Line: Joseph Higgins, postman, pushed his battered red bicycle up the long ascent that leads to Heron's Park, three miles out of Heronsford, in Kent.

Title: Green for Danger
Author: Christianna Brand
Publication Details: San Diego: University of California, 1978 (Intro. by Otto Penzler)
First Published: 1944
Pages: 296
Source: Open Library

Other books read of the same author: Heads You Lose

*

First Line: LUCIA HOLLEY wrote every night to her husband who was somewhere in the Pacific.

Title: The Blank Wall
Author: Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Publication Details: NY: Detective Book Club, 1947
First Published: 1947
Pages: 160
Source: Open Library

Other books read of the same author: None





Friday, August 29, 2014

Forgotten Book: Oil! by Upton Sinclair (1927)

Does it surprise you to hear that Big corporate houses fund an election or that industrialists pay bribes on their way to setting up Big empires? If my guess is correct, your answer is also No. These things are so commonplace that one doesn't even bat an eyelid when hearing about them let alone question the morality of these practices. So reading Upton Sinclair's Oil! was like stepping back into an age of innocence when the ethics of these practices were debated upon, when people questioned whether people who did not produce had a right to enjoy the results of labour, and when Soviet Russia was seen as a panacea for all ills that trouble this old old earth of ours. More than anything else, this faith in that great Communist experiment touched me deeply because it made me realise how great a shock it must have been when communism too failed to provide the necessary succour and how great a distance we have traversed since the publication of the book.



And at what stage of life shall a boy say to his father, your way of life is wrong and you must let me take charge of it?

A bildungroman, Oil! unfolds through the eyes of Bunny whom we meet for the first time as he travels with his father, James Arnold Ross, to see a property which might produce oil. From then on, his father grows rich as he acquires more and more oil wells and Bunny acquires a social conscience as he befriends a waif, Paul Watkins. Watkins, tutored by a free thinker and later a soldier in WWI who also spends time in Siberia and is later a labourer and a communist, makes a deep impact on Bunny with his philosophy of life. This inevitably leads to clashes with his father and the best part of the book is that points are debated. It is not merely ruthless, blood-suckers industrialists vs hungry, downtrodden labourers or devoted communists vs debauched capitalists. There are debates and discussions and the father (who is in many ways a very decent character) forcefully proves his own point of view too. There is even a debate regarding socialism vis a vis communism and the socialist is dismissive of the methods employed by the communists.

In his march towards adulthood, Bunny also falls in and out of love with socialites and Hollywood starlets (and this gives Sinclair the perfect opportunity to depict the Roaring Twenties) . In fact, wikipedia tells me that a sex scene in a motel so offended sensibilities that it was banned in Boston.. Sinclair's publisher printed 150 copies of a "fig-leaf edition" with the offending nine pages blacked out. Sinclair protested the banning and hoped to bring an obscenity case to trial. He did not do so, but the controversy helped make the book a bestseller. So obviously controversy always sells.



This is my third Sinclair after King Coal, and Jungle and though I admire his devotion to depict the ills of this world, his novels tend to get didactic in parts. At 527 pages, this was way too long and eventually I just wanted it to end. However, I am still interested to read more of him, especially Boston, which I have heard is based on a real-life incident.

*

First Line: The road ran, smooth and flawless precisely fourteen feet wide, the edges trimmed as if by shears, a ribbon of grey concrete, rolled out over the valley by a giant hand.

Title: Oil!
Author: Upton Sinclair
Publishing details: London: T. Werner, Laurie Ltd., 1936.
First Published: 1927
Pages: 527
Trivia: The 2007 movie, There Will Be Blood, is loosely based on the book.



Other books read of the same author:  The Jungle, and King Coal

*

Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books today @ Evan Lewis' blog.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Top Ten (+ 3) Tuesday


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted @ The Broke and the Bookish. Every week one can submit a list of 10 books on a predecided topic. This week the hosts have asked us to list the books one wants to read but doesn't own yet.

Right now, the 1932-33 Ashes series between England and Australia interests me the most. I have already purchased/ been gifted a few books regarding the series but there are a whole lot of them out there which I really want to own (Unfortunately most of them are out of print). As I could not stop at 10. here are 13 of them. 










































Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: The Web (1947)





An old man, Leopold Kroner (Fritz Leiber, Sr.- father of SF writer Fritz Leiber) walks out of jail where he had spent five years on charges of embezzlement. He is greeted by his daughter Martha (a teary-eyed Maria Palmer) but is surprised that a certain Mr.Colby is not there. The old man's surprise (and anguish) is all the more surprising when one comes to know that he had been imprisoned because he had been selling counterfeit bonds from Colby Enterprises and had been implicated because the Boss, Andrew Colby (Vincent Price - with a voice to die for - and the same guy whom Kroner had wanted to be part of the welcoming committee) had testified against him.

Meanwhile, an attorney Robert Regan (Edmond O'Brien) barges into Colby's office despite the protestations of his secretary Noel Faraday (Ella Raines in Girl Friday mould). Regan wants Colby to pay $68.75 which he owes to his client - a pushcart dealer- as damages. Colby is impressed by the attorney's tenacity and hires him as his bodyguard as he fears that Kroner might be planning to harm him. Regan agrees to the job and that very night even as he is talking to Faraday, a shot is heard from Colby's study. Regan rushes up to find Kroner brandishing a gun though Regan himself had locked all the doors of the house. Kroner turns towards Regan and the latter shoots him dead. At the inquest, he is acquitted as the killing was done in self-defence. However, Regan's friend Lt. Damico (a studious looking William Bendix) smells something fishy. Already troubled by killing a man, Regan returns home only to find himself cornered by a distraught Martha who wants to know what kind of man can kill another so that he can buy another car. Regan now starts feeling that he has been used as a tool by Colby.

He springs a trap for Colby but who will be the one to be caught in the web?




The film begins well with a car eye's view of Manhattan but fails to live to its promise. The most interesting part of the movie for me was the relationship between Colby and Faraday. She is his right-hand and finds herself on the horns of dilemma what with her growing attraction for Regan and her own suspicions and misgivings regarding Colby vis a vis her loyalty towards him. Colby too cannot bear her turning disloyal and there is a telling moment when he wants her to reveal the truth to him. It is the moment when he is most human.



Based on a story by Harry Kurnitz and directed by Michael Gordon, this movie was released in 1947 and is today's entry for Tuesday's Overlooked Films and/ or Other A/V at Sweet Freedom.







Friday, August 22, 2014

Forgotten Book: Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White

It was sometime in 2010 that I discovered Ethel Lina White. One day bored and restless, I browsed Manybooks and found her book Some Must Watch available for free download. The mystery was so gripping that I read it through the night and then was afraid to switch-off the light. Subsequently, I read a couple of other books by her: She Faded into Air, and The Wheel Spins. Both were good but not as masterly as Some Must Watch. Recently, I read another one of hers: Fear Stalks the Village.



Joan Brooks has settled lately in a picture-perfect village as the secretary of Lady D'Arcy. The village is beautiful: It was enfolded in a hollow of the Downs, and wrapped up snugly—first, in a floral shawl of gardens, and then, in a great green shawl of fields. Lilies and lavender grew in abundance. Bees clustered over sweet-scented herbs with the hum of a myriad spinning-wheels.

The villagers live in great harmony, throwing garden parties and generally being merry under the benevolent eye of Miss Decima Asprey, the queen of the village. The Rector of the village who had come to it a few years earlier thinks that the village reflects all that is good and right in the world.

When the novel opens, Joan is being visited by a friend, a novelist, from London. Both find each other changed but are determined to enjoy their time together. While returning the novelist jests that this pristine village is actually sinister: a very much in love respectable couple are actually not married, the doctor who is fond of his wife is actually poisoning her, the Rector throws wild parties, and that saint like Miss Asprey is actually a sadist who tortures her helps. Joan laughs it off though she feels offended at her paradise being mocked so.

However, soon Miss Asprey receives an anonymous letter accusing her of of what the novelist had hinted. And this is just the beginning. Soon anonymous, poisonous letters are circulating in the village accusing the denizens of what the novelist had hinted. The bonhomie disappears as each person becomes suspicious of his neighbour and when a murder occurs, the threat cannot be denied any longer. The Rector calls his friend Ignatius Brown to solve the mystery. Brown soon finds out that all the villagers have something to hide, including Joan with whom the Rector is in love...



While good in parts, this novel was overall a drag. Too many descriptive passage took away the tautness needed in a mystery novel. And the village began to irritate me with its very complacency. Nevertheless, White remains a favourite and I am keen to read more of her works.

*

First Line: The village was beautiful.

Title: Fear Stalks the Village
Author: Ethel Lina White
First Published: 1932
Pages: n.pag.
Source: Downloaded free from Project Gutenberg Australia

Other books read of the same author: Some Must Watch, She Faded into Air, The Wheel Spins

*

Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books, today @ In Reference to Murder