Friday, April 29, 2016

Martin Edwards wins an Edgar Award by M.W.A. for Best Critical, with The Golden Age Of Murder

I wish express my most sincere congratulations to Martin Edwards,

significant English writer  and very acute critic of detective fiction, for the recent victory of an Edgar Allan Poe Award for M.W.A. 2016, for "Best Critical", with his essay 
"The Golden Age Of Murder". 
Pietro De Palma

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

John Dickson Carr : Fire, Burn! , 1957

Years ago, in Italy, in a debate about the context of the best historic mystery by Carr, I gave the palm of the best to The Devil In Velvet, and as the second rewarding Fire, Burn! while others favored other novels such as Fear Is The Same. A few years later, in another debate, I changed my opinion, giving the prize for best novel of the genre ex aequo to The Devil In Velvet and Fire, Burn!
On that occasion Mauro Boncompagni, the greatest Carrian italian critic,  made reference to the judgment of a historian of collecting books, John Cooper who had designated as the best historic mystery by Carr, Fire, Burn! Now I do not know if this judgment is absolutely legitimate, but then everyone can say what he thinks. It is certain that Anthony Boucher, when this novel was published, said:
“As history, as romance, as mystery, as detection, the history is splendid, with an exact and detailed picture of the Yard’s early days, an alluring love story, copious action and a solution wholly surprising”.

The novel is based on a jump back in the time of the Scotland Yard Inspector John Cheviot, which is by taxi and is on his way to Scotland Yard. Suddenly he loses consciousness and finds himself in London in 1829: it is in a carriage and he is going in the former headquarters of Scotland Yard. He does not know how he got there and who he is, but soon becomes aware to be a policeman also there, to be from a wealthy family, great swordsman and marksman with his gun, fighter and player, tombeur de femme for more: indeed, he is the lover of lady Flora Drayton. At Scotland Yard he is summoned as he has  asked to cooperate with the police and to put his qualities in the government service. His first case seems somewhat trivial: he must find out who steals food from the cages of birds of Mary Boyle, Countess of Cork.
John Cheviot does not believe his ears: is it possible that they ask for such a thing? The fact is that the noblewoman is one of the noble people who supports the establishment of a strong and efficient organization and therefore they can not disappoint her.
John Cheviot will go there in the company of his mistress, a too noble woman, and friend of the Countess. And there he will be reached by Alan Henley, Secretary of Scotland Yard.

John soon realizes that with the stealing of food there is also the theft of the Countess's jewels: they having been stolen from the litter box in the room of the Countess, were hidden in the feed birds. In other words there is a complicity in the Countess's house, although she blindly trust of his relatives, protected and servants.
While John is trying to figure it out, a young aristocratic lady is killed before his eyes, protected from the Countess: Margaret Renfrew. The young woman was hit by an invisible and silent bullet, since neither John nor his mistress nearby nor Henley have seen or they have heard the firing or the smell of gunpowder. However, then, after to subject the corpse to autopsy, will fetch a perfectly spherical ball of lead, clean and not instead blackened by gunpowder.
John has found a small pistol, dropped from the sleeve Flora brings with her, and in the rush to protect her, he sets it aside, not delivering it and not mentioning it in his report: she says she had found it there, and that the pistol had been lost time earlier, and then therefore she thought that someone had left to accuse her. Moreover, she says, the sleeve presence is explained by the fact that one of his two gloves was broken and she did not want to do bad figure.

In the hall, Cheviot is also facing a touchy captain of the guards, Hugo Hogben.  John learns from the Countess,  Margaret Renfrew was the mysterious thief who had stolen a ring with a solitaire. And the Countess of Cork, to hide the precious things, had buried them  in the feed of drinkable birds, not foreseeing that someone had spied her and then at the night had emptyied the feed birds containers. It is suspected that Freddie Derbitt a friend of John, may have been the lover of Margaret Renfrew. Cheviot understands that the place where find clues it’s the gambling den by Volcano in London, frequented by high society, where the jewels can have been changed with money. There Cheviot will find several people: from Flora to Hogben, from Freddie Derbitt to notables and lords. And he will discover how Volcano scams people: through a rigged roulette actuated by compressed air. And at that time he will also understand how that could happen that the Renfrew may have been killed by an invisible bullet and that they have not heard noise or smell of gunpowder, because the bullet was shot from an unusual weapon that does not use gunpowder, concealed in a walking stick.
Cheviot thinks about who can be the murderer, but the idea is so crazy that no one would believe him. And so he must provide evidence and sends his men to frisk a certain apartment. And so the date and time fixed in advance, he will nail the murderer, after having humiliated his accuser, the captain Hogben that, even to take revenge on him, accused him,  testifying falsely.
Cheviot will prove the bullet that was recovered with the autopsy of Renfrew could not have been fired from the gun fell from the sleeve by lady Flora, because its diameter is more little than that could be shot, but instead it could be shot from a special weapon. The revelation will show the murderer  is one of the persons agreed there  in front of Scotland Yard chiefs: from Hogben to Lady Flora, from Henley to Miss Tremayne, from Bulmer Sergeant  to Inspector Seagrave.
Bur when Cheviot will be killed from Hogben (who is not the killer), in that moment…Cheviot will return in himself, in the twentieth century and he will understand to have dreamed: he had hit his head in the aftermath of the taxi in which he was .
And when he sees the face of Lady Flora Drayton, he understands she is his wife, whose name is…Flora. 
Extraordinary historical novel, mixes suspense, detection, mystery and an impossible problem solved with customary nonchalance. The historical penetration is prodigious, the meticulousness with which the story is built, admirable and credible construction of figures. All in an era, that of George IV, described in detail: can almost see the characters as they talk, laugh, dance, play, duel.
To better appreciate the historical deepening operated by Carr, you should have under my eyes the final notes of the author's fist. The time of the novel is placed immediately after the end of the Second World War, when there was a series of tragic fogs in London, which cause dozens of fatal accidents: during one of these, it happens the car accident in which Cheviot is involved.
The step back in time is a literary device that Carr used on other occasions, and which is connected to the admixture of real and fantastic elements, to the dream experience and that of real life, which binds together form a whole inextricable from hard separate the true from the false, the real from the unreal. This dimension was already been tested in other famous novels: for example, in The Burning Court, in which one finds a person associated with two different figures, one in the present and in the past one. In that novel is, to a greater extent, the fantastic dimension, more than here, although in this novel, emerges the suspicion that the Cheviot itself has lived these events, and that he therefore is nothing more than a reincarnation in the twentieth century of Cheviot who lived in the nineteenth. But also in The Devil in Velvet, there is a jump back into the past, the result of a pact with the devil, and therefore there are fantastic elements. And even in the Fear Is the Same, is traveled the same track dive in the past. We can therefore say that the jump in the past, maybe in people who are suddenly living experiences in the past having the consciousness of having already lived, having crossed the same dangers, and having known the same people, is one of the most typical of escamotages whose Carr serve to legitimize a story of detection in the past.
However beyond the dimension of the detection and pure invention, at their maximum, Fire, Burn! is a historic mystery of remarkable invoice: so good, that in 1969 won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, tied with another great historical novel, where there’s historical research: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.

The Carr's novel is different from that of the writer yet: while there it tries historical hypothesis, that is doing very sensible hypothesis about King Richard III, mixing history and crimes, according to a course of action experienced by Carr when he was tried many years before to reconstruct the murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, the Carr’s novel instead implements a synthesis of truth and falsehood: it inserts into a frame, next to real characters some fake characters, thus creating a historical reality entirely invented, but it could also take place. For the first time Carr, in other word, sapplies to the historical novel developed by Georgette Heyer the movements of mystery, creating the foundation for a genre that still reaps today big success.
One last thing: The title. 

Fire, Burn! explicitly it refers to a feature of the same Cheviot, that is to his impetuousness and recklessness not mediated by risk weighting, whom Maine, one of two Commissioners from Scotland Yard, had blamed to him.
The resti, Fire, Burn! is nothing more than one half of a famous verse of Act Four, Scene I of Shakespeare's Macbeth:  Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble.

Pietro De Palma

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ulf Durling : Hard Cheese (Gammal ost, 1971). Expanded version of an earlier article yet published here

Ulf Durling is a name that very few people , I suspect, will know . Yet he deserved a mention in the appendix of the famous Mystères à huis clos by Roland Lacourbe, with its french title: Pour un bout de fromage [1].
The reason is clear: in that list , the best Locked Rooms were designed in the opinion of a pool of experts. And Gammal ost has a very nice Locked Room : no doubt about it ![2]
 Ulf Durling is a Swedish writer, born in 1940 in Stockholm and became then, after graduation and specialization, a famous psychiatrist. In 1971 he tried to start their own com Gammal Ost which was a great success, so much to convince others to write . It 's still alive.

The plot takes place in a Swedish pensioner, where they live: the retired printer, founder of the Club of Mystery, Johann Lundgren; Carl Bergmann, bookseller retired, he also a founding member, and a physician, Dr. Nylander, belonging to the club of mystery; Alex Nilsson; the traveling salesman Johanson; the two teachers, Miss Hurting - Olofson and Mrs. Soderstrom; Marshal of the army Renqvist .
One of the guests of the pension, Alex Nilsson, 52, already abiding by a few weeks in retirement, is found dead in his room, locked from the inside: lies " fully clothed, next to the bed, as if he were beating the wounded head against the back ... blood on his face and the front of the shirt. On the table .. a bottle of wine and the wine upside down .. spilled on the floor ... and even on the face and shirt Nilsson ". In addition, it is found in the trash a piece of cheese ; and on the bedside table , a very powerful diuretic , the Diclorotride -K. There is also a towel stained with red ( wine only ? ) .

But has anyone heard a commotion in the room the night before , as if there had been a quarrel and then there was a second person , because even appears the request of a patch, by the victim to Mr Blom, the owner of the pension: yet there is no injury , even very small body of Nilsson.
Ephraim Nylander assumed that the quarrel ended in tragedy , and that the murderer didn’t of what it had happened : in essence, the death would have occurred at a later time , and then the same victim would have been to turn off the radio, remained on during most of the night, to close the door and then to remain, and  then to succumb for a stroke previously reported; Johann Lundgren instead ties to Alex Nilsson to his brother, the mysterious visitor Edvin Nilsson , who would be responsible for a fatal poisoning by methanol (a little ' what happened in Italy many years ago), and would be back by a mysterious inheritance. Edvin Nilsson would have been the guest of his brother in his room at the pension house, without anyone knowing, and to do so they would come up with a trick , that Alex would pretend to be lame because his brother was, and in this way they would be were traded for one another, and there would be no problems. The two would have had a row and Edvin would kill the other brother . Finally Carl offers his theory : the radio “on” during the night, would mean the manner with which Nilsson would fall asleep because of the wine drunk , because he would have an appointment with his murderer who is supposed to be the husband of the daughter:  i.e. Edvin Nilsson would  blackmail

Edvin his daughter and her husband. In practice, according to this latest reconstruction, there would have been two visits : the first of a random buddy of Nilsson , with whom he would eat cheese and drink wine, and during which the visitor is injured so much as Nilsson ask s Blom  a patch ; then this goes away and here occurs the second visit, during which the second visitor kills Nilsson and then, after killing him with a blunt object , jump out of the window , using a mattress of blankets taken ​​from the pension , which then he sneaks back in across a secondary port.
The second part of the novel instead supports the theory of Gunnar Bergmann , son of Carl , and police officer (Deputy Commissioner ) , according to which the death was due to natural causes : a cerebral hemorrhage not caused by the blow, but that would have caused the heel to the base of the blow.
The third section is one in which one of the three fans , Dr. Nylander , revises his previous theory integrating it with all the new learned: he remodulates it. Nilsson would have had before his return to Sweden from America , a stroke or a cerebral hemorrhage, which would have caused a emiparalisi: from it,  the lame movement lame . In addition, he would suffer for high blood pressure. Just to his state of health would be connected the medicine found on the bedside table, a very powerful diuretic , the Diclorotride -K. How could a patient very diligent in taking the medication, die for a brain hemorrhage? For a piece of hard cheese and another medicine completely harmless .
Ephraim Nylander finds the murderer , who had to protect someone, for which the Nilsson return would have been a damage. A simple murder but equally highly ingenious.
In essence, at the novel by Durling , the 3 major hypotheses head to three different sections of the novel, of course, that frame the same truths , according to three perspectives and three different views.
The novel is an excuse to compare 3 different ways of seeing things. In essence Ulf Durling develops, to the extreme, the confrontation / clash that it’s at Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce , where the three detectives are caricatures of Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and  Father Brown. Moreover it must be remembered that already at the The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley, different exposures of the same background , performed by different characters, led to the identification of several hypotheses with many different makers .
It 's the case yet to report , as the same procedure was adopted in The Five Fragments by George Dyers , another extraordinary novel very little known ; the same fact , that seen from the perspective of five different witnesses, different angles and reveals the truth.
A few years ago, in 2008, he was released a thriller, Vantage Point, directed by Pete Travis, where to get to the truth would be taken into consideration eight different angles of the same truth, narrated by eight different characters.

Moreover, the movie probably in turn, took its inspiration from the famous Kurosawa film “Rashomon”, in which a crime story is told differently by different characters.

In fact, I would almost think that since space in the novel are many references to the authors of the Mystery , which the novel is a tribute ( Bentley, Sayers , Carr, Allingham , Christie , Millar , Brand, Milne , etc. .. ) , and even a reference to the Conference of Dr. Fell in The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr, could very well be that happened rather than taking such Case for Three Detectives  by Leo Bruce , he had taken as his inspiration , just The Five Fragments by George Dyers : could be valid both the first and the second hypothesis . In fact, if the three sections of the book underlying to three different formulations of the hypothesis accusatory , it is also true that for the first formulation (the one that provides the Locked Room ) you get three different sub- hypotheses , which, along with the second and third , they would become five.
As part of the divertissement , which is what is ultimately , the novel is , moreover , written in the form of parody . It is not a unique case , because at least in very close to us , other authors have tried to bring their brick building of the palace of Mystery, writing novels in which the protagonists are amateur detectives who take the moves from other : so John Sladek , so Isaac Asimov, so Peter Lovesey , so ... Ulf Durling .
The Locked Room  is explained only in the first three hypotheses of the first part , because they belong to the idea of ​​murder that includes the direct presence of the murderer with the victim, while in the second , there is not mention of murder because it is a natural death, while at the third par, the death by Nilsson designed with a murder in a few moments before it happens, assumes that the murderer is not  in the room when Alex dies .
All at a very interesting novel , whose solution is already present in the first part , only that it is not probed properly, and that the final solution is made in front of the reader’s amazement,  distracted by something else, not having a way to digest what he reads .

Pietro De Palma

[1]  . 
[2] Some time ago, after reading my review, John Pugmire was convinced to translate and publish it because of its small publishing house. The translation was prepared from the edition at the Swedish original, this proving to be a valuable fund of seriousness, and not from translations already made in French and in Italian, even translating John usually from the French. Because is better to always refer to the original edition and not translate taking as a basis a translation into other languages, since the misinterpretation of one (or not quite complete translation), it would become in practice a recovery translation from others.
Now the translation from Swedish is output in the US under the title Hard Cheese, published by the International Locked Room by John Pugmire.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Elwyn Whitman Chambers: Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints, 1935

Elwyn Whitman Chambers (1896-1968), born in Stockton, California, wrote eighteen novels setin San Francisco, the first of which was, in 1928, The Coast of Intrigue. It was a warm start, since just after the release of The Navy Murders (1932), written with Mary Strother Chambers, began writing by jet and until the end of World War II, he published thirteen novels. In 1946 he devoted himself mainly to the movies, going back to writing in 1953: signed three other novels, because he took care of collaborations in television scripts, until his death in Los Angeles.
Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints presents as a subject investigator, not a policeman like Michael Lord by Charles Daly King or a private detective in the manner of Poirot or Philo Vance, but one that instead comes close more to Bill Crane by Latimer and Dashiel Hammett's Sam Spade, as ways of behaving, and that, at the same time, resolves an investigation of classical style.
Namely, a a mystery that in the movements may appear to be similar to a Hard-Boiled.
Stanton Lake is a private investigator who has an agency that shares with his friend Abe Bloom. One day arrives a beautiful blonde, classic kind of femme fatale, Hilda Haan, famous Danish actress, who, secretly to the mass media, and counting on the support of a girl  friend that acts as a stand-in and serves to divert printing, has fled with Theodore Raybourne. Hilda asked Lake to help her own against Theodore, because she understood too late as he does not love her and is attracted only by her money; in addition he holds the compromising papers which, if disclosed, would throw the feed to the press and her private life and, consequently, her popularity would suffer an upheaval.
Lake, along with his partner, then try to sneak by stratagem, in the house where willy-nilly Hilda is forced to remain: pretending to have had a heart attack while swimming in front of the house of Raybourne, and that one who was also at sea by accident (Abe Boom) managed to save it. The Raybourne are a powerful dynasty, and the old Raybourne Rufus, even in spite of the collapse of part of his empire because of a housing development busted, however, is still firmly in place. Lake, helped, is greeted in the house, including the looks concerned and suspicious if not suspicious of the others present: Maurine, the young wife of the old Rufus; Mrs Farley and Rae Amerton, a couple of psychics friends; the daughter Inez with Dr. Pageot her boyfriend; and finally the Chinese butler, Fong Woo.

However Lake should reveal who is, when someone kills Theodore Raybourne with a heavy poker: the reason is that after Wong Foo, down, gave the alarm, and Lake entered the chamber of Raybourne finding his smashed skull, there next  is Hilda Lane that holds newspaper clippings, the compromising papers that held the victim, and now is trying to destroy in a fire. After a fierce fight, she manages to knock the detective and destroy compromising papers. But he, who is bound by an employment relationship with the lovely Lane, must now save her  from imputation of murder, thing he does immediately , trying to dismantle her presence there in that room, in front of the old Rufus, succeeding in part: now, dispel all doubt has to find the real murderer.
He must first identify the fingerprints found on the heavy poker: the old Rufus is well convinced that whatever is the murderer, the death of his son should be avenged, handing the murderer to justice. Even if it would cost the indictment to one of the family members or the present.
All they have to make available their fingerprints, and so, in the end, the fingerprints are compared. Twist, when, however, after that they are not assigned to any of those present in the house (and then even to Hilda), they are from  John Royal, companion of adventures and speculations of the old Raybourne, who nevertheless exaggerated with embezzlement, ending at San Quentin! Is it possible he escaped from prison and now wants revenge on the friend who accused him in court? No, because Royal died a year before and the very old Rufus oversaw that body, embalmed, was buried. Then how do you explain those footprints?
The deputy sheriff Catalin, the grocer that the community of those parties elected to do the sheriff who does not know how to move, is Lenny McManus, an acquaintance of Lake, who for many years has been the deputy sheriff. Just Lenny, Stanton and the beautiful Hilda one night armed with shovels, go to disinter the coffin of Royal to make sure if s him; but, arrived on the spot, after digging, they discover that the coffin was desecrated and the corpse is gone.
Is possible that John Royal is alive and that the corpse belonged to someone, taking and giving his identity? It would be possible, but clashes with the Lake’s conviction that murderer is someone instead of the house: in fact, when Theodor was killed were all at home and very high would be the possibility that a stranger was discovered. How did it Royal?
Now you correlate with the disappearance of the prisoner, the aggression suffered by Lake previously: someone attacked him in the library and then if you snuck out. It is discovered a secret hideaway, hidden in the wall, used in the past as the armory, that friends of Rufus knew, including Royal. Is it possible that after the murder, he has hidden himself  there and only after he escaped?
However soon the self-styled John Royal is reappeared. In fact, Stanton Lake, having no response from the beautiful Maurine, closed room, not down to breakfast, with the cooperation of other, breaks down the door of her bedroom and is prone on the bed, her face bluish and one of her stockings knotted at his neck so closely for almost not to see that his node, in the flesh swollen. The strange thing is, however, that the bedroom does not have other outlets that the door closed from the rear, and the window, well locked from the inside: how did the murderer to go out?
Stanton Lake manages to find a trapdoor in the closet of clothes, wondering what it is doing there a chair: Lenny hoisted, without touching the panel, and penetrated into the attic, he soon found another hatch, dropping in the room of Dr. Pageot: is possible that the boyfriend of the daughter of Raybourne killed Maurine? And why? Soon he  discovers that the two had an affair, lived a story of sex: in fact the beautiful Maurine was found wearing the negligee more transparent than all the transparent negligees. She was probably waiting for her lover, who in fact admits to be gone, but only to find her dead.
Lake, by the idea he has made, he tends to give credit to the confession by Pageot, nothing but a bleak fortune hunter: however, without finding the way how the murderer has gone out, he couldn’t  show the strangeness of  the adventurer.
Meanwhile, after an embalmed corpse was found in the sea, half eaten by shellfish, and after that Abe was sent from Lake to obtain the dental board to ensure that that body is or is not by Royal, a third murder occurs at that dwelling: is found murdered, with a dagger driven into the heart, the old Raybourne. And once again, Lake will face the shadow by John Royal, because once again his fingerprints are found on the handle of the dagger.
But who is John Royal? And  is he dead or alive? And if he's dead, how can be there those footprints , on the knife and on the  heavy poker?
Lake will solve the mystery and he will exonerate Pageot and Hilda Lane, meanwhile fallen in love with the investigator.
Memorable final: Hilda begs him not to leave her, but Stanton who also knows he is weak against her, does not want to lose his subjectivity and become only "the husband of Hilda Lane". 

And for this he gets out, and goes to the train, without looking behind.

Hard and pure.

Beautiful novel, retains a voltage unchanged throughout its duration, which is kept very high, thanks to a plot extremely crackling and never dull: a lot  of events disrupt the investigation and until the end you can not figure out who would be the killer, if John Royal or another, and then how his fingerprints are finished both on heavy poker and on the handle of the dagger.
Nice also the Locked Room, whose solution although a change of method already discovered by Carr, is nevertheless very intriguing for the fact that to discover it, you have to look from the outside and not from within, and from outside is not easy do it, because you're out of a window without a balcony, high at least six meters from the boulevard below.
The investigator could be a clone of Sam Spade: hard, sometimes even contemptuous, that uses the hard way, for example by crushing Pageot to induce him to talk about after the death of Maurine; weak with women, but at the same time proud of his individuality ; and Hilda Lane, is the so-called “Femme Fatale”, ready to lose the head to a man, but also to lose her when he instead ardently desire her, rejects her; and Inez Raybourne, the heiress, is the so-called “helpless woman” prey of attention of people attracted by her money, which simulates being in love with her but then instead has a history of sex with the girl's stepmother.

The Chinese butler is a classic, as a classic is also the replacement of one body with another (had not for the first time experienced it Edmond Dantes by Dumas?).

And even the elderly husband, betrayed by his wife having sex with another young, which in turn betrays his girlfriend very sensitive; and also the fake mediums, which ensnares the gullible.
The corpse that disappears, may have also influenced the Latimer of The Lady in the Morgue (1936), ie a year later than the novel by Chambers), and No Coffin for the Corpse by Clayton Rawson (the disinterment). But in turn it could have taken something, perhaps, from The Greek Coffin Mystery  by Ellery Queen (1934) in which is unearthed a coffin in which there should be a body embalmed; or from Into Thin Air (1929) by Horatio Winslow and Leslie W. Quirk, in which is unearthed a body to see if there is or not an object.
In short, a great novel, which you read passionately.

Pietro De Palma