The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer

VengefulThe Vengeful Virgin is a pulp novel from the 1950s that on the face of it seems a little out of my reading comfort zone. The reason it jumped out at me though is that it is another example of my favorite subgenre, the inverted crime story and I came to it feeling somewhat optimistic based on my experiences with the other hard-boiled inverted stories I have reviewed recently.

The novel concerns a pair of lovers with an almost primal physical attraction to one another and their plot to kill the girl’s rich stepfather who is an invalid. The girl, eighteen year-old Shirley Angela, has been caring for him for three years and resents his demands. She knows that she is in line to receive a big inheritance from him but knows that with medical intervention he could live for ten years or longer.

When protagonist Jack Ruxton, a television installation engineer, first crosses paths with her she has already devised a crude plan to get rid of him. The two are instantly drawn to each other and she brings him in on the plan. He quickly expresses concern that her idea to have a television topple onto him would immediately be traced back to them and suggests his own plan…

Jack is far from a charming guy and is in some ways a little reminiscent of the male murderer in Roger Bax’s Disposing of Henry, another inverted story. This similarity extends right to the character’s casual description of Shirley as  someone who “…made you feel as if you wanted to rape her” and is attracted to her in part because of her youth. Their relationship is all kinds of problematic if the author’s intention is to titillate his reader as Jason John Horn notes in an essay he wrote about chauvinism and ableism in this novel. Be aware that essay does spoil some key plot developments!

I am on the fence about whether Brewer intends to appeal to that side of his readers here or not. If that was the aim I think he misses the mark in any case as those scenes, while frequent, do little to appeal to the reader’s senses. They do effectively establish the main character as a seedy, brutish man who uses the women in his life to fulfil his own desires whether physical or financial.

Shirley is cast as a mix of vixen and femme fatale. She certainly tempts Jack into committing a crime though he did not need much persuasion and she repeatedly expresses her desire for him. The characterization is not particularly complex and perhaps the one revelation that may have added a little punch is spoiled within the book, reducing the impact of a key moment within the novel’s conclusion.

Though Brewer’s characters feel a little flat, the plotting is a little more interesting. I was impressed with the idea that Jack comes up with for its relative simplicity and the scene in which the plan is carried out contains some wonderful moments of tension. Throughout the build up to that moment we are made aware of the danger they face and anticipate some of the things that might go wrong. These problems are foreshadowed very effectively and while I think it would be a stretch to say there are mystery elements here, the reader can try to work out how those elements will combine to cause their downfall.

While the reader will likely predict elements of the novel’s conclusion, I do think it contains some of the novel’s strongest imagery and dramatic moments. That sequence sums up the novel’s themes well and it feels like a logical and powerful resolution to the story.

Unfortunately the journey to that point underwhelms, particularly in the saggy middle of the tale where we wait for the pair to actually get on with committing their crime. Neither Jack nor Shirley are interesting or likeable enough to make their relationship compelling and there are no unexpected revelations or moments featuring them that may have made them more complex or interesting and might have helped to drive the story.

Though The Vengeful Virgin has some strong moments, not least its punchy ending, I think it never rises above its often flat, unpleasant characterizations and the slow pacing of the scenes in which the pair develop their plan. It is not badly written and it does have a few good ideas but the sometimes seedy tone (which, to be fair, is totally hinted at in its title) had little appeal for me.

The Department of Dead Ends by Roy Vickers edited by E. F. Bleiler

DepartBack when I first started getting interested in inverted mysteries I went and sought out suggestions of authors who wrote that kind of crime story. One of the names that kept coming up was Roy Vickers whose Department of Dead Ends stories often clearly established the killer’s identity in the first few paragraphs.

The collection I am writing about today contains a selection of fourteen of those stories – about a third of the total written. They are selected by E. F. Bleiler who, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, opts to arrange them out-of-order. The Rubber Trumpet explains the work and methodology of the Department and while the other stories stand on their own, I appreciated them all the more for reading that tale.

Vickers’ stories are not exactly formulaic but most stories adhere to a structure in which we learn the killer’s identity, see how they came to commit the crime and how they plan to cover it up. Many of the crimes occur in a moment of desperation or anger, often being strangulations, and in quite a few the cover-up will involve the assistance of another person within the case.

The investigation is usually just a couple of pages long and typically will hinge on the discovery of a strange detail, in a few cases completely disconnected with the crime itself. The detective is able to work from that strange element to assemble a chain of logical deductions that will eventually lead to some fact in the alibi being overturned or that will help the police make a key connection.

These stories were originally published in monthly mystery magazines, mostly Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I will say that they are probably best enjoyed in small doses rather than trying to read them all in one or two sittings. I haven’t read enough other Vickers stories to know if Bleiler’s selections favor a particular type of story but I think if you make the decision not to organize them by publication date then you should take care not to put similar stories next to each other.

In spite of that complaint I should say that the quality of the collection is generally strong and I think there are some excellent stories on offer here.  The Henpecked MurdererThe Rubber TrumpetLittle Things Like That and The Man Who Murdered in Public are all very strong stories and each are worth a look.

Continue reading “The Department of Dead Ends by Roy Vickers edited by E. F. Bleiler”

Windy City by Hugh Holton

WindyCityI was not familiar with Hugh Holton before picking up Windy City, the second in his series of novels to feature Detective Larry Cole of the Chicago police force. The book jumped out at me though for being told in an inverted style and I was curious to discover Holton’s take on the form.

The novel opens with a retired prostitute being followed by a man in disguise intent on raping and killing her. When he breaks into her home he is surprised by her cop fiancé and hastily acts to kill him and dispose of the body.

Within a few pages we know the killer’s identity: Neil DeWitt, one of the richest men in Chicago. We also learn that his wife Margo is fully aware of his proclivities and, when she makes a slip up in conversation with Police at a gala, we learn she has some of her own.

Unlike many inverted stories the detective does not need to search for the killer. Cole suspects the pair from the beginning of the novel but the challenge for the police and for the reader comes in proving the connection, particularly when the DeWitts hire a corrupt former governor of the state to represent them.

This proves to be an intriguing starting point because it enables Holton to focus on a small group of characters. We spend a lot of time in the novel following the DeWitts and seeing them plot and scheme to try and throw Cole off their trail and I do think we get to know them well as a result. The problem for me was that I found their characterizations very hard to accept as credible.

The two characters are given some back story and Holton does take the time to explore their motivations. Unfortunately the aspect of their story that is the least detailed is the early phase of their relationship as they begin to commit crimes and explore their sociopathic desires together. Given their status as a married pair of murderers makes them unusual, it is all the more disappointing to see this aspect of their relationship not treated with much depth or detail.

Instead Holton focuses on following their reactions to Cole’s investigation and attempts to throw him off the trail. This sort of a cat-and-mouse game has the potential to be interesting and there are a few points where I feel it is quite successful. One of those comes at the end of the second section of the novel where there is a big development in the case but unfortunately the next chapter takes the action to a lurid and melodramatic place undermining any good work the previous chapter had done.

Not only does Cole quickly identify the killers, he seems to quickly work out their plans and their likely next steps. The positive aspect of this is that it enables the book to sustain a surprisingly brisk pace but it may prove disappointing to those who want to see the police having to work hard to make those key connections.

Cole is not the most dynamic of protagonists although his family are appealing and sympathetic characters. He is shown to be persistent and hard-working however and I did appreciate that Holton uses his own Police background to flesh him and the other Police characters out.

That is not to say that this is an entirely realistic police procedural. That one of his team is nicknamed the Mistress of Disguise or High Priestess of Mayhem suggests at least a little eccentricity but the conflicts within departments and details of the cultivation of relationships with the coroner’s office feel more grounded in something approaching reality.

There are however some plot elements that struck me as too far-fetched to be taken as credible. This is not just a matter of the lucky breaks that Cole seems to get but also some of the risks that the couple willingly face when carrying out their tasks often leaving evidence pointing right at them. While being immensely wealthy could conceivably shield them from some accusations, their behavior is so inept and obviously suspicious at points it is hard to imagine how they wouldn’t have already come under deeper suspicion.

As much as I wanted to love this book I came away feeling frustrated and disappointed. I thought that the pair of killers had a lot of potential but the decision not to treat the story in a realistic way but rather as a thriller contributes to their story feeling somewhat ridiculous.

In spite of its faults however I would say that it was an engaging read. There were some good ideas here and while I think it gets the balance wrong, it is at least quite interesting.

Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston

PiccadillyI had planned to round off my week with a review of the newly translated Paul Halter novel The Man Who Loved Clouds. The problem was that when the time came to pick up that book I was thoroughly absorbed in Murder in Piccadilly, an inverted mystery by Charles Kingston that was one of the earlier titles to be published in the British Library Crime Classics range.

Bobbie Cheldon is a somewhat immature and carefree young man who has never really made a success of his life because he always has in the back of his mind that he will inherit his uncle’s estate and with it an income of ten thousand pounds a year. Accordingly he lives quite an extravagant lifestyle, taking on obligations beyond his means and showing little interest in earning his own way.

Unfortunately for Bobbie his uncle is far from being an old man and is in relatively fine health meaning that there appears to be little chance of him inheriting any time soon. It is possible that he could have continued scrabbling along in the normal way of things but for his having fallen in love with a dancer who is perhaps more interested in his checkbook than in him as a person. Young Bobbie is oblivious however and with his mother’s help, tries to persuade his miserly Uncle Massy to provide him with a paid position or to settle some sum on him to enable him to marry.

Predictably this request does not go very well and soon Bobbie learns that if he doesn’t do something Nancy will likely leave the country on a tour with her dancing partner who also nurses a passion for her. In short, Bobbie is feeling pretty desperate. Unfortunately for him he falls in with some of Nancy’s circle of friends, one of whom has a plan for getting Bobbie his fortune and, as a result, benefiting from the death himself.

While the book does not explicitly acknowledge the imminent death of Uncle Massy from the beginning or the responsible party’s identity, it is effectively an inverted crime story. A sense of dread is evoked at several points in the early chapters for several characters as they become worried about where Bobbie’s feelings are leading him and we are made party to the plans being made to kill the uncle.

Though Kingston’s storytelling style is quite careful and methodical, I really enjoyed this first half of the novel and getting to know the characters he creates most of whom are quite colorful. While some of these characters can be quite amusing, I think few who have read this would disagree with my assessment that they are not a particularly pleasant bunch. Several of the characters exhibit vanity and self-absorption while even the victim comes off as stiff, hypocritical and judgmental. In spite of that I found them to be an entertaining bunch and enjoyed learning how they would factor into the case and its outcome.

Kingston effectively builds and sustains tension throughout this first half of the novel as we wait for Uncle Massy to be murdered and for the investigation to begin. While we had been party to the planning of the crime it quickly becomes clear that the murder did not take place exactly according to plan and so the reader has to piece together just who carried out what actions and why throughout the second half of the book.

This investigation is carried out by Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard and it is made more enjoyable for his past interactions with one of the suspects who he teases, prods and manipulates throughout the remainder of the novel. At this point the reader can see both the strategy of the guilty party and has a sense of the style and competency of the detective and so the question becomes who is better placed to prevail in that contest.

Wake cuts a less colorful figure than Bobbie Cheldon yet I think he still exhibits plenty of personality. He perhaps is prone to using his intuition rather than solid procedural work to narrow the suspect pool which is not altogether satisfying but it is interesting to read how he is interviewing the various suspects and to track the course of his suspicions.

Kingston packs in plenty of incident but what really sold me on the book is a twist he saves until close to the end. It is a perfect development that transforms the ending of the story and it is fairly clued, making it all the more satisfying. To me that moment elevates the book as a whole from being a pretty solid effort to becoming something more special and satisfying.

While its slightly slow pacing and dark characterizations may not appeal to everyone, I found the novel to be a thoroughly entertaining one. The situation Kingston creates and describes is interesting and the twist is superb as are the characterizations. I was impressed enough that I know I will want to see if I can track down more of his writing to get a taste of their other work. The challenge will be finding an affordable one!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Matriarch/Patriarch of the family (Who)

They Shoot Horses Don’t They by Horace McCoy

TheyShootHorsesDontTheyThey Shoot Horses Don’t They begins with a man being sentenced for committing the murder of a young woman. As we edge towards that sentence being given we hear the protagonist’s explanation that the woman wanted him to kill her and, following that first short chapter, we flash back to their first meeting and follow events towards that killing.

The protagonist, Robert Syverton, is an aspiring film director who is hoping to get noticed by someone to get his break in movies. He meets Gloria, an actress who seems to have missed her big chance in movies and who suggests entering a dance marathon contest in the hope of getting noticed by someone who might give their careers a helping hand.

The remainder of the book details the gruelling dance contest which reminded me a little of the pedestrian contest we see featured in the (much later) historical crime novel Wobble to Death. The idea is that it is an endurance contest in which the couples dance for an hour and a half, take a ten minute break, and then dance again. The contest lasts for weeks with couples being eliminated daily as the organizers attempt to drum up interest in their event, even concocting a gimmicky showpiece of a wedding to draw media attention.

While our protagonist and his dancing partner start off optimistically enough, her sour nature and pessimism become more apparent and she talks constantly about how she would be better off dead. There are no real surprises in how we get from there to the events we learn about at the start of the novella but I think that is acceptable in what is a very compact story. Instead the mystery within the novel relates to our need to understand how Robert changes from someone who is broadly optimistic about his future to the man we see on the pier at the end of the story.

You could make an argument that because we know Robert is a killer from the start of the novel that this is really an inverted crime novel and I certainly would not put up much resistance to that. I would say however that while it explores a series of events that lead to a murder, it is not a psychologically-focused work. We may draw inferences about Robert’s motivations but we learn little about the forces that have formed him prior to these events. In fact it takes a while before we even learn our protagonist’s name and beyond his ambitions, his backstory is largely ignored.

Nevertheless, Robert’s journey over the course of a little more than a hundred pages is interesting because, although the themes of the novel are punchy and clear, there remains at the end of the novella some points of ambiguity. And then there is the possibility that we are meant to ignore the events of the novel altogether and view it as a metaphor for the American experience. Is the dance contest not a contest at all but a stand-in for the American dream?

McCoy’s prose is punchy, salty and drives home its themes with brutality. One of the clever things he does is intersperse his chapters with short passages from the judge’s sentence, continually reminding us of where these events are headed. Those snippets of text are bold and enormous, giving them even more impact and I think this is one of the most interesting and effective layout decisions I have seen in a printed book.

He establishes the supporting characters with great economy, giving us a strong sense of the sort of people they are from the somewhat seedy organizers to Mrs Laydon, an older woman who takes an interest in Robert and Gloria and constantly remarks on how she wishes she could be out there. While the contest begins with optimism and a sense of enjoyment from some of the competitors we soon see tempers flare and any positivity and optimism drain from them as they wear themselves out on the dance floor.

The other smart decision McCoy makes is in relation to the work’s length. I have already mentioned that he writes in quite a punchy and economical style and that is reflected in the overall length of the piece too. The whole novella is a little over a hundred pages long and when you consider that a number of pages just have a few words printed on them the actual text probably makes up about ninety pages.

Given the bleak tone and the nature of the story, I think it could not have been a longer work. It would inevitably have to repeat ideas, explore characters in more detail or dilute its themes, any of which would have made this a less interesting and compelling work. McCoy’s story works because it is a blistering, uncomfortable experience that while sometimes a little heavy-handed, ultimately leaves the reader unsure about how they should feel. It stands out to me as one of the more interesting books I have read since starting this blog and it definitely has left me curious to explore more of the author’s work.

The Murder of Harriet Krohn by Karin Fossum

KrohnThe Murder of Harriet Krohn is the seventh in her series of Inspector Sejer Mysteries and the first that I have read. So why am I starting out with something from the middle of the series? For the all-too-predictable reason that this is an inverted mystery and I am a little bit obsessed with the form.

Our killer is a man named Charlo Torp who begins the novel in a desperate state unemployed, estranged from his daughter and with his creditors swirling around him. He has heard rumors that the friends who he owes money to have hired some heavies to cut fingers off until he pays up but he has exhausted the good will of all of his friends and family.

He does have a plan to get back on track and it begins with going to the home of Harriet Krohn, an older lady who lives alone. He devises a plan to get inside her home and to take anything of value to be sold to a fence. He takes along a gun to intimidate her but when he initiates his plan things go wrong and he finds that he has killed her.

These opening chapters of the book are gritty and introspective, exploring his mentality at each stage of the crime. To me these chapters were overly detailed and descriptive in their efforts to convey how it felt to commit the crime and there was little surprise in the way the robbery attempt unfolded.

The aftermath of the crime is at least a little less predictable as along with settling his debts he makes an unexpected purchase. The chapters that follow explain its significance, interspersing events from the past with the action from the present day, and we get a sense not only of the purchase’s importance but also of the way his life crumbled to pieces putting him in the predicament he finds himself in at the start of the novel.

Once again there is little in the way of surprise in the details of that journey. This is not because Charlo Torp’s story is uninteresting but Fossum had already indicated what that story was in the letter that is placed at the start of the novel. This section of the story adds more detail but as we have already been told about the choices he has made, this feels a little redundant.

It does however help to establish and develop the relationship between Charlo and his teenage daughter Julie that sits at the heart of the novel and that struck me as its most effective and moving element. The pair begin the novel estranged from one another and we see him attempt to reconnect with her and trying to make up for the past.

Charlo’s desire to reform for his daughter in order to reconnect with her is one of the more appealing aspects of the novel and helps to make him a more sympathetic figure, even if we despise the crime he has committed. Fossum is particularly successful in exploring how the crime affects that relationship in both positive and negative ways and I think that relationship is one that becomes more complex and rewarding the more we consider it.

The reader may well want that reconciliation to be successful but we never forget that a murder has been committed and that Inspector Sejer is working on the case in the background. As this story is told from Charlo’s perspective we are largely oblivious to what he is doing or the progress he has made and when Sejer does act we cannot be sure of exactly what he has learned or how he has come to that conclusion.

This setup reminds me a little of Freeman Wills Crofts’ The 12:30 From Croydon which similarly has the detective’s investigation playing out in the background. That novel ends however with a short coda in which Inspector French reveals his reasoning while here we remain largely oblivious as to precisely how Sejer has put everything together to reach his conclusion although we may have a good guess.

Typically an inverted mystery works by encouraging the reader to piece together how the killer will be caught by noting the loose ends they have left that tie them to the crime. Certainly Charlo does leave some of these for the detective to catch onto but there is little mystery in what those threads are or how they could be used to get back to him leaving little in the way of a puzzle for the reader to solve.

Inspector Sejer features so little in the novel that I am not able to come to much of a conclusion about how I feel about him as a character. I certainly appreciated his cool and patient approach to detection which makes me curious to try a story that focuses on him to see those methods in action but did not feel like I got to know him. That is probably appropriate though for this type of story given that our focus should be on the criminal.

Whether I feel motivated to seek out further Sejer stories soon is a more open question. I enjoyed parts of this, even if it did not pack much in the way of surprise, but I did feel that this would have been better suited to being presented in a shorter form such as a novella. There are some interesting ideas here but the book fails to cultivate much sense of mystery and, as a result, it never surprised or truly engaged me.

Disposing of Henry by Roger Bax

DisposingofHenryWhile I like to read inverted mysteries, it has been a while since I last came across one in its pure form. No tricks, no secret identities or revelations – just the story of how someone makes the choice to become a killer and how things unfold after the deed is done.

Disposing of Henry is credited to Roger Bax, a pseudonym used by Paul Winterton who also wrote as Andrew Garve and Paul Somers. This is the first time I’ve encountered him under any of those names though given he wrote at least a couple of other inverted stories I doubt it will be the last.

The story begins with a nineteen year old girl named Daisy running away from the slum in which she lives with her parents to start a new life in the city as a typist. For a while she is quite happy but when her boss makes the suggestion that she should set her sights higher and become a mannequin for a department store (in the sense of modelling clothes for customers) she takes him up on the suggestion.

She creates a new persona for her job and begins dating. For a while this makes her happy though she wishes she could afford all the lovely clothes that she gets to wear at work but when she meets a married man who offers to set her up as his mistress in a flat she jumps at the idea. This will be the first step in a Becky Sharp-style rise to riches that will culminate in her marrying a rather mild-mannered man named Henry who will be the subject of a murder plot between her and a man she takes as her lover.

Typically an inverted story follows a certain form in which you are encouraged to feel at least a little sympathy for the killer or, alternatively, dislike of the victim. This novel does not attempt to do either of those things.

Daisy or, to use her assumed name, Denise is an unpleasant character. She may begin life as a victim of her father’s abuse but she is thoroughly material and calculating. I compared her to Becky Sharp from the novel Vanity Fair earlier but while the reader may take some enjoyment in that novel in her manipulating some rather unpleasant men, here that feeling quickly fades.

I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that her actions go much further, even if she plays a more passive role in the plot. The second is that her victim does not deserve his fate. Henry is a rather dotty but ultimately quite charming man who does absolutely nothing wrong beyond being flattered by an attractive younger woman’s attention to him. The reader will take no pleasure in seeing him killed and will likely hope that the police make his killers pay.

The third party in the triangle and the instigator of the affair is an injured air pilot who ‘Denise’ tends to in the hospital during the war. He is completely unsympathetic from the outset and has one of the least convincing flirtation techniques in fiction, telling her that if he has to spend much more time convalescing he will likely ‘rape [her] in the ward’.

Suffice it to say that I am not wholly convinced by that relationship though I do see that it is a physical attraction rather than any great meeting of the spirits. The novel is pretty frank about addressing their relationship (as it was with her first affair and its consequences) in a way that surprised me for a book written in 1947 and I do think the reader is supposed to see that her perceptions of his feelings and the actuality of their relationship are quite different.

The crime itself however is striking and, to my mind, the strongest reason to read the book. The murder takes place on Dartmoor and makes full use of the region’s rugged geography and hazardous terrain to chilling effect. As it happens I finished reading this section of the book just as Margot posted about the various ways in which Dartmoor has featured in crime novels and I do think that this is a particularly successful rendering of that landscape.

As is typical of the inverted form, there will be mistakes made in the planning and execution of the plan that the reader will spot long before the protagonists. The game for the reader is to figure out how the forces of law and order will be able to piece together what happened to catch them.

One of the most compelling sections of the story however comes after the murder as Denise tries to help cover up the crime. There is a sequence that is really quite chilling, verging on the horrific, as she has to interact with her husband’s body to cover up one of the mistakes that they have made. The author handles this sequence masterfully, building suspense and concentrating on the psychological impact it has on her rather than going into too much detail about what she is seeing.

If the whole novel were written in such a way I would have little hesitation in giving it a strong recommendation but there is little restraint shown in the rest of the novel. ‘Denise’ may be an unpleasant character but it is hard to continually read the male characters (with the exception of the lovely Henry) refer to her as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘slut’, particularly in the latter stages of the novel. While I think that is meant to say as much about them as it does about her, the double standard between her morality and that of her first lover is never quite driven home as powerfully as it could be.

Another issue that the reader may find with the book is that it highlights the elements that will prove to be Daisy’s downfall a little too clearly, making it easy to predict how the detectives will piece everything together. This is a shame because some of the ideas used are quite clever and might have been quite surprising if presented more subtly.

On a happier note, the novel does end with a strong and punchy conclusion. One image felt particularly effective and struck an interesting note that I haven’t really seen in an inverted story before.

That moment, coupled with the compelling murder and cover-up sequences earlier in the novel, almost make this book worthy of a recommendation but the problem is that the book feels too unpleasant to enjoy while the killers are simply not terribly interesting psychologically. If you are going to have a unlikeable and unsympathetic protagonist then you must have even more unpleasant victims. The problem is that you won’t want to dispose of a gentle soul like Henry and so you find yourself being told to cheer for the establishment forces that created Daisy in the first place. And that just isn’t satisfying either emotionally or dramatically.