Reprint of the Year: The So Blue Marble

So BlueThose of you who have followed this blog for a while will be aware that I am a fan of the British Library Crime Classics range. In fact, I think it is safe to say that I wouldn’t be here blogging about mystery fiction if I hadn’t come across copies of Family MattersThe Cheltenham Square Murder or Death in the Tunnel. Certainly I wouldn’t have developed an interest in vintage crime fiction.

What that range does so brilliantly is to find authors who have fallen out of the public eye and present it in an attractive and accessible package. Part of that is the sense that the books have been carefully selected, giving the more casual reader confidence that what they will read is in some way important or interesting and that sense is reinforced by the introductory essay that accompanies each release.

Now, you may be wondering why I am talking about a publisher that wasn’t responsible for today’s nomination for Reprint of the Year – Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble. The reason is that while the British Library was successfully doing this for British authors and books, I was surprised that there wasn’t a publisher doing something comparable for vintage American crime fiction, making it accessible to a more casual audience. In stepped Otto Penzler.

Now Otto Penzler is one of those names that will be familiar to most people with an interest in mystery fiction. He is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and the founder of The Mysterious Press publishing company. He has edited numerous anthologies of crime and mystery fiction, served on the board of the Mystery Writers of America and written several reference works. He was also a voter in the 1981 Ed Hoch Locked Room Library list! In short, he is a man who knows mystery fiction and is the perfect person to curate a range highlighting the American mystery novel in its various forms.

This range debuted in the Fall of 2018 with the release of six novels. This first batch included titles by Craig Rice, Clayton Rawson, Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer and Mary Roberts Rinehart. While none of the first six authors picked are quite as obscure as Leonard Gribble or Ellen Wilkinson future releases are set to feature less widely-known authors like H. F. Heard and Frances and Richard Lockridge.

Each features an introduction by Penzler discussing the author and where that work fits into their career and they are issued in both softcover and hardcover editions, wrapped in gorgeous, vibrant artwork that gives the range consistency and serious shelf appeal (if you can afford it I would recommend the hardcovers which are sturdily bound). In short, this is the sort of range I can see myself collecting for its own sake, even if it means owning multiple copies of some of books (as I will when The Dutch Shoe Mystery comes out next year).

Now as with last week’s nomination (Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread), I do not propose reviewing the book all over again. For that I’d suggest you check out my review. Only a month has passed since I wrote it and I am pretty confident in saying that my views remain as they were.

Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble is a story that draws deeply from its urban setting. It begins with a woman accosted on the street by two men who force their way into the apartment that she is borrowing from her ex-husband. Right at the start of the novel you get the sense that this character is isolated even though she is surrounded by people. Characters are able to appear and disappear with no one really noticing.

The central character is a divorced woman who has been able to reinvent herself successfully not once but twice becoming first an actress then a fashion designer. She is placed in a trying and testing situation with no support (in fact the family she has frequently prove to be liabilities) and yet she navigates it completely believably. She is sometimes distressed in the course of the story and yet she always retains her strength and identity, never being written as a damsel in distress. She is a great lead character.

Hughes also gives us a truly memorable pair of villains in the form of Danny and David Montefierrow. These murderous twins combine striking physical descriptions with moments of cold, dispassionate brutality that are quite unlike anything else I have read from the period. I felt a chill every time they appeared. One of the two is clearly a sadist and both have an ability to kill without any remorse but what sticks with me most is the unsettling, violent triangle that forms between the pair and a female character within the narrative.

One of the most interesting things Hughes does is she builds mystery out of incident rather than by defining a question for the reader to answer. From the start of the novel things happen to Griselda and she reacts as best she can with the knowledge that she has yet she does not have enough information to entire understand what is being asked of her. For instance, for much of the novel we do not have much of a sense of what exactly the Montefierrow brothers are seeking or why and that is fine because to Griselda it doesn’t really matter why they are looking for it, only that they believe she has it and that means she is in danger.

By the end of the novel all of the important questions have been answered but the journey to get to those answers is wild and unpredictable. As I say in my review, it’s not just that there are some surprising revelations and developments in the plot but it is the way characters are used and interact with each other. Unpredictable combinations lead the story down some unexpected paths and yet those moments never feel contrived or anything less than satisfying.

All of these aspects of the book combine for a truly striking reading experience. If you have never read the book I strongly recommend it, particularly if you appreciate stories in the thriller and adventure mold, and if you do then you will certainly want to pick up this edition!

Reprint of the Year: The Gravedigger’s Bread

If everything has gone according to plan the chances are you have seen several of these Reprint of the Year posts appearing on your blog feeds today so by now you are probably aware of what it’s all about. For those who stumble on my post first however I should say that Kate at CrossExaminingCrime came up with the idea of creating a Reprint of the Year award. This is a chance to highlight some of the classic and less well-known titles making their way back into print.

I was one of several bloggers asked to contribute two nominations for your consideration. The only requirements were that the books must have been republished in 2018 and that they must not be released for the first time. Later this month you will have the opportunity to make your own nominations and on the 22nd of December voting will open with the winner being announced a week later.

While I am happy to report that I have read and enjoyed a number of vintage reprints this year I was a little daunted by the task of narrowing my options down to just two titles. The books would have to be great reads of course but I felt that my nominations needed to have something extra that set them apart and makes them feel a little special.

I am an enormous fan of the design of the Pushkin Vertigo range. Sometimes when a publisher develops a house style for their covers the titles lose some of their individuality but that cannot be said for these reprints. Each title features a piece of black and white photography and a striking, vivid background color that make these books stand out on the shelves while the matte covers look attractive and modern.

GravediggersThe title I am selecting from this range to be my first nomination is Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread (my original review can be found here). Originally published in 1956, this is an inverted mystery story about a young man who arrives in a provincial town to find work and is offered a position as a salesman at a funeral parlor. While he doesn’t care for the work, he is attracted to his employer’s wife and stays to get close to her.

The story soon takes a murderous turn as the young man murders the funeral director and tries to cover up his crime. The remainder of the book is incredibly tense as we try to work out how he might be caught. Though it is quite economically plotted, Dard provides several surprises along the way and the book builds to a powerful and satisfying conclusion.

So, why does The Gravedigger’s Bread deserve your vote? If you haven’t tried the Pushkin Vertigo range, this is a great place to start. It is a fast, engaging read that stayed with me long after I put it down. This book is a striking French thriller that challenges the reader to predict how the situation will be resolved. It features bold and sometimes quite provocative characterizations and I think noir fans will appreciate its tone and sense of style.

Next Saturday I will be making my second nomination so be sure to check back then to see what I suggest. In the meantime, why not check out some of my reviews of other Pushkin Vertigo reprints and be sure to check out what Bev, Brad, Curtis, Daniel, JJ, John, Kate, Moira and the Puzzle Doctor select for their first nominations!