Reprint of the Year: My Second Pick

Last week I shared my first nomination for this year’s Reprint of the Year award, Mystery on Southampton Water, suggesting that it was a strong example of how reprints can make unaffordable classic crime novels accessible once again. My second nomination is representative of the other reason I think reprints are so important – they can shine a light on otherwise obscure writers or titles.

Dean Street Press are one of a number of publishers who have done splendid work bringing the works of writers of the Golden and Silver ages of crime fiction back onto our bookshelves. Whether you collect the handsome paperbacks or the highly affordable ebook copies, they have brought readers into contact with the works of writers like Moray Dalton, E. R. Punshon, Molly Thynne and yes, Brian Flynn.

The Heel of Achilles was a particularly joyous find for me because it is another example of an inverted mystery novel. The Radfords clearly drew inspiration from the work of R. Austin Freeman both in terms of the structure of the story but also in the manner of their sleuths. Manson, much like Thorndyke, carries a mobile laboratory with him.

The case itself is an interesting one, beginning with the account of what leads Jack, a young mechanic, to commit murder. As is typically in many of these stories, we understand Jack’s motivations and see why he feels trapped, particularly given how he was caught up in events he never wished to be involved in.

I equally enjoyed the remaining two-thirds of the novel in which we follow Manson as he attempts to make sense of the crime scene. Here the reader often has prior knowledge of the explanation of a particularly confusing aspect of the case and enjoys watching to see if the detective is able to piece it together without that knowledge.

What makes this story particularly entertaining to me however is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. Yes, he gets to the right solution in the end but he makes a number of incorrect, if logically reasoned, guesses along the way. Each of those mistakes is carefully footnoted in a sort of reverse cluefinder section at the end of the novel. It is a really charming feature of the story and one that I wish other writers had emulated.

It all makes for an entertaining and charming read that I am thoroughly glad was made available again for me to enjoy. It is certainly hard to imagine that even as an enthusiast of inverted mysteries I would ever have crossed paths with it without the efforts of Dean Street Press. Knowing that there are other Manson stories awaiting me only adds to my excitement!

For more information on this year’s Reprint of the Year awards check out Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrimeThe post announcing the award and seeking nominations can be found here.

Reprint of the Year: My First Pick

Reprints are really important and I have a story that I think illustrates my point well.

Two years ago I read Freeman Wills Crofts’ The End of Andrew Harrison which I found to be thoroughly enjoyable. It is one of two impossible crime novels he wrote and, having enjoyed it so much, I was keen to track down a copy of the other – Sudden Death.

I began by trying to get hold of a copy through interlibrary loan but no institution would lend their copy. That left buying a copy but unfortunately where I live there is no possibility of stumbling onto a copy in the wild. Atlanta may be a big city but my efforts to scour second-hand and antiquarian bookstores rarely produce any mysteries from the silver age, let alone the golden age of crime. Reluctantly I realized I would need to try and source a copy online.

Immediately I realized that I was priced out of the market. The cheapest copies at that time seemed to be priced in the region of $400 to $500 which was simply out of reach for me. For a while I just hung in, checking various sites every few days and hoping that one would just turn up. With no sign of any Crofts reprints on the horizon and no affordable copies appearing I had given up hope until suddenly a copy turned up on Amazon marketplace for just $200. Now, that’s a lot of money but having watched these sites for eighteen months I knew that was less than half the previous best price I had seen. Keen to avoid getting beaten to it, I purchased the copy.

For the first few days after it arrived I was thrilled but then came the news I really should have anticipated. The Collins Crime Club would be reprinting six Croft titles for less than a tenth of what I had paid.

I should have been upset. Okay, I kind of was though more at myself for not considering the possiblity that someone had cashed in to sell before the news broke, but I was also happy because it meant that when I did get to read it I was more likely going to be able to discuss it with other people that have read the book or might feasibly go on to read it. That is after all why I do this whole book blogging thing.

At this point I should probably clarify that I am not nominating Sudden Death. That doesn’t reflect on its quality as a book – rather I find myself incredibly anxious any time I touch it that it’s going to fall apart or get stained or destroyed. Inevitably I have had to get myself a second “reading copy” and it arrived too late for me to consider for this nomination. Instead I decided to nominate another of the reprints that I actually have read: Mystery on Southampton Water (reprinted as Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water).

Mystery on Southampton Water is not my favorite of Crofts’ inverted mystery stories but I think it is one of his most interesting. A big part of the reason for that is the unusual structure he adopts which seeks to blend the inverted mystery and traditional detective story formats.

The book introduces us to a pair of men whose business is in trouble. A rival has invented a process that allows them to undercut their competitors, cornering the market. Desperate the men hatch a plot to engage in a little corporate espionage and steal some trade secrets.

The first section of the book covers the background to this scheme and the pair working out the details of what they need to do. This also helps us get to know our two criminals and get a sense of their personalities and behaviors prior to the scheme backfiring badly causing a death.

The next section we follow Inspector French as he arrives on the scene and tries to piece together a picture of what took place. French is, as always, a diligent detective and while this particular investigation certainly can be quite detail-driven, I found it pretty engaging. The book’s third section is much quicker paced, focusing on the actions of our criminals as they are placed under stronger pressure while the last one returns to French and sees him taking on a different but possibly related case.

One of the reasons this book works and is able to channel a little ambiguity is that Crofts omits to describe the details of exactly how the young men’s plans end up going so disastrously wrong. This is the mechanism that allows the book to shift into a more traditional whodunit structure towards the end, marrying these two styles together quite effectively, and it allows the reader to have the psychological focus of the inverted style while still enjoying the traditional puzzle mystery form.

Similarly I appreciate how much sense the plot makes. It is one of his most credible crime stories, based on an understanding of human nature and the idea that sometimes things just don’t go to a well-laid plan. It’s a good idea, executed well and I think it speaks to Crofts’ willingness to experiment as a writer. As I have remarked often, Crofts’ inverted stories each feel quite distinct in style meaning there is never a sense that the writer is repeating himself.

Even if this particular Crofts title is not for you however, I would suggest that a vote for it is really a vote for any (or all) of the six titles reissued this year. Several of those six books have been relatively rare in recent years and so in republishing them, the Collins Crime Club has not only done a wonderful job of honoring the legacy of one of the Golden Age’s most important crime writers, it has also performed a service for fans of vintage crime fiction. Thanks to their efforts, there are now six more titles that have been made accessible to readers once again. And that, I feel, is something worthy of celebration.

For more information on this year’s Reprint of the Year awards check out Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrime. The post announcing the award and seeking nominations can be found here.

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!