September 2019


NICHOLAS FREELING – Lady Macbeth. Henri Castang #10. Andre Deutsch Ltd, UK, hardcover, 1988. No US edition.

   Look – a criminal case history, call it a dossier if you like, starts mostly with statements made by the police. Made to the police, in the first place, by the people concerned. We type them out in résumé form. Chap signs at the bottom, agreeing that this is a true and faithful account of what he had to say. Can’t put it down word by word, question and answer. Much too long; not to say incoherent, irrelevant. People ramble, full of ums and ers. Probably all lies anyhow. They change their stories, you know, to suit the facts as these appear.

   I’ll be honest, I am now, and have been since his first book, a Nicholas Freeling fan. I devoured the Van der Valk novels, one of my favorite modern mystery novels is King of the Rainy Country, mourned when he killed off Van der Valk, took solace in the two books about Arlette, Van der Valk’s French widow, and was doubtful when he returned with French cop Henri Castang (“A cop, you know, shouldn’t allow himself to think much.”) of the national Police Judiciaire.

   After all, Castang’s artist wife Vera was a Czech, just as Dutch Van der Valk’s wife had been a fish out of water Frenchwoman in the Netherlands. Castang was another good cop of a certain age, and perhaps only the presence of his mentor Richards really differentiated that much from Van der Valk. Why had he bothered to kill off Van der Valk for a slightly younger clone?

   It took about three books before I began to see why. Castang freed Freeling in the same ways Van der Valk had begun to limit him. Even late in the series, with Europe changing and Castang and the PJ now part of the European Union it was obvious he was a better and deeper character, if he never quite got the credit for it.

   Lady MacBeth not only gives us another fine mystery, it also gives us Castang as part time narrator of the novel, not just the focal point, a welcome chance to hear his voice directly for long time fans. And it adds a bonus.

   The plot begins with the most ordinary of events. Friends of Castang ask his help when the female member of a seemingly perfect couple goes missing, and the friends in question are Arthur and Arlette Davidson (He’s nice; like his wife; I like them both. They’re both a pest. She, particularly.), yes, that Arlette, whose taste for solving mysteries hasn’t faded. She and Arthur are among the other narrators.

   Castang sort of meets Van der Valk. (*)

   Forgive a brief geek out.

   Back to our story, Guy and Sibillle are neighbors and friends of the Davidsons. They seemed a perfect couple, he extremely nice, she strong and smart (Sibille was a fiercely proud woman. Also ambitious, tenacious, hard if you like and self-willed.). On vacation to the Voges, a mountainous district where the impoverished castle Sibille grew up in was, the two argued and Sibillle, according to Guy, demanded he stop, got out of the car, walked into the trees, and has not been seen since. He returned home expecting her return. Time has passed and she has not shown up. Arlette suspects murder.

   Castang, now Commissaire Castang, suspects a domestic quarrel and a stubborn wife, but agrees to pacify Arthur and Arlette (Arthur is certainly meant to be Freeling himself) by making a few inquiries. After all it could be murder.

   Or something much much worse.

   Mysteries often begin with small seemingly unimportant matters. Not with murders of great import, but some small matter like an unresolved quarrel and haughty wife who may just have walked out despite of all the outward appearances. Castang, Arlette, neither of them can imagine where this simple domestic drama is going to lead.

   Granted Freeling does not write direct simple to the point prose. He ambles around the point a bit, takes seemingly unrelated tangents, indulges in stream of consciousness styling here and there, notes small details of life, and somehow manages to make all that painfully suspenseful always steering you back on course to revelations you never expected, to violence that comes from human frailty, but is no less shocking for it when it involves someone caught up in what one Freeling character calls “awful moral righteousness.”

      Subtly, and with great skill as a writer, and as a master at misdirection, he carries you along in the narrative to the shocking ending, to something much more than domestic violence, and much darker and closer to today’s headlines, always in the capable human and humanistic hands of the likes of Castang and Arlette, not triumphant in unraveling the mystery, merely lost in the complexity of human needs.

   There is the tragedy. Strength and weakness hand in hand. What matter whether the kingdom be the size of Scotland, or that over-tidy four-room apartment…What matter gun, knife, or bomb? It’s a carnivorous world. We devour one another. Hate is love.


(*)   Van der Valk and Patricia Moyes’ Henry and Emily Tibbet exchanged crossovers back in their series.

C. FRASER-SIMSON – Footsteps in the Night. Methuen, UK, hardcover. 1926,. E. P. Dutton, US, hardcover, 1927. Film: ATP, 1931; released in the UK as A Honeymoon Adventure (with Benita Hume and Peter Hannen, co-screenwriter: John Paddy Carstairs).

   My first thought when I picked this off the shelf to read was that that the title sounded familiar. The same as one of the early Hardy Boys adventures I read when I was young, maybe? I also did not recognize the name of the author, nor do I imagine that many of you reading this do either. (But I’ve been wrong in making statements such as this before, and to my regret, and I should stop making them.)

   It turns out that the author was the second wife (nee Cicely Devenish) of English composer Harold Fraser-Simson, noted for his many works of light music, including musical comedies, and setting children poems to music, especially those of A. A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame).

   There is not a lot of mystery involved in this book. It is an out-and-out thriller from beginning to end, one in which the villain is known to Peter Martin, one of the book’s two young married protagonists, almost as soon as his villainy begins.

   When a book begins with a husband being chided by his wife, in this case, the boyishly beautiful Eve Martin, for shutting her completely out of his professional affairs, you just know that something is going to happen to prove how right she is, and how wrong he was.

   They are vacationing in Scotland before Peter has to present some essential papers to a conference in London, when he is unexpectedly called away, leaving her alone is their rather large manor home. Due to a mixup, he does not have the papers with him, and when his abductors discover that he does not have them, they realize that it is Eve who is their real target.

   Hence the tale, told alternately between the predicaments and perils our intrepid married couple fall into, all of which constitute the entirety of the book. I enjoy these kind of stories, maybe more than I really ought to, but even I had to cringe a bit when one especially narrow escape for Peter occurs when the carriage is riding in with his captors crashes and overturns, allowing him, as the only one conscious, to make his way to a final reunion with Eve,

   I apologize if I’ve given too much away. I hope it won’t spoil too much of your pleasure in reading this, if indeed it is your cup of tea and if it ever finds its way into your hands.

From Wikipedia:

    “Anneke van Giersbergen, is a Dutch singer, songwriter, guitarist and pianist who became known worldwide as the lead singer and songwriter for the Dutch band The Gathering.” She has since gone on to a very successful solo career.


INTRUDER IN THE DUST . MGM, 1949. David Brian, Claude Jarman Jr, Juano Hernandez,. Porter Hall, Charles Kemper, Will Geer, and Elizabeth Patterson. Screenplay by Ben Maddow, from the novel by William Faulkner. Directed by Clarence Brown.

   As much a mystery/suspense movie as a social-problem film, and excellent on both counts.

   Intruder opens with Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez) arrested for the murder of Vinson Gowrie — he was found standing over Gowrie’s body with a recently-fired pistol in his pocket—and the locals, egged on by Gowrie’s brother Crawford (Charles Kemper) feel it their civic duty to skip the formality of a trial, stalled only by the absence of Gowrie’s father (Porter Hall.)

   Enter Chick Mallison (Claude Jarman Jr) a spectator in the crowd who knows something of the aloof “uppity” Beauchamp, believes him innocent, and enlists his older-and-wiser attorney uncle (David Brian) to defend him in Court. If he ever gets there.

   Sounds like To Kill a Mockingbird before its time, but the characters surprised me: Juano Hernandez’ Beauchamp is remote and uncooperative. Porter Hall , who at various times in his career murdered The Thin Man, shot Will Bill Hickok, locked up Kris Kringle, and marooned Tab Hunter, is quite sympathetic here, while David Brian’s wise-looking lawyer is only slightly less benighted than the noose-swinging locals — he doesn’t wait to hear Beauchamp’s story, just wants to plead him Guilty, and has no intention of getting in the way of any lynch mob.

   BUT THEN….There’s a marvelous moment in Brian’s office, where Jarman interrupts his conference with a meek little old lady (Elizabeth Patterson, being sued for running over a chicken) and Brian rails about the impossibility of Beauchamp’s case. “Why did he have to murder a Gowrie? And if he did, why did he have to shoot him in the back?” Whereupon Patterson pipes up softly but firmly “Maybe he didn’t.”

   At which point the whole tone of the piece shifts. Patterson (who was also in The Story of Temple Drake) takes over the investigation, blockades the Jail and… and other stuff I won’t spoil for you. Suffice it to way she’s a tough and smart in her own way as Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple.

   I think this character was deliberately brought on quietly and allowed to grow, as do some others, making this a film that reminded me of Chandler’s dictum: The crime itself is less important than its effect on the characters. Or in this case, the effect of the characters upon the crime.

   Make no mistake. This is a Mystery Movie, albeit a fairly obvious one. Bodies get buried, moved, and dug up again, clues get gathered, and toward the end, Will Geer’s canny sheriff has a tense stand-off with a hidden killer.

   We also get some quietly pungent displays of passive racism, as when Jarman’s dad shrugs off a lynching with, “These things happen. And people like us do not get involved.” but scenarist Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle, God’s Little Acre, etc) keeps the lesson implicit, and never preaches what he can show.

   So we get a good mystery here, and a thoughtful one. Mostly though we get to see human beings acting like people we know. And this is what makes Intruder in the Dust a film to treasure.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts

LOUISE PENNY – A Better Man. Armand Gamache #15. Minotaur Books, hardcover, August 2019; trade paperback, June 2020. St. Martin’s, mass market paperback, June 2020.

First Sentence: “Merde.”

   Inspector Armand Gamache may be bruised by the events of the past, but he is not beaten. He may no longer have the authority he once did, as evidenced by those in charge ignoring his recommendation to keep citizens safe from the rising river waters due to torrential rains, but he still has the respect of the team who once reported to him, and of his son-in-law and temporary superior, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. A fellow officer is concerned about the disappearance of her close friend’s daughter who, she suspects, is in an abusive relationship. Being assigned to lead the investigation brings Armand into the triple dangers of an angry man, his father-in-law, and nature.

   Let’s get this out of the way; the book begins with profanity. However, considering the situation for both artist Clara, whose career is at a crossroads, and the team in the Serious Crimes Unit, it is well justified and nothing more than most of us have said.

   Whether it’s a bistro in Three Pines, a conference room in the Sûreté du Québec, or standing by a raging river, Penny draws one in and makes one feel present in the environment and in the community of people associated with each. Even for those who may be discovering Penny with this book, her writing, and inclusion of just enough back story, makes one feel welcome and up to date with the people and situations.

   Penny’s descriptions aren’t merely visual, they are emotional and anthropomorphic— “The waters were rising up, not in protest but in revenge.” Yet in the midst of danger, there is humor such as that inspired by an old dog— “‘Your dog shook,’ explained Beauvoir. ‘Oh, dear.’ ‘Yes. That’s pretty much what I said as I washed myself off and scraped down my desk. Gosh, I said, Bit of a mess.’ His eyes widened in a crazed look, and Lacoste laughed.” –and Gamache’s complete inability to understand anything said by Billy Williams with his thick, regional accent. For those who live in areas affected by natural disasters, it is poignant to see the characters contemplate what things they’d take were they being evacuated and faced with the loss of everything else they own.

   While the plot is strong, compelling and deals with difficult issues, it is the characters which keep readers engaged. None of Penny’s characters are stereotypical or unimportant. Each is fully developed and complex. Each has a purpose in the story. Gamache is the depiction of a person one should aspire to be. Through him, Penny gifts the reader with the four statements that lead one to wisdom— “I was wrong. I’m sorry. I don’t know. I need help.” –and the admonition of poet Seamus Heaney: Noli timere, “Be not afraid.” However, it is somewhat reassuring that even the best people have weaknesses.

   Circumstances, pain, grace and self-awareness have matured Jean-Guy. His relationship with Gamache is complex, deep and abiding, one which has survived many conflicts and internal struggles. What is interesting is that Penny uses the character of Billy as the eyes to see the true strength of the relationship, understanding, and love that Gamache has for Jean-Guy. It is also the communities of Three Pines and of the team at the Sûreté which demonstrate the solidity of the wider circle.

   There is wisdom to be found within the story— “Before speaking…you might want to ask yourself three questions…Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?” –followed by a very human reaction to fear— “Don’t pee, don’t pee, don’t pee.” There is also well-done forensic information which is interesting and informative. However, there is also a very good plot twist and a very dramatic climax.

   he book is a mystery and a very good one. One may not figure out what had happened until the reveal. And there’s suspense and twists which cause one to catch one’s breath. But as always with Penny’s books, it is about the characters; about relationships; strong, toxic, messy, or just forming. It is about compassion and conscience, growth and change. It is about us; we complicated humans. Penny’s ability to describe emotions is unmatched.

   A Better Man is an excellent book in an outstanding series. It presents one with a lot of here, here. There is suspense, humor, and things which make one think— “Things are strongest where they are broken.” The ending touches the heart and may bring tears to one’s eyes. Most of all, it leaves one wanting to re-read the series from the beginning while wanting the next book right now.

Rating: Excellent.

Back home again and with a new hip. 27 hours between getting to the hospital and leaving just two hours ago. Amazing!

Thanks for all of the good wishes and the good advice, all very much appreciated!

   I have several posts that I could have chosen from to upload today, but there’s been too much to plan ahead for, and I’ve simply run out of time. I have to be at the hospital tomorrow morning at nine. I’m not looking forward to rehab, but as I’ve told some of you already, I’ve gone as far with this hip as I possibly could.

   I don’t know when I’ll be back at full blogging strength again, but look for short updates here every once in a while. As soon as I can!

From Wikipedia: “British actor and singer Murray Head raps the verses, while the chorus is sung by Anders Glenmark, a Swedish singer, songwriter and producer.”

I’d forgotten this song until my daughter Sarah reminded me of it recently. Now I can’t get it out of my head:

JOHN JAY CHICHESTER – The Bigamist. Jimmy “Wiggly” Price #2. Serialized in seven parts in Detective Story Magazine between February 7 and March 14, 1925. Published in hardcover by Chelsea House, 1925. Reprinted by A. L. Burt, hardcover, 1927.

   You shouldn’t expect a detective story published in 1925 to be a modern day mystery, especially one published in Detective Story Magazine, a pulp that didn’t realize that hardboiled detective fiction was coming into play until the very late 1930s, some fifteen years after the fact.

   And yet … and yet … the opening of The Bigamist reminded me of a noirish novel I recently read by Day Keene, I believe, in which the protagonist was mixed up with two women, one in the city and the other, much more innocent, living on a farm (figuratively speaking, if not literally). The bigamist in The Bigamist, is no amoral character however, just a weak one who forsakes the women who loves him (and has waited over ten years for him) and marries a rich women he quickly finds he really doesn’t love.

   Learning that his first love is dying, he hurries home, and so that she can die in peace, still loving him, he goes through a phony marriage ceremony with her — only to have her miraculously recover. Enter a blackmailer, then a killer.

   The detective on the case is not the clown of a cop in the village where Dora lives, but a newspaper reporter from the city by the name of Jimmy “Wiggly” Price, first met in The Porcelain Mask (Chelsea House, 1924). His nickname comes from the fact that when he gets excited, his ears begin to wiggle uncontrollably. (No, I’m not joking. It can be done, but it takes practice.)

   Any hint of this being a noir novel has quickly disappeared by this time, obviously, and the dialogue between the participants is often antiquated at best. Since the number of these participants is strictly limited, if the killer isn’t the obvious one, there’s only one other person it could be. And yet .. and yet … the book is surprisingly readable, and only because the author, I submit, was a natural storyteller, fact that outweighs any other deficiencies he may have had. I have no other explanation.


Bibliographic Notes:   John Jay Chichester was a pen name of Christopher B. Booth, noted in some circles as the author of the Mt. Clackworthy stories, discussed at length on this blog here and here. The third and final Jimmy Price novel was The House of the Moving Room (Chelsea House, 1926).


GERALD KERSH – Prelude to a Certain Midnight. Heinemann, UK, hardcover, 1947. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1947. Reprint editions include: Lion #98, paperback, 1952. Dover, US, paperback, 1983.

   Some books defy easy classification. Anything by Gerald Kersh defies easy classification. If you are an American you may know him for his short stories, for his tales of the impossible con man Karmesin, or Fleet Street editor Bo Raymond, or maybe his collections of distinctly off beat tales, On An Odd Note. You might know him for his best known American novel, Night and the City, an icon of noir film in two different adaptations.

   But suffice it to say. you don’t really know Kersh if you haven’t read books like Fowler’s End, The Secret Masters, or Prelude to a Certain Midnight.

    Prelude is the story of a murderer, but it isn’t the story of a suspenseful police hunt or a courageous individual who digs into the truth.

   It is as much the story of the death of a small segment of a community as of an innocent child, and the death of what was a very different England and Europe in the years before the war. “It is all the same sort of thing. Maidanek, Belsen, Auschwitz, Sonia Sabbatani… The difference is only a matter of scale and legality.”

   It is a novel about the effect such a killer has on a community, on the patrons of a pub, a microcosm, and how destructive such violence is on everyone touched by it. It is about what turns men from sick to murderer what pushes a certain kind of weakling to believe he is a superman.

   The atmosphere of a place is the soul of that place, and when it departs the place dies. One may make equations: A New Manager, plus the New Managers Friends, minus certain Old Familiar Faces, plus a Strange Barman, plus the Tension that goes with Unfamiliar Voices, minus Intimacy, equals a Change of Atmosphere. But this is not satisfactory. One might as well describe an oppressive quiet in terms of decibels, or explain a grief in cubic centimeters of salt tears. One might as well expect an oceanographer to draw up the loneliness and the darkness of the Mindanao Deep on a plumb line.

   The Bar Bacchus died. The virtue went out of it. Its soul drifted away so that now, although nothing about the place has visibly changed, it is nothing but a shell that once enclosed a character and an individual heartbeat.

   How the Bacchus lost its soul, its virtue, is told in terms of its patrons; of Asta Thunderley, a force of life who sees the indifference of police when a child dies in a poor neighborhood in Pre War London, and chooses to organize a hunt for the killer among the patrons of the pub; of Tobit Osbert, the gentle man loved by children who harbors a dark secret and loves to see pain; Sam Sabbatani the tailor whose life is destroyed by the murder of his daughter; of Tiger Fitzpatrick Asta Thunderley’s ex prizefighter butler; Conger the barman; Ember the novelist; of Thea Olivia “Tot” who knows Osbert is the killer but no one will listen; and of Amy “Catchy” Dory, the poor soul who was once beautiful who “The weaker you were, the more submissive she became. The more foolish and indecisive you were, the more she looked up to you…” Catchy, who more than Tobit Osbert is the monster at the center of the novel

   Kersh captures all these people with perfect phrasing and well tuned voices.

   Of Catchy: She knew how to make people happy when she was beautiful, and when the Bar Bacchus was a place with an atmosphere.

   Of Sabbatani who hid his great heart behind a scowl: The, heart of Sabbatani chuckled in quiet triumph. His head growled impotently. His face scowled.

   Of the petty banality of the murderer: He had sent his suit to be cleaned by Sam Sabbatani, who gave his dyeing and cleaning to the great Goldberg Dye Works, which takes in half the dirty clothes in London every morning at nine o’clock. The firm of Goldberg makes a specialty of what they call “mourning orders” and will dye anything funereally black within twenty-four hours.

   Tobit Osbert found a certain refined pleasure in the contemplation of the fact that Sam Sabbatani, still red-eyed and thunderstruck with grief, was washing away evidence which might possibly have convicted the murderer of his daughter for three and sixpence—on the slate, at that.

   Colorful a lot as the characters in the novel are it is their mere humanity that again and again keeps you turning pages in the novel. Osbert the child murderer beloved by his nieces who he takes to the circus or the shooting gallery, Astra who tries disastrously to play Miss Marple even down to a gathering of the suspects at her dinner table, Thea who must live with the knowledge Osbert is the murderer and can do nothing about it.

   Kersh offers no easy answers. Only his wit and command of style save this from being a depressing book and instead create a kind of black Ealing comedy atmosphere as if Passport to Pimlico had been written by Robert Bloch.

   And there is savagery here too, Kersh’s anger at the lot of these people, at their weaknesses and strengths, at the indifference toward small “unimportant” lives, and the ways dark truth’s hidden behind beauty can create monsters of little frightened men.

   Once read, Prelude will stay with you, maybe even if you wish at times it would not. It is not really a mystery, it’s far too wise and human simply to be noir (though ironically it is one of the great noir novels), its heart too great, its anger too visceral.

   Reading this you may get the wrong idea about Kersh and the idea he writes as a misogynist. He does not. His portrait of Catchy particularly is a full one, and only after he has laid out his carefully presented case against her does his tone towards her change from sympathetic to accusatory.

   I can only say I wish they had filmed this. What a role Catchy would be for some lucky actress. She is no femme fatale or spider luring men to their doom, but her love is just as destructive because of where it comes from. She is victim, too willing to be one, and monster, too blind to see what she creates out of “love.”

   Blanche Du Bois has nothing on Catchy.

   You may disagree about the degree of her guilt, but I think her comeuppance from Astra Thunderley will still be the cathartic moment Kersh means.

   I don’t usually quote last lines in reviews, but this one sums up much of what you will find in Prelude, and sums up the somewhat shopworn Catchy and the harm her kind can do neatly.

   …and about her there clings, always, an atmosphere of guilt, of maudlin grief, stale liquor, and decay that makes you long for a good high wind to blow her and her kind from the face of the earth, the flyblown face of the exhausted earth.

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