Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Dram of Poison

A DRAM OF POISON – Charlotte Armstrong (1956)

This is the first of Armstrong’s books and it won an Edgar Award in 1957.  It’s a quirky book in some ways.  In fact, it’s almost two separate novellas.  The opening chapter introduces Kenneth Gibson, a mild-mannered bachelor of fifty-five and professor of English at a small college in California.  We first meet Kenneth in the company of his neighbor Paul, a chemist whose lab contains an array of deadly poisons.  Kenneth casually observes where Paul keeps the key to the poisons cabinet.   We can guess what’s going to happen, can’t we? 

The first half of the book is a superbly crafted novel of suspense.  At a colleague’s funeral Kenneth meets the deceased's 32-year-old daughter Rosemary, a repressed survivor of her father’s tyrannical domination.  Kenneth is a good man, and he determines that he will rescue Rosemary.  He feels so strongly about his duty to do so that he soon marries her.  To their mutual amazement, love grows.  Predictably disaster soon strikes in the form of a car accident and the arrival of Kenneth’s competent sister, Ethel, who overwhelms both Kenneth and Rosemary with her decisive character and implacable will.  Relations among the three become poisonous, and the atmosphere is tense.

In these circumstances, it’s no surprise when disaster strikes again.  I can’t reveal what happens without diluting the pleasure of anyone who might read this book, but let me just say that from this point forward the book is entirely different.  A half-dozen new characters are introduced and the psychology of the subconscious is discussed in a witty and learned fashion (primarily by a bus driver named Lee).  The virtues of love, gratitude, and friendship are dissected with introspection and insight.  Where the first half of the book is characterized by a gathering sense of doom, the second half is a race to redeem lost souls.  I’ve read reviews that suggest this juxtaposition is jarring, but I found the two halves perfectly compatible.  In my opinion, it’s quite a tour de force from Armstrong.  She is high on my list now.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Publication Dates for India #3 and #4

First, some news:  the publisher wants to do a couple of "eSpecials," which are pieces of short fiction published only in electronic form.  I'm going to do two of them, with the first devoted to explaining how India acquired Lotus House.  It will be published a few weeks before India #3 comes out and available at the usual eBook sources.  The second eSpecial will precede the publication of #4.  Here are the dates (and I wish they were sooner, but that's how it is):

January, 2013 - first eSpecial published
February, 2013 - India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy published
October, 2013 - second eSpecial published
November, 2013 - India #4 (as yet untitled) published.

My editor has approved the outline for #4, and I'm writing the first eSpecial now.  It is due by June 1st, so that is the top priority at the moment.  Then I'll start #4.  I'm also reading background material and thinking about my World War II spy novel.  How am I doing with all this?  I think this picture sums up things nicely:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Writing or the Detecting?

Mysteries, along with history and biography, are my preferred reading.  My grandmother had a bookcase full of Agatha Christie novels and I can still remember the pleasure of discovering the Queen of Crime.  She inspired a love of the English detective novel that has never waned.  I do read current authors, including Laurie R. King, Kate Atkinson, Tana French, Charles Todd, Deborah Crombie, Christopher Fowler and Phil Rickman.  But in my heart, I'm a vintage crime lover.

I've been discovering new authors from the past over the last few months.  Some of them have been marvelous writers and some have left me cold, but I have learned one thing about myself.  If I have to choose between good writing and a fairly-clued seamless plot with a shocking twist on the last page, I'll take the writing.  Sure, I'd like to read the perfect mystery every time I crack a book, but that doesn't happen.  Give me polished, well-written, efficient prose and I can overlook all other faults.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Shape of a Stain

THE SHAPE OF A STAIN – E. X. Ferrars (1942)

E.X. Ferrars was a prolific writer of mysteries (70 over a span of 50 years) but I had never sampled one until The Shape of a Stain.  The frequently underemployed journalist and sometime detective Toby Dyke receives a frantic summons from a famous scientist:  Irma has been kidnapped and Dr. Virag wants her found.  Toby and his detecting companion George arrive too late to find Irma’s kidnaper but they are just in time to find her killer, for Irma is found dead, stabbed through the heart and lying in a curiously large bloodstain.  Did I mention that Irma is a chimpanzee?

Other detectives might catch the next train back to London in disgust, but Toby has a sense of justice and he’s intrigued by the obvious question:  why would anyone stab a chimpanzee?  The Shape of a Stain is a solid fair play mystery with clues and red herrings scattered throughout.  There’s an interesting cast of characters here, including a chimp minder who is not who he seems, a repulsive vicar, a stressed out housekeeper, an earnest doctor, and a blonde bombshell not overly endowed with brains.

I didn’t find Toby to be particularly adept at the detecting business, but his friend George is a whiz.  He solves the mystery while Toby meanders around testing his own theories with little result.  I admit I was led down the garden path on this one as I swallowed the clues Ferrars had planted and felt quite pleased with myself for figuring out the identity of the murderer.  A twist at the end wiped the smug smile from my face.  I’ll read it more of Ferrars’s work.

E.X. Ferrars and The Shape of the Stain are another entry in the Golden Age Girls category of Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Green Beer Day

I won't be having any today.  It's just wrong to put green dye in beer.  A glass of Harp or Guinness would be nice, but sadly neither is on my low carb diet.  Here's a fun video for St. Patrick's Day.  "He'll have to be careful not to lose the big lad here."  Tee hee.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Work in Progress

Several weeks ago blogger Carol K in the U.K. invited me to share my "work in progress" with her readers.  Of course I said yes, and Carol posted my update today.  You can read WIP posts from other authors on Carol's website.  I thought her idea of letting writers share their projects with readers was brilliant.  I'm always curious about what my favorite authors are working on and the issues they encounter during composition.  Carol gives us a chance to find out.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Himalayan Assignment

HIMALAYAN ASSIGNMENT – F. Van Wyck Mason (1952)

Mason was a prolific writer of mysteries, thrillers and historical novels.  Himalayan Assignment features one of Mason’s recurring characters, Army intelligence officer Hugh North.   I like a good thriller, and this one has much to recommend it.  The setting is exotic: the mythical kingdom of Jonkhar, a tiny state located between Tibet and Nepal and which offers a dandy route into India for the communist armies of the Soviet Union and China.  Representatives of both powers are already in Jonkhar, making nice with the country’s ruler.  North’s assignment is to undermine these missions and secure Jonkhar as an American ally.  Along the way he encounters some colorful characters, including a hardened American mercenary who has sold himself to the Soviets, a svelte lady assassin with ice-white hair who wears a coat of clouded leopard skin and a faithful Nepalese assistant who wields a wicked knife.

Mason’s eye for picturesque detail is very fine, and he writes stunning descriptions of the Himalayas, Jonkhar, life at the court there, and the many tribes who populate the kingdom.  His action sequences are excellent as well.  The finale features a pursuit of the Russians by North and his Nepalese companion along icy, mountainous trails through a blizzard.  Some of the dialogue sounds unnatural, in the way that the dialogue in movies from this era (the ’fifties) can grate on modern ears.  While the dialogue may be clunky and some of the characters border on caricatures, the setting is magnificent and the action interesting and well-paced.  I’ll read more of the North series.

F. Van Wyck Mason is an entry in my "Persons of Interest" category at Bev's Mystery Challenge.  Mason was a scion of a patrician Boston family and his father was a diplomat.  As a boy, Mason spent years in Europe and enlisted in the French army during WWI.  After the war he ran his own import business and traveled widely, including a nine-week trip through North Africa.  He served with distinction in WWII and afterwards devoted himself to writing.  He loved polo, hunting and the good life in general.  He drowned while swimming off the coast of Bermuda.

Friday, March 9, 2012


Currently the Hall of Famous Missourians (just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) is considering a list of proposed inductees, one of whom is Rush Limbaugh, a native of Cape Girardeau in the southeast corner of the state.  National media seems to think this is controversial here in our section of flyover country, but all it has been eliciting around these parts is a big yawn.

Possibly the lack of reaction may stem from people who share my (former) ignorance about the existence of such an august institution.  I took a look at the website and found some of the usual suspects:  Stan Musial, Walter Cronkite, Walt Disney, Mark Twain, Charlie Parker and Sacajawea.  Sacajawea?  Her connection to Missouri is that she lived around St. Louis for five years before returning to her home somewhere in the Dakota territory.  With these kind of standards for inclusion, we'll soon start claiming presidents who drop by for a campaign visit. 

Conspicuously absent from the rolls:  T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes.  Rush Limbaugh in the HFM before any of these?  Say it ain't so, Joe.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Plots and Outlines

Currently I'm composing an outline for India #4.  Many authors work from an outline while others enjoy the high wire act of writing without one.  Being the type of person who enjoys doing to-do lists and organizing my office, I prefer working out the big picture before I begin writing.

I have three main themes to develop in #4:  the criminal/espionage plot, the exposition of India's background, and the relationship between India and French.  I concentrate on only one theme at a time, writing brief descriptions of the scenes needed to develop the theme in its entirety.  When I've fully fleshed out each theme I'll combine my three outlines into one, interspersing scenes and determining the contents of each chapter.  I'm having almost as much fun experimenting with this approach as I have when writing .

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Don't Try This At Home

If you've perused the sidebar or read my bio on my website, you know that I enjoy shooting.  So did Steve McQueen.  Here's a picture of the cool guy and his wife doing a bit of plinking in the desert in 1963:

I love the composition of this picture.  Notice Mrs. McQueen's hair blowing forward.  Notice her casually crossed ankles.  Admire her abs, which were doing a lot of work keeping her balanced in this position.  But whatever you do, don't copy her gun-handling skills.  Poor grip on the gun.  Gun too close to her face.  No eye protection.  No ear protection.  Ditto for Steve on the last two points.   Tsk, tsk.

For more pictures of these two in their Palm Springs home, read this article.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Green December Grows the Graveyard


That's an awesome title for a book, isn't it?  However,Rue Morgue published this books as Murder at Shots Hall, due to the owner's belief that the original title was “too literary” and did not ignite much public interest at initial publication.

Personally, I think the original title far superior to the pedestrian “Murder at …,” but others may disagree.  One of the characters in the book, an ancient gardener named Harry, utters the phrase as a warning which made me think that it might be an aphorism from English folklore or a bit of poetry, but an internet search turned up nothing.  If anyone can enlighten me on this point, I’d be grateful.

On to the book.   Flikka Ashley is a sculptor with (as the Brits would say) a chequered past.  She lives with her Aunt Bee at Shots Hall where they are attended by faithful retainers, who begin to die at an alarming rate.  All the evidence points to Flikka, but the local doctor and Inspector Parry of Scotland Yard are not convinced.  A great deal of the book is devoted to Flikka’s possible motives and opportunities for doing away with the family servants, and other plausible suspects and motives are in short supply.  I’m afraid I guessed the murderer in this one, strictly on the basis of it being the least likely person with no apparent motive.  However, I would still recommend the book as I found Inspector Parry a very likeable detective.  Sadly, Sarsfied wrote only one other detective novel before vanishing into thin air.  Why she quit writing is a mystery that remains unsolved

Maureen Sarsfield is an entry in the Golden Age Girls category of Bev's Mystery Challenge.  Sadly, I could not find a picture of Ms. Sarsfield, but here is an interesting, if brief, bio from Rue Morgue Press.