We, the Accused by Ernest Raymond

I was given this, along with CS Forester’s early novel Payment Deferred, by Kate McCallum, author of checklists of mystery fiction, published by Copperfield Press. I’ve had my periods of reading vast amounts of the stuff, but not for years of late. Nonetheless, with such a well-informed recommendation, and the books handed to me, I was not going to say no!

Neither of these is a mystery. They are both early examples of sitting behind the shoulder of the murderer, following developments as he does. And partly because of the books’ titles, but also because of the period in which they were written, one knows in broad terms, how they will end. No murderer would have escaped his fate back then. A price had to be paid.

In fact, in the case of We, the Accused, we watch everything, it’s something of a police procedural. It’s incredibly detailed with striking and awful descriptions of what happens after the police get onto it. The chase, the trial, the period of three weeks before he hangs. But it is equally detailed in its description of scenery, neighbours, childhood – the lot. Overall I don’t think Raymond is a good enough writer to do this justice, but, he does it well enough. After a slight irritation early on as yet another tangent started, I got into the zone and found it hard to put down. He’s at his weakest when he is in the shoes of the female and as these are critical points – her agreeing to sex, her deciding to accept that he has murdered and still love him, her salvation at the end – I find none of these convincing. Indeed, the ending involving the stranger who saves her is plain silly.

The bottom line in both of these is that although the murderers knew what they had to do to get away with it, they weren’t able to – they weren’t psychopaths and both their humanness and their humanity let them down.

I might add that my own prejudice is in favour of minimalist, so of the two books, I prefer Payment Deferred. Nonetheless, as Kate urged me, I urge anybody reading this and interested in this sort of writing to pick both of these up, you won’t regret it.

Advertisements

Payment Deferred by CS Forester and The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

What a fascinating pair to read back to back. Payment Deferred is a very modern psychological thriller which hooks the reader in from the start: an astonishing work to come up with in the 1920s by a young man at the start of his career.¬† The Snow Kimono might also be defined as a psychological thriller, as long and meandering as Forester’s is to the point. And, again in contrast, Henshaw’s novel is the first he’d written for 25 years, having a normal career after realising that there would be no money in writing for him.

I suspect that Henshaw is too clever for me. I spent too much time wondering what I was doing. Whereas CS Forester knows exactly what you are doing. Following the journey this simple question takes  you on: will the murderer get away with his deed? And despite Рor perhaps because of Рthe implications of the title, the reader is sort of barracking (in the Australian usage of the word) for the petty man who acts on this big idea.

The Guardian said of Simenon’s books that they

… focus on the tensions that lead a person to an extraordinary act such as murder. Through Maigret, who works primarily from intuition rather than procedural techniques, Simenon explores the psychology of his protagonists. The focus on people and setting is emphasised by the extremely spare language which is a feature of all his work.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1993) said ‘Simenon’s central theme is the isolated existence of the neurotic, abnormal individual. Employing a style of rigorous simplicity, he evokes a prevailing atmosphere of neurotic tensions with sharp economy.’

This could so easily be a description of Payment Deferred, published five years or so before Simenon’s first non-pulp books. I wonder if that’s a coincidence? Equally the setting, a down-at-heel neighbourhood, a lower middle-class family who are living beyond their means and with nothing much to show for it. And a one-off opportunity. Never for one moment does William Marble think of using his position in the bank to illegally syphon off funds to sort his situation. But when a nephew appears out of the blue with a large amount of money in his pocket, he conceives on the spot a murder. That juxtaposition of moral lines is always fascinating to observe.

From there on things could scarcely have gone better for Marble, but his psychological spiral downwards is inevitable. He isn’t a psychopath, in other words. Just a rather unpleasant, unattractive loser whose wife feeds off his odd kind word and forgives him everything, including the murder when she finally figures it out. And then, despite her best intentions, she is the undoing of him. It’s a really neat story.

The Snow Kimono is full of exquisite description of place, exactly as a Japanese work should be. Overfull when it first went to an editor, I gather, who insisted that some 40K of words be removed. Even then, I don’t know if that decision was harsh enough. But then perhaps there was a danger that it would be trimmed to a point where it became obvious that none of it needed to be there.

I really don’t mean to be rude to the book in saying this. It ran the gauntlet of several dozen rejections before not only being accepted for publication, but also becoming the winner of a prestigious prize, all monies gratefully received. It is beautiful. But the amalgamation of the stories in it were’t adequate for me. What has the Inspector’s life got to do with the story he is meanderingly and episodically told by his odd neighbour? I didn’t feel like any of it fit together properly. I don’t really understand why it couldn’t instead have been a story, more simply and economically related, of the neighbour’s experiences.

Am I being unfair in saying that? I think Henshaw must be a totally amazing person and I’d love to invite him to dinner and fawn over his erratic, episodic literary career which is even more unlikely than the fiction he weaves. But I still didn’t like this novel enough and it’s one of those times where I feel like I’ve let a book down.

I can’t believe Payment Deterred isn’t a celebrated classic and I’m most grateful to Kate McCallum for giving it to me.

 

The spoiler: Disappearing off the face of the earth by David Cohen part two

I had a friend in Geneva who went from close to cutting me off when she read my review of The Sea, The Sea, The Sea (repeated to taste) by Iris Murdoch. She was a Murdoch fan. She was deeply hurt by a review which made fun of her idol. Although at the time I thought she was an idiot, the fact is that books we love hold a place in our heart which overtake rationality. I love this book, and it pains me to think that there are people out there who don’t get it.

When I wrote my review of this a few days ago, I was reluctant to give anything away that would cause one to know too much of the book prior to reading it. However, I can see that this has led to not enough information in some respects. So, this is the spoiler and the upgrade, since I gave this four stars at the time, whilst wishing I could give it five.

More than one nimwit has read this book thinking that they ‘got’ the twist early on and that therefore this book has failed. But this book is not meant to have a twist. The point of the book is that it is about a person with schizophrenia. He doesn’t know that – but can he know it? Can the part of him that we are barracking for, the part telling the story, understand what is happening and therefore do something about it?

Much as the book may be comic, it has this disarmingly sad fundament. We are hoping the best for a serial killer, who is so ordinary he could be anybody. The author has produced a dysfuntional serial killer we can all love and relate to in no different a way from relating to the family in The Castle.

It is possible that only Australians will get that. We are particularly tolerant and have a sense of humour which permits this book to be what it is. But I encourage non-Australians to read it and attempt to enter the spirit of the exercise. If, however, you are wanting a book that has a clever twist that you don’t get until the very end – or at all – then this book is not for you.

Disappearing off the face of the earth by David Cohen part one

I write a spoiler sort of review of this here.

I think it’s safe to say, having read this over the course of a day, that it’s the perfect easy read. An equal mix of suspense, pathos, great characters and humour including laugh out loud precise comic timing. On top of which it’s splendidly Australian.

Over the last months, having followed the experiences of a friend with a book in the Australian best seller lists for the unusually long period of a couple of months, it has become evident to me in a more real way than previously that it’s a cut-throat world out there for the author. Once your book drops off the lists and that happens almost immediately post publication, it becomes near impossible to get a copy. Perhaps this is a reason to be thankful for the large online booksellers and databases.

What chance does this give a book such as this of big success? Approximately zero. But what a shame. I don’t want to talk about the story, it’s to be left to the reader to find that out. I can, however, give this four stars, which from me is high praise indeed.

My best guess is that sometime in the future, and I’m afraid that will be about thirty years, that this will become one of those little revived classics that clever people on goodreads write about knowingly.

Well, come on goodreaders. Beat the rush. Be different. Read it now!

 

Death in the Limelight by AE Martin

Plot-wise I can’t say I liked this as much as The Chinese Bed Mysteries, but it was still surprisingly fresh. Anybody who likes the old-fashioned pot-boiler murder mysteries should give Martin a go. As well as an engaging style, he knows his stuff, the world of his action is the world he actually lived in for many years prior to WWII, and this really makes a difference, not just because he is technically knowledgeable, but because he adds that air which comes from your subject matter being part of you.

I’ve a couple more on the shelves and I’m curious to see if they stack up. Will report.

The Chinese Bed Mysteries by AE Martin

I hope to put together a more detailed picture of AE Martin at a later date. I became curious about him because we sold an extremely rare set of The Gadfly, a short-lived Adelaide magazine put out by CJ Dennis between 1906 and 1909. Martin was the assistant editor and that was in his early twenties. Others involved included Alice Grant Rosman.

He went on to have a fascinating life in the circus, becoming a promoter who brought shows to Australia. Consequently we can have faith in his picture of the carnival freak characters he portrays in this whodunnit. It was his world.

After WWII he reinvented himself and became a writer of popular regard after winning a substantial prize offered by the Australian Women’s Weekly.

More on him anon.

As far as this one goes, it is very much set in its period, dated in every way one could imagine. That didn’t bother me at all, it was alternately charming and sociologically illuminating, but some people will hate it. 2.5 stars?

Apparently it was published first as The Bridal Bed Mysteries.

The Macbeth Murder Mystery by James Thurber

The Macbeth Murder Mystery is just the funniest thing ever written. Read on.

“It was a stupid mistake to make,” said the American woman I had met at my hotel in the English lake country, “but it was on the counter with the other Penguin books–the little sixpenny ones, you know, with the paper covers–and I supposed of course it was a detective story. All the others were detective stories. I’d read all the others, so I bought this one without really looking at it carefully. You can imagine how mad I was when I found it was Shakespeare.”

I murmured something sympathetically.

“I don’t see why the Penguin-books people had to get out Shakespeare plays in the same size and everything as the detective stories,” went on my companion.

“I think they have different-colored jackets,” I said.

“Well, I didn’t notice that,” she said. “Anyway, I got real comfy in bed that night and all ready to read a good mystery story and here I had ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’–a book for high-school students.

Like ‘Ivanhoe,’ ” “Or ‘Lorna Doone,’ ” I said.

“Exactly,” said the American lady. “And I was just crazy for a good Agatha Christie, or something. Hercule Poirot is my favorite detective.”

“Is he the rabbity one?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” said my crime-fiction expert. “He’s the Belgian one. You’re thinking of Mr.. Pinkerton, the one that helps Inspector Bull. He’s good, too.”

Over her second cup of tea my companion began to tell the plot of a detective story that had fooled her completely–it seems it was the old family doctor all the time. But I cut in on her.

“Tell me,” I said. “Did you read ‘Macbeth’?”

“I had to read it, she said. “There wasn’t a scrap of anything else to read in the whole room.”

“Did you like it?” I asked.

“No, I did not,” she said, decisively. “In the first place, I don’t think for a moment that Macbeth did it.”

I looked at her blankly. “Did what?” I asked.

“I don’t think for a moment that he killed the King,” she said. “I don’t think the Macbeth woman was mixed up in it, either. You suspect them the most, of course, but those are the ones that are never guilty–or shouldn’t be, anyway.”

“I’m ‘afraid,” I began, “that I–”

“But don’t you see?” said the American lady. “It would spoil everything if you could figure out right away who did it. Shakespeare was too smart for that. I’ve read that people never have figured out ‘Hamlet,’ so it isn’t likely Shakespeare would have made ‘Macbeth’ as simple as it seems.”

I thought this over while I filled my pipe. “Who do you suspect?” I asked, suddenly. “Macduff,” she said, promptly.

“Good God!” I whispered, softly.

“Oh Macduff did it, all right,” said the murder specialist. “Hercule Poirot would have got him easily.”

“How did you figure it out?” I demanded.

“Well,” she said, “I didn’t right away. At first I suspected Banquo. And then, of course, he was the second person killed. That was good right in there, that part. The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim.”

“Is that so?” I murmured.

“Oh, yes,” said my informant. “They have to keep surprising you. Well, after the second murder I didn’t know who the killer was for a while.”

“How about Malcolm and Donalbain, the King’s sons?” I asked. “As I remember it, they fled right after the first murder. That looks suspicious.”

“Too suspicious,” said the American lady. “Much too suspicious. When they flee, they’re never guilty. You can count on that.”

“I believe,” I said, “I’ll have a brandy,” and I summoned the waiter. My companion leaned toward me, her eyes bright, her teacup quivering.

“Do you know who discovered Duncan’s body?” she demanded.

I said I was sorry, but I had forgotten.

“Macduff discovers it,” she said, slipping into the historical present. “Then he comes running downstairs and shouts, ‘Confusion has broke open the Lord’s anointed temple’ and ‘Sacrilegious murder has made his masterpiece’ and on and on like that.” The good lady tapped me on the knee. “All that stuff was rehearsed,” she said. “You wouldn’t say a lot of stuff like that, offhand, would you–if you had found a body?” She fixed me with a glittering eye.

“I–” I began.

“You’re right!” she said. “You wouldn’t! Unless you had practiced it in advance. ‘My God, there’s a body in here!’ is what an innocent man would say.” She sat back with a confident glare.

I thought for a while. “But what do you make of the Third Murderer?” I asked. “You know, the Third Murderer has puzzled ‘Macbeth’ scholars for three hundred years.”

“That’s because they never thought of Macduff,” said the American lady. “It was Macduff, I’m certain. You couldn’t have one of the victims murdered by two ordinary thugs-the murderer always has to be somebody important.”

“But what about the banquet scene?” I asked, after a moment. “How do you account for Macbeth’s guilty actions there, when Banquo’s ghost came in and sat in his chair?”

The lady leaned forward and tapped me on the knee again. “There wasn’t any ghost,” she said. “A big, strong man like that doesn’t go around seeing ghosts — especially in a brightly lighted banquet hall with dozens of people around. Macbeth was shielding somebody!”

“Who was he shielding?” I asked.

“Mrs. Macbeth, of course,” she said. “He thought she did it and he was going to take the rap himself. The husband always does that when the wife is suspected.”

“But what,” I demanded, “about the sleepwalking scene, then?”

“The same thing, only the other way around,” said my companion. “That time she was shielding him. She wasn’t asleep at all. Do you remember where it says, ‘Enter Lady Macbeth with a taper’?

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, people who walk in their sleep never carry lights!” said my fellow-traveler. “They have a second sight. Did you ever hear of a sleepwalker carrying a light?”

“No,” I said, “I never did.”

“Well, then, she wasn’t asleep. She was acting guilty to shield Macbeth.”

“I think,” I said, “I’ll have another brandy,” and I called the waiter. When he brought it, I drank it rapidly and rose to go. “I believe,” I said, “that you have got hold of something. Would you lend me that ‘Macbeth’? I’d like to look it over tonight. I don’t feel, somehow, as if I’d ever really read it.”

“I’ll get it for you,” she said. “But you’ll find that I am right.”

I read the play over carefully that night, and the next morning, after breakfast, I sought out the American woman. She was on the putting green, and I came up behind her silently and took her arm. She gave an exclamation.

“Could I see you alone?” I asked, in a low voice.

She nodded cautiously and followed me to a secluded spot. “You’ve found out something?” she breathed.

“I’ve found out,” I said, triumphantly, “the name of the murderer!”

“You mean it wasn’t Macduff?” she said.

“Macduff is as innocent of those murders,” I said, “as Macbeth and the Macbeth woman.” I opened the copy of the play, which I had with me, and turned to Act II, Scene 2. Here,” I said, “you will see where Lady Macbeth says, ‘I laid their daggers ready. He could not miss ’em. Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done it.’ Do you see?”

“No,” said the American woman, bluntly, “I don’t.”

“But it’s simple!” I exclaimed. “I wonder I didn’t see it years ago. The reason Duncan resembled Lady Macbeth’s father as he slept is that it actually ‘was her father!”

“Good God!” breathed my companion, softly.

“Lady Macbeth’s father killed the King,” I said, “and, hearing someone coming, thrust the body under the bed and crawled into the bed himself.”

“But,” said the lady, “you can’t have a murderer who only appears in the story once. You can’t have that.”

“I know that,” I said, and I turned to Act II, Scene 4. “It says here, ‘Enter Ross with an old Man.’ Now, that old man is never identified and it is my contention he was old Mr. Macbeth, whose ambition it was to make his daughter Queen. There you have your motive.”

“But even then,” cried the American lady, “he’s still a minor character!”

“Not,” I said, gleefully, “when you realize that he was also one of the weird Sisters in disguise!”

“You mean one of the three witches?”

“Precisely,” I said. “Listen to this speech of the old man’s. ‘On Tuesday last, a falcon towering in her pride of place, was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.’ Who does that sound like?”

“It sounds like the way the three witches talk,” said my companion, reluctantly.

“Precisely!” I said again.

“Well,” said the American woman, “maybe you’re right, but-”

“I’m sure I am,” I said. “And do you know what I’m going to do now?”

“No,” she said. “What?”

“Buy a copy of ‘Hamlet,'” I said, “and solve that!”

My companion’s eye brightened. “Then,” she said, “you don’t think Hamlet did it?”

“I am,” I said, “absolutely positive he didn’t.”

“But who,” she demanded, “do you suspect?”

I looked at her cryptically. “Everybody,” I said, and disappeared into a small grove of trees as silently as I had come.