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.

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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.

Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Némirovsky does it again. Another repugnant main character, who nonetheless raises our sympathy. Another example of stereotype reflecting reality. To begin with I was horrified, as I was supposed to be, by this creature who is utterly trapped by her fear of aging. She has nothing to live for other than the impossible task of preserving her physical beauty, life for her is literally no more than how other people see her. One wants to say, at least things aren’t like that any more. But they are, of course.

At the extreme end, I know various extremely wealthy women whose fears are the same as Gladys’s. They have retreated from public life as their looks fade. Some of them have husbands who have mistresses on the side, have sired children with them even. They are willing to put up with the humiliation of this, rather than lose the prestige of their positions. Gladys has more pride than this. The idea of marrying and inevitably becoming this sort of woman is one she rejects despite the costs. It is those costs that make the meat of this tale.

The book is about not only Gladys, but also the utterly repulsive society that breeds such a creature. If this had been Nick’s millieu, I shouldn’t think he would have found so much as one exception to his condemnation of the rotten bunch.

If you are looking for some sort of Austenesque genteel teasing of her world, this is not it. This is the dark side. Enter if you dare!

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

A victory of style if ever there was one. Immersed in the beauty of his prose, the way in which he presents his world, the timing of his humour, one scarcely notices the storyline, and I use that word advisedly.

As it happened, style’s been uppermost in my mind lately while editing a friend’s autobiographical ms. In her attempt to find her style she has resorted to a heavy-handed use of The Rhetorical Comma. Eventually they began to enrage me. I pictured lining them up in front of a firing squad and obliterating them with bullets. I began viciously stabbing at them. Her ms. is now covered in angry crosses and one word spat out over and over, as if out of a Dalek. Omit. Omit. Omit.

My friend doesn’t seem to understand that she already has the style she thinks she has to further impress upon the reader. This additional spoonfeeding is unnecessary. The arrangement of the words on the page tells the reader how to read them.

I could not help thinking, as I read Farewell My Lovely, that Chandler understood this. He does, in fact, use The Rhetorical Comma, but almost exclusively very early on. I expect he knew that all he had to do is put the idea of it into the reader’s head.

I cannot imagine how one could start reading this book and not keep right on at it to the end.

It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all negro. I had just come out of a three-chair barber shop where an agency though a relief barber named Dimitrios Aleidis might be working. It was a small matter. His wife said she was willing to spend a little money to have him come home.

I never found him, but Mrs Aleidis never paid me any money either.

It was a warm day, almost the end of March, and I stood outside the barber shop looking up at the jutting neon sign of a second floor dine and dice emporium called Florian’s. A man was looking up at the sign too. He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. He was about ten feet away from me. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.

Slim quiet negroes passed up and down the street and stared at him with darting side glances. He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough grey sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated grey flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of coloured feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn’t really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

His skin was pale and he needed a shave. He would always need a shave. He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his thick nose. His ears were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that grey eyes often seem to have. He stood like a statue, and after a long time he smiled.

How can a movie capture this? I took a look at the Mitchum version last night and the fact is, it doesn’t. If you’ve started off with the movie, don’t let that put you off. The book is splendid.

PS: My copy of the red Penguin edition has no comma in the title. The green Penguin does.

Is it Farewell My Lovely? Or Farewell, My Lovely? Looking at the pictures of covers online, it seems to be evenly divided between one and the other. I see the dust-jacket of the first edition has a comma, which makes it more likely, though not a sure thing, to be correct.

Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith and The Geneva Trap by Stella Rimington


Those Who Walk Away

This was a fine way to while away some sick time, but I would not say it was her best. Fortunately a less than superior offering by Highsmith is so very much better than most people’s pinnacle of achievement. I found myself unconvinced by the motivation/character of Ray, the main character, or Coleman’s, his adversary. Not once did either of them – or anybody in the story – feel real to me. I’ve seen this referred to somewhat apologetically as being from an experimental period of development in her writing and then again, as a masterpiece.

Seriously? The only way this could be considered a masterpiece was if Stella Rimington were able to add it to her oeuvre. But then it wouldn’t be so much as masterpiece as a miracle. Some sort of proof of the existence of God.

The Geneva Trap

This is so badly written, I’m astonished to find it is a late number in a series. People tried one and came back for more? I managed twenty pages, each more excruciating than the one before.

On the back cover the Wall Street Journal is quoted as saying the author makes a bid for the ranks of Le Carre, Greene etc. That’s like saying McDonalds is making a bid for a Michelin star.

Clearly the woman doesn’t know Geneva. She has the dude who kicks the book off wondering whether to stay home to have defrosted pizza for dinner or go out to a local cafe for something more interesting. Everybody knows there is nothing more interesting to eat in Geneva than defrosted pizza.

Creole Belle by James Lee Burke

Recalling the first James Lee Burke I read, which was short stories, I can’t help thinking in his case that less is more. Has he gone the way of so many writers who seem to get to a point where they eschew an editor? I’m not sure why any book by Burke would need over 500 pages, but this one has almost no plot. Even if somebody had trimmed a hundred pages off it, it would still be a story cushioned in a lot more words than warranted. It is painfully repetitive, points that could have been made deftly once, hammered home time and time again. But it seems like an author gets to a point where nobody minds what he does any more. Reputation is everything. This book gets rave reviews which are not deserving.

He’s a wonderful writer. Just for the number of ways he has of describing penises and erections he might get a Pulitzer. The Louisiana setting, the backdrop of music and food and social relations and language are a winner. Clete is one of the great inventions of literature, if you ask me. Every time I read about him I wonder why these books – the ones with Clete in them – haven’t been made into movies. At some point reference is made in Creole Belle to Clete looking like John Goodman, an obvious candidate for the role. I wonder if that was a hint?

Read the book, the good about it is well worth it. Then sign my change.org petition to bring back editors.