Recommendations from the SMSA Crime & Mystery Book Club

This month we recommended books that were published in the decade that members of the club were born. Here they are:

Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich
Written in 1945, when Woolrich was 42 years old. He was an unhappy man who was a homosexual who had a very brief marriage and then lived with his mother until her death in 1957. He then became a recluse. He struggled with diabetes and alcoholism and was quite miserable. However, he could write a cracking yarn full of a sense of doom. The Night Has a Thousand Eyes is about two people who seem to have everything in life but an obsession with death plagues them to the extent that all attempts they make to avoid death leads them right to it. Woolrich delves into the layers of a character, eroding their worldly positions to their instinct to fight, flight or fright, and in this case it is fright.  Well worth a read.

Fletch by Gregory McDonald
Fletch, the investigative journalist who was brought to life by Chevy Chase in the 1985 hit movie, was brought into being in the novel of the same name just over a decade earlier. Written by Gregory MacDonald, I.M. Fletcher, who hates his given names of Irwin Maurice and is known as ‘Fletch’ is a hot-shot reporter for a LA newspaper. At the age of 28 years old, he has two ex-wives, who are demanding alimony, a demanding editor and some military men who want to give him the Bronze Star for his service in Korea. While trying to dodge all these demands on his time, Fletch becomes involved in a scheme to help a man kill himself in a week’s time. The writing is fast, sharp and with an underlying wit. It is dialogue driven as it sketches the circumstances in rapid fire. Upon its’ success MacDonald wrote nine other Fletch novels. However these books were not chronological and jumped all over Fletch’s life, so do not rely on the publishing date for guidance if you like to read them in order of Fletch’s experiences.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins
Published in 1972, The Friends of Eddie Coyle has had a resurgence in popularity and identification as an American crime classic recently with a reissue of the book with a forward by Denis Lehane. Like Lehane, George V Higgins is a Boston writer who focuses on the intricacies of the city’s cultural influences, the American working class and the mix of the criminal world with the police force. Higgins was a lawyer who worked as a legal assistant and a deputy assistant attorney general in Boston from 1967 -69, working his way up to a special assistant US attorney from 1973-74. During this time there was a small gang war between the Irish and Italian criminal networks in Boston, and Higgins prosecuted a number of related murders. Part of his job was to listen to numerous wire taps of suspects, and these hours and hours of conversations directly impacted his writing style. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a short, dialogue driven novel that focuses on a small time criminal Eddie Coyle who is about to go back to jail and is looking for a way out of this fate. He turns informant to try and negotiate his release and the consequences of this decision is the heart of the novel. It is a masterful novel that must have influenced David Simon when he was creating and writing the TV program The Wire. The realism and tone is very similar.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Published in 1939, The Big Sleep revolutionised the crime novel. This article gives insight into why Chandler wrote the way he did.  As the article says, Chandler’s literary hero was Dashiell Hammett, whose crime novels were initially seen as American pulp, and he was captivated by the completely different way of approaching a murder story. The Big Sleep is his most well known story, mainly due to the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movie from 1946. The real life romance of Bogart and Bacall became synonymous with novel and added to the allure of the crime story. Chandler introduced the world to his hardboiled private detective, Philip Marlowe, as well as a first person narrative with short, sharp sentences full of tone and atmosphere.

The story starts with Marlowe being hired by General Sternwood to track down the gambling IOUs and the nude photographs of his younger daughter, Carmen. As Marlowe sets upon his task he becomes more embroiled in the whole family and their activities, especially with Vivian, Carmen’s older sister, who is married to the expatriated and now missing I.R.A. veteran Rusty Regan. How the plot comes together is the subject of many discussions about The Big Sleep. However, this novel is more about the journey than the destination. 

The Little Man from Archangel by George Simenon
First published in English in 1957, this bleak mystery by Belgian Georges Simenon is set in a small market town in France after the Second World War. It is a story of prejudice, isolation and loneliness. It is about an unassuming, physically small man, Jonas Milk, who had come to the town after the war from Russia and had married a promiscuous younger French woman.  Jonas runs the second-hand book shop and puts up with his wife’s habit of going a way for a few days with another man, as she always returns to him. One day Jonas wakes to find that his wife has disappeared and proceeds to lie to his neighbours about her whereabouts. When his wife fails to return, rather than face the truth about his wife’s infidelities, Jonas maintains his lie in the face of his neighbours hostility and accusations and soon spirals into despair.

Jonas’ stance and actions are informed by his experiences during the war. As a Russian Jew, his family was either killed or scattered during the Russian revolution and the Second World War. His choice to settle in the French village was an attempt to replace his family and be accepted into a community. Their subsequent rejection of him because of his wife’s disappearance is devastating to Jonas. Don’t let the bleakness put you off, it is well written and compelling. Georges Simenon was a prolific writer known for his Inspector Maigret stories. This standalone story was written in the middle of his career.

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
We have recommended this novel before back in November 2013. As we said then, Dorothy L. Sayers introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, her amateur gentleman detective, in 1921 in the novel Whose Body? .Busman's Honeymoon is the 13th and last full crime novel she wrote, only completing short stories and leaving an unfinished manuscript upon her death. This novel is set in 1937 during Lord Peter and Harriet Vane's honeymoon at their newly acquired estate in the country where a man is found dead in the cellar. Most of the investigating is left to Harriet as Peter is called to do some work for the Foreign Office. As a writer of crime novels and someone who has assisted Lord Peter in his work before, this is really a Harriet Vane novel. It is an intellectual puzzle like all DL Sayers novels, and if you are a fan of the characters, a good way to see how this relationship is going to work as a marriage. Harriet was introduced in Strong Poison (1930) where she was on trial for the murder of her lover.  She is also part of Have His Carcase (1932) and Gaudy Night (1935), all of which featured their unusual courtship and the duo solving a couple of murder cases. Other Lord Peter novels where written in between these and are pretty much stand alones, except for a reference to the time and place they are set.

The Short Weekend by T. S. Strachan
This novel is an original Green Penguin (crime and mystery series of novels). Not to be mistaken for the 50 Popular Green Penguins issued in the last couple of years reflecting the history and development of crime novels since the 1800s. First published in 1953, it is one of three known novels from Tony Simpson Strachan. The other two being Key Major (1954) and No Law in Illyria – A Novel (1956). It is another book and another writer who is difficult to find any information on. However, it is an original Green Penguin which recommends it as a classic of its time.

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Dark Emerald by Joan Storm
First published in 1951 it was reissued by Black Dagger Crime in 1997. Another British writer, Joan Storm wrote two other novels, Bitter Rubies (1952) and Deadly Diamond (1953). That is all we can find on the internet about this author and this book. Joan Storm is an author with Random House in the UK but there is no current biography for her. The member of the group who read the novel enjoyed it and recommends it as an interesting British crime novel.

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer
Georgette Heyer is known for her Regency romance novels, however she did write quite a few 20th century crime mysteries. Envious Casca (1941) is her second Inspector Hemingway book which is set at Christmas time at Lexham Manor with a limited number of suspects and an investigating detective. This time in the the British cosy crime mystery sub-genre, it is Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard. It is a light book and only should be written if you are into this cosy sub genre.

The Case of The Abominable Snowman by Nicholas Blake
Nicholas Blake is a pseudonym of the British poet laurette Sir Cecil Day Lewis. He wrote this novel in 1941 and is set in the winter around a single house (Easterham Manor) and focused on a number of houseguests and the snow man of the title. It is told in flashback and features Blake's recurring character, amateur detective, Nigel Strangeways who used to be a poet. He is summoned to the Manor to investigate some strange events that ends with an apparent suicide of a young woman. 

This is a Golden Age British cosy crime mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie. It is interesting because of its author rather than its content. 

Mr Jelly's Business by Arthur Upfield
We have written about Australian author, Arthur Upfield previously here. In this novel, his fourth Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) story, published in 1937, Upfield has Bony work incognito as a government employee on a section of the rabbit fence near the wheat town of burracoppin in western Australia. Like most Bony stories Bony’s mixed heritage helps him track the clues on the land and in through watch human behaviour.  

The novel focuses on the disapperance of a farmer, whose car is found smashed along one of the longest fences in the world in Burracoppin in outback Western Australia. As part of his investigation, Bony, meets the unusual Mr Jelly who is an amateur criminologist who collects portraits of murders and provides Bony with some insight into the case. 

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
The Franchise Affair written in 1948, is the third Inspector Alan Grant novel written by Josephine Tey.  However, this story focuses on a mystery that is not solved by Inspector Grant but by a solicitor Robert Blair, who plays amateur sleuth as he tries to find out the truth about the accusations levelled at his client Marion Sharpe and her mother. Marion is a local woman who lives quietly with her mother at their decrepit country house, The Franchise and they are accused of brutally kidnapping a demure young woman named Betty Kane. Who is telling the truth? Betty Kane or Marion Sharpe? That is the crux of the story as it explores class and sexuality.

According to Wikipedia, “Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by Elizabeth mackintosh (25 July 1896 – 13 february 1952) a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels. She also wrote as Gordon Daviot, under which name she wrote plays with an historical theme.”

Murder in The Telephone Exchange by June Wright
US publisher Verse Chorus Press reissued this neglected Australian crime novel in April 2014. Written in 1948, Murder in The Telephone Exchange was June Wright's debut novel and she drew from her own experiences working at the Melbourne Central Telephone Exchange from 1939 to 1941 to create the story and setting. The book was a success and so were who subsequent five novels. According to the Sisters in Crime website, "Wright stopped writing crime fiction to earn a regular salary when her husband Stewart became unable to work. She returned to the telephones, this time at the TAB, where she worked for six years. Stewart later established a cleaning business, and Wright retrained in business to assist him until his death in 1989." However, today her novels are all but forgotten. Thanks to the re-issue from Verse Chorus Press, we have the opportunity to discover these gems.

Murder in The Telephone Exhange features the young telephonist, Maggie Byrnes, who investigates the death of one of her colleagues who is rather disliked.   

1934 Plot by Linda and Gary Cargill
This is book two of the Edward Ware series that is set inbetween the world wars. Published in 2013, it is a novel that is reminiscent of a boys' own adventure story. It name checks famous people from the time as it traverses continents. It is a light and easy read.

The Cargills are married and write this series together. they live in Tuscon, Arizona, USA.  Linda Cargill also writes young adult suspense novels.

 

Joyland by Stephen King
Written in 2013 but set in the 1970s, Joyland merges mystery with a little bit of horror and pulp, and with Stephen King at the wheel there is an expectation of a cracking yarn that is well written. However, the novel hinges on the reader’s acceptance of the carnie world of the North Carolina seaside amusement park. The Joyland of the title. King creates a carnie language that establishes the otherness of the world, bit is also a barrier to enjoying the novel. All that aside, the plot is basic King, Devin Jones, who has just finished his junior year of college has taken a summer job at Joyland. Devin is in the middle of dealing with a break up with his girlfriend and is pondering the meaning of life and his future when he starts to become more interested in the carnie life and the history of Joyland. Which of course reveals the murder of a girl inside the funhouse many years ago. It is a bit Scoobie Doo, but it is Stephen King, so if you are a fan of his. You may enjoy this.