Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Frances and Richard Lockridge, The Faceless Adversary

Frances and Richard Lockridge, The Faceless Adversary
J.P. Lippincott and Co. 1956
© Frances and Richard Lockridge 1956
Available as an ebook and from used booksellers.

John Hayward, having just asked the woman he loves (Barbara Phillips)to marry him, arrives at his apartment, and finds the police waiting for him.  They ask him to come with them, to answer questions about the murder of Nora Evans.  From their questioning, it’s apparent that they believe (with some reason) that he murdered her to get out of his relationship with her.  They do not, at this point, have sufficient evidence to charge him with murder; he is released on bond (of $20,000—something around $150,000 at today’s prices).  Hayward is in his early 30s, a veteran of the Korean War, and an assistant vice-president of a large New York bank.  And things do not look good for him.

He and Barbara find themselves looking for evidence of his innocence (and of someone else’s guilt; the police keep him under surveillance and continue to build a case against him.  And there is a bad-cop (Grady), good-cop (Nathan Shapiro) element to the story.  (This is the first, of ten, books in which Shapiro plays a major role.  He winds up being instrumental in identifying the actual murderer, although it’s hard to call him the lead character.  He has a few walk-on appearances in the Mr. and Mrs. North books, also written by the Lockridges.)

The Lockridges do their usual good job of making the reader see and feel what New York was like (and, in this case, what a part of the Connecticut suburbs were like).  John and Barbara make an attractive couple, and there is a charming secondary character, the Anglican priest, Father Higbee, who both accepts their account of what has happened, but provides them with some insight into the people in his small Connecticut town who are a part of what has happened.

The Lockridges were never really among the top rank of mystery writers in their career (spainng the years from the early 1940s to the late 1970s; Richard carried on as a solo act after Frances’s death in the early ‘60s).  But they were reliable, and their main characters [(the Norths in particular, but also Shapiro and Merton Heimrich (24 books, a state police inspector introduced in the second Mr. and Mrs North book (Murder Out of Turn)] were always likeable.  IThe Faceless Adversary is a good example of their work—solidly plotted, with appealing characters.  I have always found that spending a few hours with thir books time well spent, and The Faceless Adversary is no exception.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Leonard Gribble The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Leonard Gribble The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, reprint edition in the British Library of Crime Classics
2018Poison Pen Press 2018
© Leonard Gribble 1939

A competently done story, with a pretty much faceless protagonist (Chief Inspector Slade).  The murder takes place during a football (soccer) match, between a prominent professional team and what is perhaps the best amateur team in England.  Shortly before the end of the first half, one of the amateurs, John Doyce (who had only recently joined the teeam) collapses, and dies shortly after being carried of the field.  The cause of death turns out to be poison, one of the alkaloids.  Inspector Slade and his assistant, Sergeant Clinton, investigate. 

Almost anyone might have committed the murder--the deceased turns out to be something of a bastard.  And it may be linked to the death, some years before, of a young girl , in a town in which a number of the principals in the story lived or  had business dealings.  But how the murder was committed is at issue.  And it's the "how" that is, in my mind, the weakest part of the narrative.  

The poison has been injected into Doyce's forearm by his being scratched by the dead girl's engagement ring, onto which the poison has been smeared.  This seems quite a hit-and-miss method of murder.  It's unclear how one of the players could have worn the ring (it was, after all, a girl's ring, and she is described as petit.  Carrying the ring in his uniform--do soccer uniforms even have pockets?--would make it difficult to get to.  Opportunity might not have presented itself.  The poison might have been rubbed off the ring.  The amount  \of poison, of necessity, given the method, might have been insufficient to kill him.  Someone might have noticed the murder scratching Doyce.   Quite a number of things might have gone wrong, or rendered the killer without opportunity.

Stylistically, Gribble has a few tics that are annoying, the chief of which is that several characters, but most noticeably Sgt. Clinton "grunt" relatively long passages of dialogue.  Nonetheless, I thought the story was reasonably well-told, even if it does not induce me to seek out any more of Gribble's quite extensive catalog.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Rex Stout Described Nero World, Archie Goodwin, and the brownstone

Rex Stout’s Descriptions of Nero Wolfe,
Archie Goodwin, and Wolfe’s Office

Height 5 ft. 11 in.  Weight 278 lbs. Age 56.

Mass of dark brown hair, very little greying, is not parted but sweeps off to the right because he brushes with his right hand.  Dark brown eyes are average in size, but look smlaller because they are mostly half closed.  They are always aimed straight at the person he is talking to.  Forehead is high.  Head and face are big but do not seem so in proportion to the whole.  Ears rather small.  Nose long and narrow, slightly aquiline.  Mouth mobile and extremely variable; lips when pursed are full and thick, but in tense moments they are thin and their line is long.  Cheeks full but not pudgy; the high point of the cheekbone can be seen from straight front.  Complexion vaies from florid after meals to an ivory pallor late at night when he has spent six hard hours working on someone.  He breathes smoothly and without sound except when he is eating; then he takes in and lets out great gusts of air.  His massive shoulders never slump; when he stands up at all he stands straight.  He shaves every day.  He has a small brown mole above his right cheekbone, halfway between the chin and the ear.

Height 6 feet.  Weight 180 lbs.  Age 32.  Hair is light rather than dark, but just barely decided not to be red; he gets it cut every two weeks, rather short, and brushes it straight back, but it keeps standing up.  He shaves four times a week and grasps at every opportunity to make it only three times.  His features are all regular, well-modeled and well-proportioned, except the nose.  He escapes the curse of being the movie star type only through the nose.  It is not a true pug and is by no means a deformity, but it is a little short and the ridge is broad, and the tip has continued on its own, beyond the cartilage, giving the impression of startling and quite independent initiative.  The eyes are grey, and are inquisitive and quick to move.  He is muscular both in appearance and in movement, and upright in posture, but his shoulders stoop in unconscious reaction to Wolfe’s criticism that he is too self-assertive.

The old brownstone on West 35th Street is a double-wide house.  Entering at the front door, which is seven steps up from the sidewalk, you are facing the length of a wide carpeted hall.  At the right is an enormous coat rack, eight feet wide, then the stairs, and beyond the stairs the door to the dining room.  There were originally two rooms on that side of the hall, but Wolfe had the partition removed and turned it into a dining room forty feet long, with a table large enough for six (but extensible) square in the middle.  It (and all other rooms) are carpeted; Wolfe hates bare floors.  At the far end of the big hall is the kitchen.  At the left of the big hall are too doors; the first is one is to what Archie calls the front room, and the second is to the office.  The front room is used chiefly as an anteroom; Nero and Archie do no living there.  It is rather small, and the furniture is a random mixture without any special character.

The office is big and nearly square.  In the far corner to the left (as you enter from the hall) a small rectangle has ween walled off to make a place for a john and a washbowk—to save steps for Wolfe.  The door leading to it faces you, and around the corner, along the opther wall, is a wide and well-cushioned couch.

In furnishings the room has no apparent unity but it has plenty of character.  Wolfe permits nothing to be in it that he doesn’t enjoy looking at, and that is the only criterion for admission.  The globe is three feet in diameter.  Wolfe’s chair was made by Meyer of cardato.[1]  His desk is cherry, which clashes with the cardato, but Wolfe likes it.  The couch is upholstered in bright yellow material which has to go to the cleaners every six months.  The carpet was woven in Montenegro in the early nineteenth century and has been extensively patched.  The only wall d├ęcor are three pictures: a Manet, a copy of a Correggio, and a genuine Leonardo sketch.  The chairs are all shapes, colors, materials, and sizes.  The office makes you blink with bewilderment at the first view, but if you had Archie’s job and lived there you would probably learn to like it.

[1] What follows is my commentary on one point—the “cardato” of the chair clashing with the “cherry of the desk.
“ 'Cardato' is a woollen fabric consisting of big and hairy yarns, particularly warm and of medium-high weight, therefore ideal for the winter season.
Cardato fabric was the traditional mainstay of the Prato industry from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, especially in its 'regenerated' version. This fibre is obtained by recycling old clothes and production waste into yarn to be spun and woven again.

“From the beginning, wool regeneration met with great success, reducing the costs of raw material and manufacturing and giving rise to a new expert, the rag man, who, through his experience and tactile sensibility, could classify fibres very accurately. After the Second World War, Prato became the world's most important and specialized centre for the collection of rags: more than half of the huge amounts of rags reaching Prato’s warehouses are exported abroad after being graded and packed in bales."

Cardato is still an important part of textile production as it lends itself to creative and diverse processing methods (fantasy yarns, mix of colours) and the environmentally-sustainable regenerated wool is attracting new interest, as it uses textile cut-offs that would otherwise become waste.

It’s not clear to me why or how the chair would have to clash with the chair, as the color of the chair could be almost anything—cardato is the type of fabric, not the color.  Stout had to know this, so whether he chose not to explain further, or all of the cardato fabric he was familiar with would have provided a discordant contrast with the cherry of the desk.