12 October 2012

Crazy, But That's How It Goes

Crazy to Kill
Ann Cardwell [pseud. Jean Makins Pawley]
Winnipeg: Harlequin, 1949

One of the earliest Harlequin paperbacks – the twenty-second to be exact – for years I'd all but ignored Crazy to Kill. Oh, the cover is memorable, but no more so than Corpse on the Town and so very many others from the publisher's early years. What encouraged me to at long last delve into this mystery novel was the recent discovery that "Ann Cardwell", Jean Makins Perkins (1902-1966), lived her life in Stratford, Ontario, a mere twenty kilometres from my home.

Vernon's City of Stratford Directory for the Year 1905 to1906
Hamilton: Henry Vernon, 1905
As the rebellious, eccentric daughter of Supreme Court Justice J.C. Makins – once of Makins and Hanley, Barristers, Etc. – Mrs Perkins enjoyed an obvious advantage over most mystery novelists. What's more, writing seems to have been in her blood; James Reaney was a distant younger cousin. Though the two never met, the poet and playwright would one day turn Crazy to Kill into a well-received opera.

Yes, an opera.

Reaney once described Crazy to Kill as a "book about Stratford", a statement that I'm at a loss to explain. The novel takes place entirely at Resthome, a mental institution catering to the wealthy just outside the fictional town of Fairburn, New York. Our narrator, elderly spinster Agatha Lawson, has been a patient for ten uneventful years. However, just as her release looks imminent, bad things begin to happen. First, young John Lennox, the son of the head doctor, is found unconscious at the bottom of a gravel pit. Nurse Jones nearly succumbs to strangulation. Nurse Zimmerman lies in the glow of a pink bed light, "her pretty throat cut from ear to ear."

The bodies really begin piling up. The problem is that they are just that: bodies. Cardwell's greatest weakness is that she has difficulty giving flesh to characters. The most notable exception is Agatha Lawson herself. For an explanation as to why our narrator stands out so we look to cousin James who frustrates in telling us that the author "felt an identity with Angela Lawson."

Whatever does he mean?

The Harlequin edition of Crazy to Kill promises a clever novel laced with black humour:
Here is a gory, murder-filled mystery story, yet so amusingly told that the reader will constantly chuckle - when he is not shuddering!
And at times it delivers:
The jagged edges of the stone had done awful things to Tim's skull. Lieutenant Hogan said that it had taken a great deal of strength to bash in Tim's head because of its extreme thickness.
But for the most part the humour amounts to nothing more than a series of scenes in which a little old lady, Agatha, bests and belittles a none too bright detective.

In promising a melange of gore and chuckles, Harlequin misses the big selling point: Here we have a psychological mystery, set in what one character uncharitably calls "a nut house," told by one of its patients. Crazy to Kill certainly has its moments, and in those moments one can see a better novel within. But let's remember that this the author's debut and look forward to her maturing talent.

Cousin James suggests we'll be disappointed. 

Object and Access: Harlequin's sexagenerian paperbacks are really holding up well, and Crazy to Kill is no exception. The six copies currently listed online – US$9.50 to $21.00 – should easily survive a reading.

There have been a number of other editions, beginning with the 1941 first edition from Mystery House. "Publication was delayed for some time because the first proofs were lost with the sinking of the S.S. Athenia", reported the Stratford Beacon-Herald.

After that we have an illustrated folio published in 1942 by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Crestwood Publishing's 25¢ Black Cat paperback from 1944, a French translation (A Lier – Gallimard, 1964) and a nearly impossible to find Swedish translation (Mördaren går ronden – Wahlström, 1967).

Beginning at one American buck, the 1962 Macfadden edition is the cheapest. It's pitch is just as misleading as its sexy cover: "The nurses and doctors huddled together like frightened sheep – only the patients were not alarmed at finding a killer in their midst!"

J.F. Norris has written a very entertaining piece on the mess that is the Uni-Books edition.

The most recent, first published in 1989 by Nightwood Editions, is still in print. It has a very fine Introduction by James Reaney, but is a sloppily edited thing wrapped in a cover that is... um, not to my taste:

Our public libraries really fail us with Crazy to Kill – only that serving the good folks of Toronto comes through (one copy of the Nightwood edition). The Stratford Public Library, a five minute walk from the author's childhood home (below), does not carry the novel.

The Makins House
126 Mornington Street, Stratford Ontario


  1. For once I've actually read a Canadian mystery before you have! Thanks for the plug, too. I thought this absolutely kooky. How apt for a tale set in a mental home, eh? There are two reviews at Mystery*File about this book where my review appears. In fact it was the first one by the extremely knowledgeable collector, fan and reviewer, Bill Deeck which teasingly hints at the surprise ending that influenced me in tracking down a copy to discover just what he meant. I had a chance to see the opera last year in a Toronto production but had to cancel my trip when finding affordable airfare proved fruitless. I was upset - puppets, murder and opera music. How can it go wrong? I may never know.

    1. Yes, you beat me to it... and I'm betting you're ahead of me on Margaret Millar.

      On that subject, I was tempted to mention Millar because her debut novel appeared in the same year as Cardwell's. Another coincidence is that the two were then living in the same pocket of southern Ontario. And then there's Millar's reputation as the queen of psychological mysteries.

      I suppose I recommend Crazy to Kill. Somewhere in there is a very good novel. I thought the ending strong, and only began to believe things might not be quite as Miss Lawson describes until approaching the end. As it should be.

      It seems nearly unbelievable that one could craft an opera from Crazy to Kill (good on Reaney for keeping the title), but the reviews glow. Here's hoping for a revival. I expect I'll see you there.

  2. Everything is wrong with that last cover. How do you do everything wrong? I mean, except in television?

    1. Agreed. It does nothing that a cover it meant to do. The title is fairly legible, I suppose, but just try to make out the author's name. And how about that Introduction by James Reaney? You'd think that'd be a selling point. I suppose the publisher thought otherwise.

      A final comment: I kept expecting a praying soldier to appear.

      He never does.