29 March 2016

Cocking in Bed

The House in Brook Street
Ronald Cocking
London: Hurst & Blackett [1949]
Wives who wish their husbands to fall asleep at a reasonable hour should not allow them to take this title to bed; it is one of the 'to be read at a sitting' variety, and liable to bring about marital crisis.
– Bruce Graeme, jacket copy for The House in Brook Street
Started in bed, moved to an armchair and ended up on the living room couch. I fell asleep several times. All in all it was very disappointing. I'm ashamed to say I paid for it.

My third Cocking, The House in Brook Street opens at Washington's Hotel Statler on the evening of V-J Day. Our hero and narrator, Inspector George Crawley of Scotland Yard, emerges from an elevator; that it isn't referred to as a "lift" is the novel's first and greatest surprise. George has been in the United States for three years, on loan to the FBI in its battle against wartime counterfeiting and the illegal transfer of bonds. Over a celebratory drink, G-Man pal Barney asks about future plans.
          "What'll you do now? Go back to England, I suppose?"
          "I suppose."
George isn't what you'd call a man of action, which may explain why he's never responded to G-Gal Norma Jean Travers' flirtations. A week after V-J Day she tries one last time, sitting on the corner of his desk, "one nylon leg crossed over the other," before giving up and seeing George off on the train that will take him to New York, the Queen Mary and, eventually, dear old London.

Aboard train, a beautiful blonde named Brenda Walsh asks to share his private compartment. He watches as she fiddles with her purse, and then their coffee cups. "I began to feel nervous," reports George. The coffee tastes bitter. His final thought before losing consciousness: "I had fallen for the oldest trick in the world."

George is revived by a porter – "My, my sah! You sho' do sleep heavy!" – to find that the compartment has been ransacked. Though he recognizes that someone at the Bureau has leaked his itinerary, George proceeds as planned, checking into the hotel at which he has a reservation.

Wouldn't want to lose that deposit.

George sees that he's being trailed by a cream-coloured 1942 Chrysler, but that doesn't prevent him from stopping in on his pal Lou Rogers, a captain in the NYPD. Lou reminds George that he promised to give him a glossy of Scotland Yard. After that, it's off to a penthouse overlooking Central Park, where Jacob B. Rand – "The Rand! Rand's First National Bank of New York!" – thanks him for catching a counterfeiter, then drones on about his enthusiasm for something called the Society of the Friends of Peace. Rand sends George back to the hotel in a cream-coloured 1942 Chrysler, something our hero dismisses as an "odd coincidence." His room has been ransacked.

The next day, aboard the Queen Mary, George picks up a newspaper and reads this:

"That's what you have to get used to in America", George tells us. "Anything can happen there – and usually does."

It was at this point that I lost what little faith I had left in George. Nothing that followed caused me to reconsider –  not even Scotland Yard's remarkable belief in their man.

Back in London, George is promoted to Chief Inspector and entrusted with security for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, scheduled to take place – as it did – on 10 January 1946 in London. Barney and Norma Jean arrive in town to ensure the safety of the American delegates. Good thing, too, because their English friend proves himself entirely inept. Twice he's lured to meet strangers who offer undisclosed information, twice he's warned that the meeting is suspicious, and twice he's ambushed. His worst beating comes after Brenda Walsh, the very same woman who slipped the Mickey Finn on the Washington-New York train, asks to meet him in Place Pigalle:
"The Place Piguelle!" I said."That's a hell of a place to meet anybody."
     "I know," she said, "but we've got go to a house near there. I'll explain when I meet you."
     "All right," I said. "I'll take your word for it. See you at eight."
After that particular ambush, George forgets to retrieve the gun that was knocked from his hand.

Cocking forgets, too.

The author's debut, The House in Brook Street is set in an odd world in which a policeman specializing in counterfeiting and financial fraud is tasked with ensuring the safety of hundreds of the world's most important politicians, ambassadors and bureaucrats. George has no staff and meets with no one other than Barney and Norma Jean. He never visits Central Hall Westminster, at which the General Assembly is to take place.

At some point, George is reassigned. We don't know when exactly – he keeps it from us for a while – but I'm willing to accept his story. It seems that banker Jacob B. Rand and his Society of the Friends of Peace friends are up to something, and because George has met Rand... well, who better to figure things out? No one knows just what Rand and the SFP have in mind except that it's being cooked up in the Society's house on... er, in Brook Street, and will take place on the very day the General Assembly is to convene. Sadly, George proves himself to be just as ineffective as ever. Frustrating as it is for the reader, it does include this pretty great passage:
I once read in a book that one of the chief requirements of a novel was that it should have Dramatic Unity. Well, I suppose that in a piece of fiction you can organize things so that the action is smooth-flowing and that the bits and pieces all fuse together in a nice, complete whole.
     My trouble is that I've got to set the facts down just as they happened (and anyway I'm a policeman, not a writer). So I've got to ruin the Dramatic Unity of the story by skipping three weeks or so. Why? Well, simply because the whole case came to a complete standstill.
A serious alcoholic, Barney is of no help. Norma Jean spends all her time cooking for the men, making pots of coffee and changing outfits. As the day of the General Assembly draws near, the trio are kidnapped by Rand. For no good reason, the banker tells them all about his plans for murdering foreign delegates. A forged document will convince the world that the orders came from Downing Street. World War Three will begin with a new Axis led by "fanatical Nazis in hiding in the Bavarian Alps."

That's Rand's plan, anyway.

Convinced that they have no hope of escape, George, Barney and Norma Jean while away the hours playing cards until, quite by chance, they're rescued. 

Really. That's what happens. I didn't dream it.

Favourite sentence:
It was so obvious that the only excuse which I can make for not seeing it before is that I had a lot of things on my mind.
Trivia: The House in Brook Street follows Jane Layhew's Rx for Murder as the second novel read in five months to feature "nigger in the woodpile", an expression I swear I'd never before encountered.

The novel's lone black character is the  railway porter mentioned above. A helpful soul, the last we see him is when Crawley's train arrives in New York:
"We is pullin' out ob dis bay in two minutes, sah." He was looking at me curiously.
     I looked around. Miraculously, my bags were packed and ready.
     "That's fine," I said, "thanks a lot." I gave him five dollars and his shining black face split in a huge grin.
Object and Access: A compact 224 pages in rose-coloured boards. The cover illustration is uncredited. Excited by the opening scenes of Cocking's Die With Me, Lady, in 2012 I purchased my copy for £35 from a bookseller in Winterton, Lincolnshire. The pages were uncut.

The rear flap announces Cocking's second novel, High Tide is at Midnight (1950), which I read and reviewed here two years ago. In turn, the High Tide is at Midnight dust jacket reports that The House in Brook Street has enjoyed three printings. Surprising. I see just one copy of The House in Brook Street being offered for sale online. The UK bookseller provides this description: "Book Condition: Acceptable. Foxing/tanning to edges and/or ends. No dust jacket. Pages tanned. Staining/marking to cover. Staining/marking to pages/page edges. Wear/marking to cover." Price: £74.57.

It's not worth considering.

Not a trace in Canadian libraries, I'm afraid. American cousins will find one lonely copy at Boston University. My English cousins are served by Oxford University and the British Library.

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14 March 2016

Desperately Seeking Violet

Do Evil in Return
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell [1951]

Two men are in love with Charlotte Keating. It's easy to see why. Beautiful, intelligent, confident and caring, Charlotte is the complete package. She has her own medical practice and just last year bought an expansive house complete with sweeping city and harbour views of Salinda, California. Gossipy Nurse Schiller doesn't think much of Dr Keating's after-hours attire – picture hats, sheer dresses and high-heeled pumps – but that's just jealousy speaking.

The real black mark against Charlotte is found in the form of married lawyer Lewis Ballard. You can't quite accuse them of running around; they're far too discrete. They spend most of their time together at Charlotte's house. He parks himself in a large leather chair as she stands staring out her large living room picture window at the lights below. The bedroom doesn't come into play. One year in, they've yet to consummate their relationship.

Sex enters the novel on the first page when young Violet O'Gorman arrives at Charlotte's practice. Four months pregnant by a man who is not her estranged brute of a husband, she's desperate and lays it all out on the line:
"I – oh, doctor, please. You've got to help me."
     "I'm sorry I can't, not in the way you mean."
     The girl let out a cry of despair. "I thought – I thought being you was a woman like me – being you –"
     "I'm sorry," Charlotte said again.
     "What can I do? What can I do with this – this thing growing inside of me, growing and growing, and me with no money and no job and no husband. Oh, God, I wish I was dead!" She struck her thighs with both fists. "I'll kill myself!"
     "You can't, Violet. Stop now and be sensible."
Words of a woman who by all appearances has always had it together to a woman whose life is in chaos. It's an interesting part of the novel in that there is a subtle implication that Charlotte does indeed perform abortions, but is trying to be cautious. The first mystery here is just how Violet, a girl from Ashley, Oregon, ended up in her Southern California office. Charlotte is trying to get at the answer when Lewis phones and Violet bolts.

Charlotte isn't really so concerned about the mystery as she is about Violet; her evening with Lewis is ruined as a result. After he returns home to his wife, she visits the address Violet gave Nurse Schiller to find the girl missing. Step-uncle Clarence Voss tells Charlotte that his niece must've gone to a movie or something. It's all very suspicious.

Violet's body is washed ashore the next day. Lieutenant Easter, the detective assigned to the case, tells Charlotte that the girl was a suicide, though you never quite feel he believes it.

This reader didn't believe it. I was certain Violet didn't kill herself if only because I knew that Do Evil in Return followed Experiment in Springtime (1947), It's All in the Family (1948) and The Cannibal Heart (1949), marking Millar's return to writing mysteries.

You'd think she'd never been away. Do Evil in Return ranks amongst Millar's best novels, which is to say that it is just a hair's breath above the average Millar novel. She was that consistent. Scenes stay, as do the characters. It says much about her talent that one of the most fully drawn examples of the latter is an inessential figure we meet just twice: Roy H. Coombs, a pudgy motel manager who finds escape in reading romance comic books of the sort aimed at teenage girls.

On the subject of romance, Lieutenant Easter follows Lewis as the second man to fall for Charlotte. His aggressive pursuit of the doctor would be deemed inappropriate and unprofessional today.

Times change.

For the life of me, I couldn't understand how it was that so attractive a woman as Charlotte hadn't been able to find a mate. My wife suggests that the post-war male might have found her intelligence, her confidence and her independence intimidating.

Times change.

Poor Violet.

Object: A 192-page classic Dell, complete with map back. The cover is by Bill Fleming, the artist who will always be remembered for this:

I'm not sure what to think of his illustration for Do Evil in Return. Does it not look like poor Violet has a beard?

Access: Only eight of our university libraries hold copies. Library and Archives Canada also has one, as does the public library in Kitchener, the author's hometown.

Do Evil in Return was first published by Random House in 1950, with paperbacks from Dell, Lancer and Avon following. Paired with my favourite Margaret Millar novel, An Air That Kills, it was last published ten years ago by Stark House. Syndicate Books is rereleasing Do Evil in Return as an ebook next month.

As with most Millars, Do Evil in Return has enjoyed a number of translations: French (Rendons le mal pour le mal), German (Wie du mir), Italian (Inganno per quattro), Spanish (Pagarás con maldad), Finnish (Pahan valta) and Japanese (悪意の糸). Google translates the Polish title, Pięknym za nadobne as Tit for Tat.

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07 March 2016

The Paper Version (for Robert W. Chambers fans)

Every so often I'm asked about the difference between this blog and my Dusty Bookcase column in Canadian Notes & Queries. The answer is that I save all the really good stuff for the magazine.

I kid.

In truth, the CNQ pieces are longer and generally focus on books about which I'm particularly passionate. Case in point, last summer's column on Arthur Stringer's 1921 roman à clef The Wine of Life. The tragic love story shared by the author Owen Storrow and wife Jobyna Howland Torrie Thorssel, I've come to think of it as the most depressing Canadian novel ever written.

The Pittsburgh Press, 24 October 1921
Illustration by James Montgomery Flagg
Regular readers of this blog will recognize my enduring interest in the Stringers, their good looks, Jobyna's acting career, Arthur's precognition, and the time the world thought they had died in an oil stove explosion.

Well, now you can read last summer's piece on The Wine of Life – all 1383 words – here at the newly revamped CNQ website.

Go on. You know you want to. Who doesn't want to read about a novel so horribly depressing that it will haunt your days?

Publishers Weekly, 28 May 1921
Subscriptions to Canadian Notes & Queries – a mere $20! – are available through the website. 

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