Nice Book If You Can Get It, Part II

The first entry in what I intended to be an irregular feature proved to be such a success that I’m fast cashing in on it with more books that you’ve probably never heard of and no less probably never will come across unless you are lucky or speak the most beautiful language on Earth.

Reginald Campbell, The Haunting of Katheleen Saunders (1938)

I’m somewhat cheating by including this one on my list as I’m not even sure it’s a mystery. The original edition brands it « A Novel of the East » and it’s certainly accurate as it is set in Asia in the early twentieth century, and concerns itself with the travails of a young Englishwoman – the titular Kathleen Saunders – whose tyrannical spouse got murdered. The latter point certainly accounts for it finding its way to the yellow cover of French mystery imprint Le Masque, but it is definitely not a detective story: there is little investigation and the final revelation is a letdown. So why do I recommend it to you? Well because that’s a hell of a book if you’re into psychological « crime fiction » with both an exotic flavour and a feminist angle and if you wonder how Somerset Maugham or Joseph Conrad would have fared had they tried their hands at the genre. Campbell does a wonderful job with his setting and his characters and delivers a nuanced but not overall very enthusiastic portrayal of the colonials. Kathleen Saunders is a wonderful character and her progression from a passive housewife to a more independent person is well done and so is her burgeoning love story with an elderly but still going strong colonel. This is a book crying out for a reprint – but sadly it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon because of the rather ugly racial stereotypes that while very much of their time will probably put many a modern reader off. Still if you’re the « forgiving/contextualizing » kind it’s a great read and one that’ll stay with you – provided of course that you can find it. While Reginald Campbell’s other books are relatively easy to find, this one is almost extinct, with only two copies being available from AbeBooks and their price is in keeping with their rarity. No such problem however if you speak French as the local edition (« L’Obsession de Katheleen Saunders ») is quite common and because of its lack of reputation much cheaper than the original.

Patrick Laing, Stone Dead (1945) and A Brief Case of Murder (1949)

Amelia Reynolds Long didn’t have much luck with critics either in her lifetime or afterwards. Anthony Boucher repeatedly lambasted her and Bill Pronzini included several of her books in his survey of « alternative classics », Gun in Cheek. Her association with the shlocky Phoenix Press certainly didn’t help her reputation – and yet actually reading her books rather than relying on critical hearsay suggests she may have been done wrong, very wrong. The Patrick Laing books, or at least the two of them that I’ve been able to read, strongly lean in favour of that hypothesis.

Patrick Laing, like Ellery Queen, is both the name of the « author » and that of the main character and narrator. He is a criminology professor in a small American college and often finds himself entangled in criminal cases that he solves brilliantly – but not always joyfully as a feature of the books is that the criminals tend to be more decent persons than their victims. He is smart and compassionate; he is also and most crucially blind. Max Carrados he isn’t however, nor even Duncan MacLain – he’s just a regular guy who cannot see. What makes the books worth reading apart from their clever plots and sometimes innovative murder methods (you won’t look at a letterbox the same way after reading Stone Dead) is how well Reynolds Long handles that perilious device of having a blind man as first-person narrator and detective. Since he cannot see people and things and places Laing cannot describe them – but his remaining senses make up for that. A perfume, the sound of a voice or of footsteps, allow him and the reader to identify a character and get an idea of their personality and state of mind – and sometimes turn out to be major clues. His disability also helps Laing getting to the truth as it prevents him from being fooled by appearances that blind – no pun intended – other people to it. Stone Dead is slightly better than A Brief Case of Murder, but both are worth seeking for the traditional mystery fan. What’s more, the former happens to be quite findable and affordable, with having it for £ 3,99 and Abebooks has a few buyable copies as well. Since it’s not something common with the books in this series I strongly suggest you to seize the occasion while it lasts. You won’t regret it – hopefully. Also, while you’re at it, please visit Richard Simms’s excellent Amelia Reynolds Long tribute site.

To be continued…


Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s