Kate Jackson, queen of the crime fiction bloggers (I hope she is getting that printed on a tshirt), is once again organizing a contest for the year’s best republished crime book. (You can see a post on last year’s event, with many links, here). This is how she introduced the battle of the reprints:
‘The number of publishers reprinting vintage mysteries is on the increase, meaning us lucky devotees are getting access to more and more of the books and authors we want to try. With so many novels and short story collections on offer, it can be hard to pick out the very best, which is where the Reprint of the Year Awards come in.’
A group of seven bloggers is taking part, and there will be a public vote, along with the chance for anyone to nominate a reprint that should be considered.
Last Saturday we revealed our first choices: mine is here, and Kate rounded up all the entries here. Today we write about our second choices.
Then: 22nd/23rd December Kate will set up a poll for this award, listing the 14 titles chosen, as well as 3 readers’ choices. You can vote for your favoured titles then.
30th December As the year draws to a close Kate will reveal the results of the poll, announcing the title which has won the accolade of Reprint of the Year!
Full details over at Kate’s blog, and that’s where you should go to add your own choice of title to the list.
My book today is:
Masks Off at Midnight by Valentine Williamsfirst published 1934
re-published in a rather mysterious form: not clear who the publisher is! But the date is given as Nov 2019
This is the first book by this author I have read – it is no. 3 in a series featuring Sgt Trevor Dene. I didn’t look up any more details before I read it, and afterwards was surprised to find that Williams was not American. The book is set in New York state, and Sgt Dene is visiting from the UK, but I somehow assumed this was an American series. But it is not: Williams was very much British. His Dene books seem to have been traditional Golden Age detective novels, though he also wrote many books which are proper old-school ‘international thrillers’ about spies and villains and with such features as young women caught up in adventures, and a gold box containing a list of secret agents. (The one I fancy most is called The Pigeon House, and is described thus: The novel begins in Paris on the wedding night of Sally and Rex Garrett. Rex mysteriously disappears: this turns out to have everything to do with his past service in the French Foreign Legion. The action then moves to Spain...)
But – like basing judgement on one dance on Strictly Come Dancing, or one cake on the Great British Bake Off, and only that one – I can only judge him on this one book, which was very much a straight murder story set among the moneyed classes in a small American town on Long Island.
The centrepiece is a masked ball – regular readers of the blog will know that this in itself was more than enough reason for me to read it, I do love fancy dress and masquerades - and there is a very unpopular character, evil businessman and despoiler of women, who has been denied an invitation. He swears he will make it into the Ball, one way or another, and even places a bet on it. Well if everyone is in disguise, surely he can sneak in….?
Any crime fan will guess who will end up dead, and that - given the disguises - at some point there will be discussion of whether or not the right victim was killed. And many many people have been given motives to get rid of the bad businessman – most of them are based on snobbery of one kind or another, and occasionally that was hard to take, but I decided to give Williams the benefit of the doubt.
There was a wide range of characters, and the author concentrated on each of them for a short time, and painted vivid and sympathetic portraits of them, even if some of the seemed unappealing to start with. Everyone had their foibles and their strengths and weaknesses – it was very well done. And the detection was careful and detailed, involving who was where when – but without falling into the trap of making it boring. (What Brad Friedman wonderfully calls ‘wallowing in the Marshes’, after the main perpetrator of the dire middle section). The small-town life was well done: the ruling families, the exclusive clubs, the fancy lunches – and the feel of a world that is changing in the 1930s.
It certainly tempts me to read more by him. There were also very excellent clothes descriptions, and Williams wrote very well about women (with the caveat again that some of the attitudes are – all together now – ‘very much of their time’. I always say that.)
So there were many great features, but the best of them all was the masked ball. Valentine Williams was a war correspondent and soldier, who went on to be a foreign correspondent covering events such as the finding of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt. Those careers must have sharpened his descriptive abilities: I loved this description of the ball:
In a confusion of voices that at times drowned the strains of the orchestra posted in the musicians’ gallery, courtiers and great ladies in powder and patches, white-wigged officers in laced coats, Watteau shepherdesses and dairymaids, harlequins and columbines of the old Italian comedy, pierrots and pierrettes, cardinals in scarlet and gay abbés knee-breeched in black satin, thronged the floor in and out of couples valiantly attempting to dance. The immense room, flood-lit from behind the cornice so that the scarred flags seemed to hang in sunshine, was all in movement. With its shifting mass of colour it was like a patchwork quilt come to life. The dull sheen of cloth of gold and silver, nodding ostrich plumes, scarlet and green and white: the glitter of tinsel: the gleam of armour—colour and sparkle everywhere, tossing to and fro.
Couples that turned and turned to the bray of saxophone and thump of drum: couples in garbs grotesquely contrasted promenading arm in arm: fantastic figures which, under the spell of the masquerade, leaped and cavorted alone, amid peals of laughter: a jester who, bells jingling, sped from group to group, accompanied by little squeals and cries and the resounding thwack of the bladder he wielded. Everyone was masked. Masks, black or white or coloured, dotted the whole face of the picture…cast[ing] a strange air of anonymity over the assemblage. The mask dominated the night…releasing high spirits and the urge to be gay from the shackles of everyday conventions.
The revellers were everywhere. They swarmed in the vast yellow drawing-room, where the pop of champagne corks and the rattle of cutlery proclaimed that the buffet was situated, and in the rooms that led off it: on the opposite side of the dance floor their shouts and laughter resounded from the Chippendale dining-room temporarily converted into the bar: and through the line of tall windows, opened on the jewelled summer night…
I am always claiming that crime writers introduce masked or fancy dress parties into their books, then don’t do enough with them. But this book is the exception, and that (along with the excellent crime plot) is why I put it forward for your consideration as one of the best reprints of the year.
The top photo of a masked person was taken by my favourite photographer, PerryPhotography, in Venice.
The next picture is called Death and the Masks, is by James Ensor, and is from the Athenaeum website.(James Ensor seems, btw, to have had a thing about painting pictures that involve masks).
Then there is a photo from the German Federal Archives, showing young women getting ready for a ball in Berlin in 1934 - other side of the world, same year: I saw a fellow feeling.
Final picture is The Costume Ball by Max Freidrich Rabes from The Athenaeum.