Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Devil's Stronghold: Review

The Devil's Stronghold is my first Colonel John Primrose and Grace Latham mystery by Leslie Ford.  Zenith (Jones) Brown wrote may mysteries under three pseudonyms (Leslie Ford, David Frome, and Brenda Conrad) with the bulk of them written as Ford.  My initial foray into Brown's work was with Homicide House written under the name of David Frome and featuring Mr. Pinkerton--that was long before my blogging days, so I don't have clear notes on that experience.  I only know that I wasn't terribly impressed and that probably explains why I put off Stronghold for so long.  Which is quite a shame, because Colonel Primrose and Grace Latham are delightful.  My only complaint about the pair is that Ford waited so long to bring the Colonel into the story.  But I get ahead of myself...


The duo's usual haunts are in Washington D.C. area and often have the air of political intrigue.  This story opens with Grace Latham in D.C., but she receives an urgent letter from an old friend warning her of the doom and destruction destined for Latham's eldest son if she doesn't high-tail it out to Hollywood and stop him  It would seem that Bill Latham has taken up with a young trollop, is ignoring his studies at college and running through money like water at the local gambling dens, and is generally making a complete fool of himself. Grace heads west to sort out her offspring and winds up tangled in a web of Hollywood drama instead.

Her son Bill and his army-buddy (named, most interestingly, Sheep) have "discovered" an up-and-coming young starlet and are attempting to launch her into the deep waters of Hollywood movie success.  Molly McShane is a beautiful, if inexperienced, siren and Grace's friend isn't so much worried about Bill as she is about the effect Molly might be having on her producer husband George "Gee Gee" Gannon.  The boys have convinced Gee Gee to take Molly on and everything seems set for Hollywood's newest star to start shining when Viola Kersey, former Hollywood star herself, bursts on the scene and insists on taking the girl under her wing.  

The next thing we know a string has been tied across the steps leading to Kersey's room and a woman is dead. Was Kersey the target or is there more to the mystery woman than meets the eye? Who is behind the raspy-breathing phone calls that Grace receives from the moment she enters her hotel room?  What about the buried diamond bracelet?  And the burned papers?  Colonel Primrose will have to arrive at the scene and another person will die before we get to the bottom of the mystery.

Grace Latham is a fun character.  She's sort of a blundering, middle-aged Nancy Drew wannabe who draws trouble like a magnet, but, unfortunately, doesn't have the wherewithal to quite figure out all the clues that come her way.  She, like Dr. Watson, has a way of conducting light to her partner in crime-fighting, Colonel Primrose.  Once she tells him all the seemingly innocent (and sometimes not-so-innocent) tidbits that she's picked up in the first half of the story, Primrose is able to put the pieces together and reveal all in a grand finale worthy of any good Golden Age detective. 

The writing is straight-forward and laced with humor.  I can always tell a good book by how many quotes I snag from its pages (sampling below).  As long as you're willing to immerse yourself in the 1940s and shove any lurking Politically Correct Police into a closet, it's an enjoyable read.  The book is, of course, a product of its time--we're focused on the white, rich upper-middle-class.  Yes, there are minorities and under-privileged in the book and if you have your modern sensibilities on high-alert then you might have a few issues.  But, honestly,  Brown writes with more sensitivity than a lot of authors from the Golden Age and I don't see how much offense can be taken.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Grace Latham and Colonel Primrose and look forward to the other two from the series I have waiting on the TBR stack.

If you would like a really good, thoughtful post on Zenith Brown and her Latham/Primrose stories, then I suggest you take a peek at Leslie Ford's Fall from Grace by Ralph E  Vaughn over at Book Scribbles.

Quotes: 
Lilac makes on occasion a sound between a sniff and a snot that's as damning as all improper words in the language and, like them, can't be written down. (p. 9)

...it's hard to confine an irrational woman in a rational patter, so I had no idea really what was in her mind. (p. 23)

You're in the democratic West now, lady. Anybody's as good as anybody else as long as he's got the dough to prove it. (Bill Latham, p. 28)

Her Dream Prince, Gee Gee, was, then, and of course still might be, though I'd always thought of a Dream Prince as having more hair and less avoirdupois. (p. 55)

If he hadn't been looking at Phil and had been looking at Viola Kersey he would have been a surprised young man. There was a look of sartled dismay in her face as she realized what she'd done. and she didn't like it. For one instant the appealing little woman looked for all the world like the household variety of virago who's sweet as all get out as long as guests are present and ready to snatch the family bald-headed as soon as the door is closed. (p. 61)

Captain Crawford didn't like the idea of any kind of murder, but he went at it patiently and honestly with none of the stupidity and bombast and rubber-hose technique that Los Angeles crime fiction writers had led me to expect. I'd gotten the impression that unless a gifted amateur in love with the lady got himself almost beaten to a pulp and practically inside the lethal gas chamber before he unmasked the venal and brutalized constabulary, any innocent bystander they could get their hands on was a gone duck. (p. 66)

Mrs. Kersey had not been questioned at all, as far as I knew. She had the air of someone with a story all made up to tell and no one to tell it to. (p. 70)

...he had a fascinating technique of gnashing [his cigar] from one corner of his mouth to the other, as if his teeth were equipped with trolley tracks, and suddenly grabbing it out and gesticulating with it before he jammed it back. (p. 88)

One of the pleasant things about you is that you're entirely predictable because you never learn. I've told you before, and I'm telling you again, that people who murder other people are dangerous to be around. You're charming, my dear, and sometimes you act like an awful fool. Someday it'll be you that doesn't wake up at the foot of some stone steps. Those are terms a first-grader ought to be able to understand--won't you see what you can make of them? (Colonel John Primrose, p. 113-4)

It is only fair to admit, however, that my batting average in the crystal ball league is point, zero, zero, zero. (p. 117)

You can always tell duty. It's what you don't want to do--it's what you fight against inside you. Duty's when you realize how it'll hurt other people and you choose between that and what would be easiest for you. (Molly McShane, p. 125)

CP: Do you have to do murder?
GG: Do we have to do murder? Sure we have to do murder. There are only two subjects--a woman's chastity, and murder. Nobody's interested in chastity any more. Murder's all we got to write stories about. (Colonel Primrose; George Gannon ["Gee Gee"], p. 172)

Challenges: Vintage Mystery Challenge, 150 Plus Reading Challenge, Outdo Yourself, Off the Shelf, Embarrassment of Riches, Mystery and Crime Challenge, Mount TBR, A-Z Mystery Author

1 comment:

Ryan said...

I'm not familiar with this author under any of those names, but I will definetly be on the look out next time I go to the used bookstore.