Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

Time for more old-time TV!  Checkmate was a 1960-62 series about a detective agency of the same name based in San Francisco.  Don Corey (Anthony  George ) and Jed Sills (Doug McClure) out of Corey’s plush apartment, and employ Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot), noted criminology professor, as a consultant.  The agency specialized in attempting to thwart crimes that had yet to be committed.

Checkmate

I watched two episodes on DVD:

  • “The Human Touch” :  The focus is on Dr. Hyatt, as a master criminal (Peter Lorre) he caught years ago is out of prison and wants revenge.  The two men are both very proud of their brains, and we get a lot of cat and mouse dialogue as they try to outsmart each other.  The revenge plan is nifty, but fails due to the title factor.  A fun episode!
  • “Nice Guys Finish Last”:  A more somber story, in which the Checkmate regulars play only a small part.  Instead, the main character is a police lieutenant who is denied promotion because of his obsession with a certain wealthy man about town.  (The man may have even directly intervened to quash the promotion.)  The wealthy man hires Checkmate to protect him from the police detective.   When the lieutenant has an opportunity fall into his lap to destroy his enemy, he takes it,, much to his cost.  An interesting aspect of the story is that it is never proven the rich man did anything wrong, even the one thing that set the policeman on his trail in the first place.  He just acts like a dirtbag, and I for one wanted him to be brought down.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard was a 1955 British series starring Boris Karloff as the eccentric head of the Department of Queer Complaints at Scotland Yard.  The premise was based on a book by John Dickson Carr, a master of locked room mysteries.  March wore an eyepatch (never explained) and was a playful chap who enjoyed a good puzzle.  Sadly, most of the episodes have been lost.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

The episode I saw was “Error at Daybreak.”  As it happens, Colonel March is on holiday at the seashore, and reading a book on “The Psychology of Crustaceans” when a millionaire with a weak heart dies nearby.  The body is lodged between rocks and impossible to move, but March discovers blood by the corpse, and a mysterious sharp metal rod on the ground nearby.  March suspects murder rather than heart attack, a suspicion given credence when the corpse disappears before the police proper arrive.  The real solution lies in a little boy’s rubber ball.  Pleasant, but not Karloff’s best work.

I’m the Law ran in 1953, and starred George Raft as New York Police Lieutenant George Kirby.  Kirby had been a stage dancer before joining the police force, and never carried a gun.  Mr. Raft’s career was in a steep decline at the time, and was one of the first big-name film stars to be reduced to steady work in television as opposed to special guest appearances.

I'm the Law

Still, the series benefited from his tough-guy air and screen presence.  My DVD had three episodes.

  • “The Cowboy and the Blind Man Story”:  Kirby is contacted by a singing cowboy star (loosely modeled on Roy Rogers) to investigate a stalker of the singer’s current girlfriend.  That lady turns out to be a sharpshooter and fully capable of taking care of herself.  Except a shot comes in through her window, just missing her.  In the office of a blind record promoter across the street, the stalker turns up dead of lead poisoning.  Could be the sharpshooter, but her guns don’t match the bullet.  So who?  Pretty obvious to the genre-savvy.
  • “O Sole Mio”:  A boy’s father is gunned down in Central Park, with only the boy and an organ grinder as witnesses, and the organ grinder was looking the wrong way at the time.  Kirby takes the boy under his wing before the kid gets too far down the road to becoming Batman, and discovers the father had a taste for the horses and too much money for his day job.  The idea of a police woman is treated with some disbelief by the boy, and a subplot involving a seedy newsstand vendor and a juvenile delinquent turns out to be an entire red herring.
  • “The Trucking Story”:  A dockworker is killed in what is reported as an accident, but is pretty clearly an “accident.”  An elderly peddler who was friends with the dockworker calls on Kirby to investigate beyond the official report.  Kirby goes undercover and discovers that the shipping company is sending more than glassware to China.  The dockworker’s union is seen protecting its members from  abusive behavior by the bosses (one of the reasons the death had to be an “accident.”)

It’s an okay series, but relies a bit too heavily on eccentric minor characters to play off the strait-laced George Raft role.

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