Friday 15 June 2012

A Penguin in Florida?

Reunion in Florida by Tod Claymore
(Penguin green crime fiction- No. 1087 published 1955)

This was one of those books I started because I liked the title. Having lived in Florida for 14 years before I moved to Australia I thought it would be good to revisit it.

I took awhile to get involved in this book. I kept getting distracted with other activities that were non book related as well as picking up and browsing through library items.

Finally after two false starts I sat down and seriously began it. I have read somewhere recently that one should never begin a book unless they can be assured of a good 60 to 90 minutes of uninterrupted time. After that amount of time one should be sufficiently into the book that they can easily pick it up again and remember who the characters are and what is happening.

As far as mysteries go I thought this was a trifle bit lame. It was entertaining enough most of the time though the setting didn't matter. Much of the time I kept thinking it was in England then I'd see the words 'orange blossoms' and 'heat' and I'd remember, "Oh no, this is in Florida."

This book was rather like a good Friday night crime show on the telly when I have a bit of a cold and am in my warmest flannels on a cold winters night with a big mug of hot chocolate.  This book was kind of like the marshmallow.

Hugh Clevely  wrote as
"Tod Claymore"
Tod Claymore was the pseudonym of  Hugh Clevely.  Mr. Clevely was also friends with another author, Edgar Jepson and both of them shared the writer's name of Tod Claymore at times.

It was hard to find much information about him except that he was born 1 January 1898 and died on his birthday, 1 January 1964.  (As I recently heard that 18 % of people supposedly die on their birthdays I took a mental note of this.)

While looking on the Good Reads website I found some additional information about his life:
 He was educated by his uncle, a vicar, and spent his early life in the vicarage. He obtained a pilot's license before the last war, was active in the RAF and finished the war as wing-commander. 

Clevely was one of the dozens of authors who wrote for the story paper The Thriller in the 1930s, a paper that made famous The Saint by Charteris, Leslie, The Toff and The Baron by John Creasy and the Norman Conquest novels of Berkeley Gray. But in addition to many authors nearly unknown today The Thriller published stories by Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, (also published by Penguin books and on my shelves). 

Clevely wrote more than thirty titles for this influential paper and in addition several novels with serial characters, among them John Martinson “the Gang-Smasher" and Inspector Williams of Scotland Yard. As Tod Claymore, he wrote another nine mysteries, all with a series character named Tod Claymore. After the war Clevely contributed about a dozen titles to the hugely popular Sexton Blake series. 

I assume that people living in the U.K. may be more familiar with this author but he is very  new to me.

The setting of the book is on a large plantation property amongst orange groves in mid Florida, about 20 to 30 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico.  The smell of orange blossoms and Florida's heat are mentioned quite a bit.
Tod (Claymore) the protagonist and narrator has a young daughter Sarah and their lifestyle is a bit nomadic since Sarah's mother died years earlier.  The book opens with them leaving their rented apartment in New York to go to Florida at the invitation of an old family friend, Poppy Laleham who lives in a large mansion. 

Tod doesn't particularly like Poppy and his descriptions of her are quite comical but he knows it will be good for Sarah and they need to vacate the apartment so they agree to go.

There will be school, horse riding and swimming for Sarah and lots of tennis for him.  Other guests have also been invited and without his knowledge his former love Sabrina is there with her husband Stewart.

The mystery revolves around Sabrina, Stewart and Stewart's brother James who it turns out has been blackmailing Stewart for quite awhile now. There is a shooting, a house fire and a body in the fire that turns out to be Stewart.  Sabrina and Tod still care a great deal for each other and Sarah dotes on Sabrina. It is only because Stewart interfered with the post that Tod and Sabrina stopped seeing each other due to severe misunderstandings. 

There are an assortment of personalities staying in the area from young to old, quite lovely to absolutely rotten and boring and  as expected much gossip and speculations goes  on between everyone.  Everyone believes Tod is guilty of murdering Stewart because it is known he loves Sabrina.  But of course the reader knows that is much too obvious.  

Towards the end Tod is going to solve the murder once and for all, mainly to prove his own innocence. He has varying amounts of help from the others who often quite annoy him.

I have not read any other books by this author but I am sure there are other books that are probably more riveting than this one.  I did care about several of the characters but I know I will forget them before long. Sarah is quite precocious as the daughter spending a great deal of time wanting people to say good night to her in the evenings once she is tucked up in bed. 

Poppy, the old dowager fits her role quite well and frankly if the book wasn't so humorous at times I probably would have put it down.  

I am a great fan of the first paragraph of any book. For me it can really make or break an introductory chapter. I liked this one and I did want to keep reading.

"     I'm all alone in the house except for the servants. My head aches, and my arm hurts me. Things are looking bad, and that's putting it mildly. I don't understand what has been happening, and I hate to think what's likely to happen.
      And I don't think I like the Sheriff. I don't like his attitude. He  makes me feel uneasy. He looks sleepy, but he isn't sleepy. He's fat. His moustache looks like something you'd expect to find hanging from an aged sea lion."

Poppy's introduction starts with
" all began with a letter from Poppy Laleham. A good many people have held very strong opinions about Poppy, few of them favourable, and I should like to state here and now that my vote goes unhesitatingly with the majority. I regard that old beldame as a triple distilled menace. When she arrives in a place all peaceful citizens would be well advised to pack their things hastily and leave by the first available train, bus, aeroplane, ship or mule cart."

He continues, "Personally I have an indolent, peaceful nature; I dislike conflict and harsh words. Poppy revels in them. She likes to be in the middle of a sort of storm centre, with fur and feathers and skin and blood flying in all directions."

"A touch of tennis anyone? "
Travellin' Penguin in Florida
I think if I had read this book in a single sitting I would have enjoyed it more than I did.  It was because I ended up reading it in fits and starts I was looking forward to simply getting on with it.  I really enjoyed the author's writing. I liked his descriptions, especially of people and I could easily visualise everyone. As I said I did enjoy most of them but the story itself bogged down a couple of times. The plot was similar to so many mysteries written during this time. Lots of people gathered in a house, an obvious motive and suspect but of course we know that is not to be.

It would be a good read on a plane trip or a train however  or a single sitting. It is a book that should be released into a cafe for another reader once finished and not left for posterity on the shelf. But this one will  stay on the shelf because it is one of my vintage penguins and I don't leave them on seats in cafes.

This book counts for The Century of Reading challenge - 1955.

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