Since the COVID-19 pandemic began keeping us inside, readers have been seeking alternatives to in-store browsing for their literary needs. Essayist, short-story writer, and prolific reader Kevin Mims (who has written for this blog many times on the subject of paperbacks and popular fiction) felt the lockdown restrictions particularly stifling to his book habits, as he routinely browses for “lost” or little-known books. In this post he talks about his solution for this and two works to which his search led.—Janet Hutchings
For years it has been my mission in life to seek out old mass-market paperbacks from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s in the hopes of discovering lost literary gems that deserve to be better known. I look for them at yard sales, garage sales, estate sales, and thrift stores. But mostly I seek them out at used-book stores. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and the state-mandated lockdowns that shuttered a lot of California businesses for three months forced me to find other ways of seeking out old books. Even during the pandemic, book lovers like me could still buy old paperbacks online at a variety of book-selling websites. But you can’t order a book online unless you are aware of its existence. And most online booksellers, like Amazon.com, don’t make any effort to promote old, out-of-print pop fictions.
So what’s an old paperback-fiction junkie like me supposed to do when the bookstores are all shut down? Happily, there is one really good source for those seeking the titles of old paperback novels that are unfamiliar to them. And that source is other old paperbacks. The front and back pages of many an old mass-market paperback are filled with lists that advertise other books by the same publisher. A while back, while researching an article I planned to write about automobiles in American popular fiction, I was reading (or, in some cases, re-reading) a bunch of pop fictions in which cars figured prominently, including such well-known titles as The Betsy by Harold Robbins, The Last Convertible by Anton Myrer, Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis, and Christine by Stephen King. At the back of a mass-market edition of Jacqueline Briskin’s 1982 automotive-themed novel The Onyx, I found a few full-page ads for various other paperbacks put out by the same publisher. These included well-known titles such as John Jakes’s North and South, and David Niven’s three Hollywood memoirs (Bring on the Empty Horses, The Moon’s a Balloon, and Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly). But among these back pages I also found a full-page ad for a novel I’d never heard of, Kay McGrath’s The Seeds of Singing. The brief description of the book intrigued me. It was described as the story of two young explorers, Michael Stanford and Catherine Morgan, lost among the primitive tribes of New Guinea, in the years before, during, and after World War II. I love East-meets-West tales, such as James Clavell’s Shogun and Noel Barber’s Tanamera, and this sounded like something similar. I did my usual research, looking for reader reviews on Amazon.com and GoodReads. Like a lot of excellent but little-known novels, The Seeds of Singing had few online reviews, but those it did have were mostly ecstatic, written by people claiming it was “the best book ever” or “easily in my top ten of all-time list.” And so I ordered a copy of the book and, when it arrived, immediately began reading it. It was a fat paperback book, containing nearly seven hundred pages of fairly small type. The tiny type almost made me hope that the book wouldn’t be very good, so that I could abandon it after a few pages. But the book was good. In fact it was crazy good. I’m not saying that it compares favorably to, say, The Sound and the Fury, but as American popular fictions go, it was definitely a one-percenter.
After that, I began combing through the front and back endpapers of all the books in my massive collection of old paperbacks. Many of the books advertised there were well-known bestsellers at one time. I ignored these. I was seeking titles and authors I’d never heard of. From early March through early June of this year, I spent many an hour compiling lists of obscure book titles and their authors’ names. Then I would go online and see what information I could find about these books. The ones that intrigued me most were the ones I could find the least information about. How was it possible for a book to have received a widespread paperback release via a major publishing company such as Signet or Bantam or Fawcett Gold Medal and then vanish so completely from the public consciousness that even on the internet, a vast storehouse of nearly every fact of human existence, hardly any mention of it could be found?
I purchased 81 books from Amazon.com between March 1 and mid-June, most of them obscure old paperback novels. I purchased a few others from the American Book Exchange, which is also owned by Amazon.com. All of these were used books that sold for only a few dollars each. Alas, many of these books I was able to toss aside after reading the first 25 or 50 pages. It was clear that these books deserved their obscurity. Another dozen of the books I bought were good enough that I read them in their entirety and enjoyed them, but I wouldn’t call them lost classics. They were well-crafted works of popular fiction written by authors with a lot of talent but no real genius. Some of the books I ordered, I haven’t yet got around to reading. But a half dozen of the books I ordered struck me as being genuine lost classics, or at least near-classics of twentieth-century popular fiction. Most of these were historical novels, so I won’t bother describing them here. But two of them were mystery novels, involving murder and detection, as well as kidnapping, arson, and assorted other crimes. What’s more, the authors’ back stories are interesting, so a blog for mystery lovers seems like the perfect venue in which to celebrate them.
Both of these mystery novels were written by obscure female writers. Their names are Cecilia Sternberg and Jamey Cohen. These two authors are different from each other in many ways, but their writing careers share some eerie similarities. Each woman published only two books. Each woman’s entire literary oeuvre was published over a span of just a few short years. Sternberg’s first book, The Journey, was published in 1977. Her only other book, Masquerade, was published in 1979. Cohen’s first novel, Dmitri, was published in 1980, and her second, The Night Chasers, was published in 1981. Dmitri bears more than a passing resemblance to Josephine Tey’s masterpiece The Daughter of Time (voted the top crime novel of all time by the British Crime Writers Association and the forth greatest crime novel of all time by Mystery Writers of America). In Tey’s novel, a bedridden police inspector sets out to solve a historical mystery (whether or not Richard III murdered his two young nephews, the so-called “Princes in the Tower”). In Dmitri, several scholars at a California university (clearly meant to be Stanford but never identified) try to solve a different historical mystery: who murdered Dmitri of Uglich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible and thus an heir to the Russian throne. Cohen’s novel may not be on a par with The Daughter of Time, but it is exciting, crazily inventive, and very intelligent. According to the author’s blurb on my ratty old paperback, Cohen got the idea for the novel during her senior year at Stanford, during which she took classes in both Russian history and hypnosis. Early in the novel we meet fictional lovers Marina Kuryev and John Green, two college students who are both taking an elective course called The Psychology of Hypnosis. In class that day, Professor Sloane puts John into a hypnotic trance and then asks him to recall the day of his ninth birthday. John begins to speak to the class in the voice of a nine-year-old boy but, much to the dismay of the professor and the rest of the class, he does so in a language that is not English. Only Marina recognizes it as a somewhat archaic version of Russian. Which is a big surprise to Marina, because although she is a Russian Studies student and fluent in the language, John doesn’t speak anything but English. She informs the professor that John is speaking Russian, a language he doesn’t know. Eventually the professor lets Marina interrogate John, and she discovers that he has been regressed back, not to his own ninth birthday, but to May 10th in the year 7099. Naturally this confuses her, and Cohen ends the chapter with a sentence that sounds like one of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone introductions: “Without knowing it, she had advanced into the fourth dimension—time. Her destination: the year 7099. Her vehicle of transportation: a nine-year-old with a beguiling smile. Dmitri Ivanovich.”
Fairly quickly Marina realizes that John/Dmitri is using an old Russian calendar system to calculate the date, a system in which 7099 would translate into 1591 A.D. on the Gregorian calendar we use nowadays. Soon, via further hypnosis sessions with John, she learns that she is communicating with the real-life historical figure Dmitri of Uglich. The date is May 10, 1591, five days before Dmitri was actually murdered on May 15, 1591. Fairly quickly, Marina is able to convince Professor Sloane that John is actually in touch with this tragic figure. Over the next few days, they conduct several more hypnosis sessions with Dmitri/John, teasing out more details of Dmitri’s life. They hope to figure out who murdered him on May 15, so that they can warn him about it and possibly save his life (and perhaps dangerously alter the course of human history in the process). But the class is taught by two professors, Sloane and Zugelder. And Zugelder is one of the novel’s heavies. He believes (not without reason) that either John is a fraud, or else he is just channeling a story he was told long ago. Zugelder begins investigating John’s background (it turns out that John’s parents died when he was very young and he was put into the care of a Russian woman until he could be adopted by new parents). John, for his part, seems to be coming apart psychologically as the hypnosis sessions become longer and more intense. Professor Sloane wants to push ahead anyway in the interests of science. Professor Zugelder is concerned that the lurid nature of the experiment will cause the department head to take serious action against him and Sloane. He is furiously trying to discredit John’s performances under hypnosis. Marina, in love with John but also becoming more and more attached to Dmitri as the days go by, is torn. She wants to save Dmitri’s life but is fearful John’s mental and physical health might be seriously damaged if he is forced to continue undergoing hypnosis.
For a young author (she appears to have been born in 1957, making her just 23 when Dmitri was published), Cohen managed to write a novel that ticks an awful lot of pop-fiction boxes. Dmitri is a thriller, a mystery, a historical novel, a romance, and (quite possibly) a fantasy novel. It seems that the novel’s multiplicity of genres worked against it. What’s more, the publisher seems to have decided to market the book as a horror novel, one of the few genres to which it doesn’t really belong. The cover of my paperback copy features an ancient Russian sword dripping blood. Superimposed over the sword is the disembodied head of someone (presumably Dmitri but the picture makes the sex and age of the subject difficult to guess) wearing what looks like a cross between a crown and an army helmet. A blurb on the cover mentions “a young man caught up in the deadly grip of hypnotic possession . . . A novel of excruciating terror.” A blurb on the back calls the novel “a gripping, imaginative chiller.” The paperback was published by Signet, whose most profitable author at the time was young Stephen King. So it is understandable that Signet may have wanted to market every novel to King’s massive readership. Alas, it doesn’t appear to have worked. You won’t find a lot of reader reviews online at Amazon.com and GoodReads, but those you do find will be mostly ecstatic, and none of them refer to the book as a horror novel. One reviewer calls it “an unknown gem.” Another calls it “one of my favorite stories.” Several reviewers recall reading it when it was first published and being haunted by it ever since. I wouldn’t put it on a list of my 25 favorite pop fictions of all time, but I definitely enjoyed the ride. So much so, in fact, that after reading it I went online and ordered a copy of Cohen’s second novel, The Night Chasers. The Night Chasers has no reader reviews at GoodReads and only one at Amazon.com (“This book is my all-time favorite and I’m a fairly prolific reader. I wish this author had written more than two books.”). The Night Chasers deals with an American scientist who is researching gorillas in Africa and is able to communicate with them in American Sign Language. This was a fairly popular topic in the early 1980s. One year before The Night Chasers was published, Michael Crichton’s novel Congo, about an ape named Amy who could communicate via sign language, became a bestseller. The Night Chasers is an intelligent, ambitious, and well-written crime novel that involves terrorism and kidnapping and murder, but it unfolds at a slower pace than Dmitri. I prefer Dmitri, but both novels are worth seeking out. Who knows what other excellent thrillers Jamey Cohen might have produced if she had stuck with her writing career. Both of her novels reminded me of Crichton’s work. Dmitri prefigured Crichton’s 1999 bestseller Timeline, in which a group of contemporary academics find themselves transported to Europe during the Middle Ages. Alas, a few years after the publication of The Night Chasers, Cohen enrolled at Harvard Law School. According to an Internet search, she has worked for the past thirty years or so as an entertainment-industry attorney in southern California. The legal profession’s gain is a huge loss for those of us who love thrilling popular novels. But at least she is still alive and well and, if we’re lucky, perhaps she’ll return to writing fiction after she retires from the legal profession. We can only hope.
Alas, we cannot hope for any more novels from Cecilia Sternberg. She was born Augusta Cecilia von Reventlow Criminil, in 1908. Though born in England, she was raised in Switzerland. Her great-grandfather, Robert Whitehead, invented the Whitehead torpedo, the first truly effective modern torpedo. The invention made him rich and allowed his children to marry into some of Europe’s most aristocratic families. His great-granddaughter also married well. At the age of nineteen, Cecilia married Count Leopold von Sternberg, a Czech nobleman roughly two decades her senior who had served admirably in World War I. They split their time between a castle that he inherited in Czechoslovakia and a palace in Vienna. For ten years she lived a glamorous life of gala balls, weekend house-parties, and shooting parties, hobnobbing with some of Europe’s grandest grandees. Alas, a little something called World War II came along to disrupt this leisure-class idyll. The Count was anti-Nazi from the get-go, and his enmity towards Hitler increased when the Nazis seized his properties during their invasion of Czechoslovakia. He and his wife and children spent the war years living not very comfortably in an apartment in Prague. After the war the properties were briefly returned to the Count and his Countess, but in 1948 the Communists took over Czechoslovakia and it was time for the aristocratic Sternbergs, now virtually impoverished, to flee the country. Their journey took them to London, New York, and anywhere else where they could find an old friend or acquaintance willing to take them and their children in for a few days or weeks or months (they spent one whole summer at a Pennsylvania farm belonging to U.S. diplomat George Kennan). At their lowest ebb the Countess sold handmade jewelry on the waterfront in St. Petersburg, Florida, while the Count sat in his underwear on the porch of their nearby cottage, drinking wine and studying the Constitution of the United States. Eventually an Austrian friend found them a job managing a resort hotel in Jamaica, where they stayed for the rest of their lives. If all this strikes you as great material for a book, well, the Countess apparently thought so too. In 1977 she published an account of her fascinating life called The Journey. It garnered enthusiastic reviews but didn’t sell well. Reviewing the book for the London Times Literary Supplement, novelist Sybille Bedford wrote:
She is no research student, no outsider, she is eyewitness, observer (very noticing, never moralizing, judging seldom), participant—this is how it was, how we lived, this is what we were—the world she writes about, the world of the pre-1914 European upper aristocracy (die Hocharistokratie) and its survivors was simply that of her birth and workaday environment. The outcome is a curious and original book, very funny, a few times very sad. It is artless in a sense, unpretentious, a first book and evidently not by a professional writer and yet, I find, handmade by an artist. There is the transmutation of raw experience; the conjuring of flesh-and-blood people, often in a few lines; the coherent story (suspense story almost) and the construction, the sequence of events, is first-rate, professional—by instinct?
By this time, the Countess was approaching her seventieth birthday. You might think, having told the story of her fascinating life, Cecilia Sternberg would have nothing more of interest to say. But you’d be wrong. After writing an excellent but criminally underappreciated autobiography, she set about writing a thriller. And what a thriller it is (almost certainly it is the only crime novel in history written by someone whose last name at birth was Criminil).
The novel, published in 1979, is called Masquerade. I’ll try to avoid giving away too many spoilers, but I advise you to skip the rest of this review and just buy a copy of the book. You won’t be disappointed. The story opens in the summer of 1929. Eddie Livingston has graduated from Oxford and wants a career in Britain’s diplomatic corps. He has mastered several European languages but would like to improve his German. Alas, he’s too poor to go to Germany at the moment. His father was a historian who was working on a book about the Tsars and Empresses of Russia when he died. Eddie’s mother is trying to finish the book and get it published. While perusing the paper one day, Eddie sees a want ad seeking a British tutor for a fifteen-year-old student in Germany who needs to improve his English skills. The job pays nothing, but the tutor’s travel costs will be covered as will his room and board. The want ad was placed by the German boy’s English grandparents, a vicar and his wife. Eddie visits the vicar and learns of the boy’s odd history. His mother is the vicar’s beautiful daughter, thirty-five-year-old Elaine. Her husband was Paul Plevke, a German aristocrat of Russian heritage. After marrying Elaine he took her to live at Schwarzensee (“Black Lake”), his family’s Gothic castle near a small town in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Nine months later she gives birth to the couple’s only child, Alexander. World War I breaks out and Paul goes off to war with his faithful servant, a somewhat older man named Beck. Paul dies in the war’s early months, despite Beck’s heroic efforts to save his badly wounded master (at least, Beck claims to have made these efforts; later on we’ll have reason to suspect that Beck may have hastened Paul’s demise). Beck returns from the front with the news of Paul’s death. Paul’s mother, always referred to as the Tsarevna, because she is a distant relative of Catherine the Great of Russia, is despondent. She fears that Elaine will now want to return to England with Alexander (who was named after Catherine the Great’s grandson Tsar Alexander I). The Tsarevna conspires with Beck to keep Elaine and Alexander at Schwarzensee. She claims that Alexander will inherit all of the family’s wealth if he remains at Schwarzensee until he attains his majority. If he leaves before that, she will disinherit him. The vicar and his wife don’t actually know this last part of the story. They only know that they haven’t seen their daughter or their grandson in fourteen years. They want Eddie, under the guise of tutoring young Alexander, to try to convince Elaine to return to England with her son. This is a great setup and it covers only the first few pages of the book.
The novel is divided into two parts, each of which is roughly 150 pages long. The first half is reminiscent of a good Gothic-romance novel, but instead of an impoverished young woman who finds herself enmeshed in the ominous goings on in the creepy old isolated mansion where she has taken a job, we have a young man in that position. The novel also has echoes of the works of Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith. Alexander Plevke turns out to be the most stunningly beautiful human being Eddie Livingston has ever seen, and he falls under his spell in a way similar to how Tom Ripley falls under Dickie Greenleaf’s spell in The Talented Mr. Ripley (like Eddie, Tom Ripley’s adventure begins when he is sent to Europe to try to convince a lost child to return home to his parents). Eddie also bears a resemblance to Henry Pulling, the narrator of Greene’s novel Travels With My Aunt. He is a somewhat shy and colorless English civil-service wannabe who finds himself being dragged across Europe by women much more adventurous and interesting than he is.
Schwarzansee turns out to be quite the house of secrets. The Tsarevna tries to order her life in the manner of her famous ancestor Catherine the Great. If, unlike me, you know a lot about Catherine the Great, you may be able to see some of the plot twists coming. Catherine often hinted that her oldest child, Paul I, was sired not by her husband, Peter III, but by her lover, Sergei Saltykov. Something similar seems to have led to the birth of the Tsarevna’s son, Paul. Peter III died mysteriously, and some believe his wife conspired to have him murdered. Something similar seems to have happened to the husband of the Tsarevna. When Eddie Livingston reveals this information to his mother back in England via a letter, she writes to him and tells him to look for a secret passageway into the Tsarevna’s bedroom. Eddie can’t understand why she thinks there might be one, but he investigates and, sure enough, finds one. When he asks his mother how she knew this, the mother (who is completing a book about Russian royalty, remember) informs him that Catherine the Great had a secret passageway that led from her bedroom to the quarters of her lover. Further complicating Eddie’s stay at Schwarzansee is the fact that he engages in a sexual liaison with Elaine, the woman he was sent to rescue. Fairly quickly, Eddie realizes he has made a mistake in coming to Germany and becoming enmeshed in the lives of the Plevkes. But he has a hard time extracting himself from it all. Elaine wants to marry him, the Tsarevna and Beck want him to help keep Alexander from leaving Germany, and Alexander wants Eddie to help him get to Oxford so that he can join the University’s famous Dramatic Society and achieve his dream of becoming a professional actor (his acting skills will be put to use frequently during the course of the novel). Eddie does eventually help Alexander get into Oxford, but only after becoming involved in a suspicious killing (the killer says it was self-defense but it looks like murder to Eddie) by placing the dead body in the driver’s seat of a vintage Mercedes Benz and pushing the vehicle off a cliff and into a nearby lake (the Black Lake that the castle is named for), where it disappears into the mud at the bottom (but will it stay there?). All this happens even before we reach the end of Part One.
Part Two opens about eight years later, in 1937. Eddie has achieved his goal and is now a diplomat assigned to the British embassy in Vienna. He is engaged in an affair with a lovely Austrian aristocrat named Princess Marie Therese. Alexander wrote Eddie frequently during his years at Oxford, but Eddie rarely responded. He is trying to forget the nightmare that was Schwarzansee. By 1937 Alexander is a renowned thespian. He has appeared in several Hollywood movies, but his true love is the European stage. One night, Alexander looks over the footlights and spies Eddie and his lover, Marie Therese, in the audience of a play he is performing in at a Viennese theater (Eddie had no desire to see it, but Marie Therese insisted). During an intermission, Alexander sends Eddie a note, requesting that he come backstage and visit him after the show. Eddie reluctantly does so, and once again Eddie finds his life unhappily entwined with Alexander. The Princess becomes infatuated with Alexander and hopes to make him her latest romantic conquest. Soon she and Alexander have gone off together to a grand chateau owned by the Princess and her husband, Prince Heinrich (the Prince knows all about her affairs and doesn’t care). Eddie is hurt by this but also relieved. Being in the company of either Alexander or Marie Therese exhausts him. Being in the company of both is damn near unbearable. Alas, Prince Heinrich (an aviator) flies his plane back to Austria a few days later and informs Eddie that a tragedy has occurred. A neighboring chateau caught fire a few nights ago and, in a failed effort to rescue the Jewish couple living in the chateau, Alexander was badly burned. His face has been horribly disfigured. The Princess is inconsolable but Prince Heinrich believes Eddie will have a better chance of soothing her than he himself does. So Eddie climbs into the Prince’s bi-plane and flies off to Czechoslovakia with him. There he finds that Marie Therese is literally out of her mind with grief. Her physician (a close relative of the Jews killed in the chateau fire) informs Eddie that he is going to tell the Princess that Alexander has died. He thinks it will be best for her if she doesn’t have to imagine him living on in agony, his face and his acting career in ruins. The physician assures Eddie that this is just a small lie, since Alexander is almost sure to die of his injuries sometime in the next few days or weeks.
But, of course, Alexander doesn’t die. In fact, Eddie has reason to question whether he was ever really injured in the fire at all. When Eddie finally sees him again, Alexander is so swaddled in bandages that Eddie can’t be sure what he looks like. What’s more, Eddie is told that Alexander’s vocal chords were so damaged by smoke that he can no longer speak. Eddie can talk to Alexander, but Alexander responds by spelling out his messages with Scrabble tiles, an amusing device that makes Alexander’s part of every conversation sound like text messages. But is that really Alexander under those bandages? And how did the chateau of the unfortunate Jewish couple really catch fire? Did someone deliberately set the fire in order to curry favor with the Nazis who are sure to be invading Czechoslovakia soon? And what about Alexander’s beautiful young nurse, Esther? She seems almost romantically devoted to him. Is it only because she is the daughter of the Jewish couple he tried to rescue, or is she also hiding some secret?
Cecilia Sternberg was a highly cultured woman. Her book is full of references—some implicit and some explicit—to various operas, poems, novels, stories, and myths. The fair Elaine, with her unrequited love for Eddie, is clearly based on Elaine the Fair, a maiden who falls in unrequited love with Sir Lancelot in Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Arthurian tale The Lady of Shalott. There is also an amusing nod to the legend of how the famous Rabbi Loew of Prague created a Golem, a menacing mythological creature, said to haunt Prague to this very day. The Golem in Masquerade glows in the dark thanks to some phosphorescent paint that has been applied to his forehead, a touch reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, wherein (spoiler alert) a large dog was covered with phosphorus to make him appear to be a supernatural devil dog. The book contains many references to Goethe’s Faust, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Mozart’sThe Magic Flute. Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and many other authors are mentioned by name. Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is never mentioned by name, but it too seems to haunt Sternberg’s pages. It’s surprising that no one has ever made a film based on Sternberg’s novel, because nearly every page of it seems to call out for a cinematic or theatrical interpretation. Here is the narrator describing one of Princess Marie Therese’s grand balls:
I walked to the palace. Snow had begun to fall and it was very cold. Cars and taxis came and went incessantly as I approached. The enormous double doors—usually closed, only a small side entrance giving access to the courtyard—stood wide open. Through them the costumed and masked crowd flowed up the great stone staircase, carpeted in crimson for the occasion. In arched niches at intervals stood liveried footmen with powdered hair, holding aloft flaming torches. They stood as still as statues, while the gods and goddesses that ornamented the baroque balustrade seemed to move in the flickering light and to have come alive, the gray stone of their scantily draped bodies glowing pink like flesh, their welcoming outstretched arms seeming to tremble and stir as light and shade intermittently touched them. Somewhere in the distance an orchestra was playing from The Magic Flute.
On the first floor, where most of the big reception rooms were, all the paneled white and gold doors stood open so that there was an unobstructed view from one end of the palace to the other. One could see through a series of seemingly interminable of magnificent stuccoed rooms lit by thousands of candles in glittering chandeliers or silver candelabras. Their mellow light transformed the gaudy, tinseled costumes into beauty and authenticity . . . There was no end to the variety of costumes. Aidas and Tosca’s Butterflies, Lucias, Leonoras and Marguerites, fox-trotted, waltzed and tangoed with Toreadors, fur-draped Boris Godounovs, Don Giovannis and black-clad Mephistos . . . At midnight nearly everyone unmasked. Great steaming bowls of punch were served by the powdered footmen and the year 1938—that was to prove so fateful for Austria—was joyfully welcomed in.
You can almost feel the movie camera tracking Eddie as he glides through all that splendor.
Eventually Eddie will solve most of the novel’s primary mysteries. He will learn who really torched the chateau where the Jewish couple died and why they did it. He will find out who is masquerading as the Golem of Prague. He will learn who betrayed Marie Therese and her husband to the Nazis. Along the way, the reader will be treated to a variety of brilliant set pieces, including an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on Prague’s famous Karlsbruke, a bridge that is one of Europe’s architectural wonders. Somehow Sternberg, who had never before published a novel, managed to keep a plot that is as complex as the inner workings of a Patek Phillipe watch from veering off into utter chaos. She remained totally in control of her material right down to the delivery of the novel’s brilliant final line. Alas, she never produced another novel. She died on November 1, 1983, in Kingston, Jamaica, at the age of seventy-five.
Brilliant as it is, Masquerade is ranked number 3,072,279 on the Amazon bestsellers list. Mystery buff and writer J. Kingston Pierce maintains an excellent website devoted to crime fiction called The Rap Sheet. For years the website has run a series celebrating great but forgotten crime novels. I love the series, but I think it is quite a stretch to call many of its entries lost books. Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Elmore Leonard’s Swag, George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios–as far as I can tell, none of these books has ever gone out of print, and all of them are easy to obtain. In fact, most of them are regarded as classics of the genre. Swag has been enshrined in a Library of America edition, which guarantees that it will never go out of print. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is at number 175 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling hardboiled mysteries, despite the fact that it’s also easily obtained in both new- and used- bookstores all across America. Masquerade, on the other hand, is a true lost book. And Jamey Cohen’s Dmitri, despite the fact that it has generated a handful of enthusiastic reviews at Amazon.com, ranks even lower than Masqueradeon the Amazon bestsellers list: 3,327,262. You can’t get much more lost than that.
The links between Cohen and Sternberg are curious. Cohen’s first novel and Sternberg’s only novel both deal with twentieth-century characters who are haunted by long-dead Russian royals. Hypnosis plays a big part in Cohen’s novel and a minor one in Sternberg’s. The protagonists of both novels attended elite universities and are multilingual. Sternberg’s two books were published during the final three years of the 1970s. Cohen’s two books were published during the first two years of the 1980s (technically, 1980 was the last year of the 1970s, but only pedants observe that technicality). Sternberg wrote her two books in the final years of her life. Cohen wrote hers in the first few years of her adult life. Both Dmitri and Masquerade languish way below the three-million mark on Amazon’s bestsellers list.
Neither of these forgotten women writers has ever gotten the attention they deserve. Their books remain out of print and largely unread. But if you love a mystery, you might want to seek out used copies of both Dmitri and Masquerade. They were written in an era when thrillers tended to be shorter and brainier than they are nowadays. Neither book has any graphic violence or sex, just good writing, devious plotting, and near-perfect pacing. If, as Josephine Tey insisted, “Truth is the daughter of Time,” perhaps there will come a day when these two books are finally recognized as the pop-fiction gems they really are.