Stranger At Home

George Sanders
Stranger At Home

Four years. That's how long it took Californian playboy Michael Vickers to regain his memory and come home.

Four years. That's how long Vickers spent battered, bruised and south of the border, following the attack which sought to end his life – all because he'd mistaken a mortal enemy for a friend. Or a lover.

And now Vickers is looking for four years' worth of payback from the devil responsible for his near-demise. But within days of Vickers' return, a murder attempt is made on one of his suspects – and this time it succeeds. Enter a very shrewd detective, whose eyes are on everyone. Especially Vickers.

In
Stranger at Home
, the second George Sanders mystery novel, we are taken to a world removed from the backstage comic mystery of 
Crime on My Hands
, but nonetheless a milieu very familiar to the actor – Southern California in the 1940's. A world of stars and millionaires, but also vice, organized crime and shattered dreams. And Michael Vickers himself is a hero very much after the mould of Sanders' irresistibly attractive screen persona – gilded and charming, languid and pleasure-seeking... but with a steely, remorseless core.

 

Oh, true love, have you brought me gold,
Or have you paid my fee,
Or have you come to see me die
Upon the gallows tree?

– FROM THE BALLAD,
Maiden Saved from the Gallows

FOR LEIGH BRACKETT – WHOM I HAVE NEVER MET

Foreword

It's possible the early 1940's witnessed the origins of the modern celebrity novel. Celeb-fiction has since evolved into a genre which comes and goes, enjoying only a middling reputation and frequently a shelf-life shorter than yoghurt. But English actor George Sanders's two novels,
Crime on My Hands
(1944) and
Stranger At Home
(1946), have justifiably enduring appeal. They are not only fine examples of forties crime fiction in their own right, but also highly effective evocations of Sanders' sardonic, charming and intelligent screen persona which, if his later autobiography
Memoirs of a Professional Cad
is any guide, had more than a hint of the real man behind it.  To allude to a more recent generic literary trend, the novels could almost be termed authorized fan fiction.

They had an important precursor in Gypsy Rose Lee's
The G-String Murders
(1941), a classic backstage murder mystery novel starring the author herself as narrator, and which was later made into the entertaining if slightly sanitized film
Lady of Burlesque
starring Barbara Stanwyck. (Stanwyck also gets a mention in
Crime on My Hands
, completing a circle of connections.) Opinion remains divided on the extent to which
The G-String Murders
was penned by Lee alone, or was predominantly the work of the popular crime writer Craig Rice – most accept however that both were important contributors to the finished novel. 

The same publishers, Simon and Schuster, released Sanders' novels a few years later. This might suggest the publishers were taking the lead, especially as Craig Rice was again the chosen co-author. But Sanders and Rice were not strangers: the latter happened to have written screenplays for two films in which Sanders had recently starred, so there were other possible sources for their literary collaboration. There is certainly forensic evidence that Sanders contributed substantially to
Crime on My Hands
. The dedication could only have come from Sanders' polished pen, and there are numerous flashes of trademark wit in the dialogue (a style Sanders later brought to a consummate shine in his memoirs). The novel is strewn with facts about his life, such as his second career as an inventor, and his cooking ability (a mouthwatering pie is prepared by our hero in the course of the novel).

The story also reflects Sanders' own situation at the time.
Crime on my Hands
is a clever spoof on Sander's screen persona, and his fears (probably only too genuine) that he was becoming typecast as a screen detective in the mould of The Saint or The Falcon, two roles he'd had recently played in long-running film series. Ironically, though the novel starts with him getting a big break and a starring role in a Western, after shooting commences he is thrown headlong into a murder case. In order to clear himself he is obliged to don his metaphorical gabardine mac once more, but this time as Sanders playing Sanders.

Stranger At Home
, the second novel, takes us into darker territory: a view of southern California recognizable to readers of Raymond Chandler. It is a place of wealth and glamour, but also graft and exploitation. This time the accomplished novelist Leigh Brackett was chosen for the project and, though she abandons the first-person narrator of the earlier novel, in Michael Vickers she created a disturbingly convincing alter-ego for Sanders. It's a nuanced role Sanders would have played wonderfully well on screen, had it ever landed there. As it was, Sanders had to content himself with ‘a fling at printer's ink', to use his own words. It is a honour and a pleasure to re-publish both novels, and we hope you enjoy them.

THE PUBLISHERS

Chapter One

The street hadn't changed any. It lay curving in the shadows, the single street lamp lost in the soft heavy branches of a Chinese elm, and there was nothing different about it. Not a thing.

The same gates, spaced widely apart. The same distant gleam of windows screened from the world by the rich green of banknotes. If he walked forward, just up there where the pavement swerved out of sight, he would see his own house.

He would not do that. Not yet. Not quite yet. His hands were shaking. He thrust them into his jacket pockets, and then laughed, because his fingers had come through the rotten fabric. He turned his back on the street, facing out the way he had come, and went on foot up the steep hill.

From here there was no hill, only what seemed to be a sheer edge, and beyond it was the city, very small and far away. He could look west to the dark sea, and south to the low slim line of the hogback where the oil wells were, and east to the rough knees of the mountains. In the hollow circle of these things lay Los Angeles, with Hollywood and Beverly Hills and all the swarming little suburbs tugging at her flanks like cubs around a wolf bitch. The lights were beautiful.

It hadn't changed, either. Even the soft veil of fog was there, the smell of the sea. He shivered as the sweat chilled on his body after the long climb.

He turned and began to walk up along the street. He did not hurry. He could hear his footsteps, one after the other, like the ticking of a clock.

He rounded the bend, and saw ahead where the pavement ended.

The jacaranda trees were still in front of the gate. Four times, he thought, they've blossomed since I saw them last. He could remember how the curling petals used to fall and drift the grass like blue snow. Four times. Four years.

He walked to the gate and reached out and touched it, and the spring catch was just the same as he remembered it. He swung open one side and went through and closed it again behind him. Then he stood still.

He could feel the smooth concrete under the broken soles of his shoes, and the ground under the concrete. It had a different feel from any other ground in the world. It was his ground.

He walked on up the drive, and the wolfhounds came roaring at him suddenly down the broad sweep of the lawn.

He stood quite still, his hands at his sides, and said, “Coolin.” And then, “Dee.” The larger of the two hounds broke stride, and his voice died away uncertainly. The smaller one, puzzled, stopped also, but she kept up a vicious snarling. They were Irish, two huge gray shadows, lighter than blown smoke.

The man said to the smaller one, “You're not Dee. She had a white rift on her chest.”

The one called Coolin shivered and moaned and then leaped. The man's arms went around him and they stood swaying, the hound erect and slightly taller than the man, crying like a woman in his throat, and the man saying idiotically over and over again, “It's me. Pappy. Remember me, boy? It's Pappy.”

Suddenly, into the privacy of the rough gray neck, he said rapidly, almost savagely, “Pappy. God-damned silly name. Where is she, boy? Four years I haven't seen her. Where is she?”

He thrust the hound away and began to walk, swiftly, across the grass. Coolin stayed beside him, his muzzle thrust under the man's hand, and his mate followed, grumbling. The man didn't see them, or hear them. All he saw now was the house, low and gracious along the crest of the rising ground, with the lamps burning in the long windows. He crossed the drive and went up the steps and across the terrace, and the door was open, as it had always been. It swung wide under his hand, and he was home.

To his right, in the sunken living room, a woman put down her book and rose. She was pale-blonde, well-built and handsome, with a rather smug air of authority. She wore a flowing hostess gown of oyster-colored silk and reading glasses with straight bows that didn't bother her coiffure. She removed these as she turned toward the door, and then, abruptly, in the act of turning, she stopped, the glasses held frozen in mid-air. Her dark eyes stared and did not blink, and around them her face broke apart like something sculptured in dry sand.

The man in the hallway said quietly, “Hello, Joan. Where's Angie?”

The woman began to move toward him. Her mouth opened but no sound came out. Within ten feet of him she stopped and said, “Michael Vickers.” She put out her left hand and caught the edge of a polished inlaid table and stood leaning against it.

‘I'm alive,” said Vickers. “Don't faint. Where's Angie?”

Again she did not answer. She looked at him, up and down, and he stood waiting, framed in the hallway arch, with the hounds beside him. A tall man, three inches over six feet, his big gaunt frame covered with dirty odds and ends of clothing that, simply because they were on him, acquired a certain raffish dignity. His face was neither handsome nor ugly, but it was a face you looked at. The pertinent adjective now seemed to be “hungry.” A white scar ran from under his hairline across his right temple.

Joan whispered, “I don't believe it's you.” Beads of sweat came through the face powder, made a glittering rim above the perfect line of her liprouge. She went on staring, senselessly.

Vickers said impatiently, “For God's sake, Joan! Come out of it.”

She drew a deep breath, held it, let it out slowly, and moved away from the table, balancing herself carefully on her feet, her head drawn erect. “Where have you been, Michael? What's happened to you?”

There was a picture of himself as he had been four years ago. It stood on the table beside Joan. Himself, groomed and conditioned like a prize horse, his well-fed face half smiling and contemptuous. Vickers studied it briefly.

“I don't know,” he said. “Where's Angie?”

This time she answered. She had folded her hands tightly at her waist and her face had a closed look, but there was nothing in her voice. “She's not here, Michael. She went down to the beach.”

“Alone?”

“No. There's a party.”

“Still the same bunch?”

“Just about.”

“Good,” said Vickers. His eyelids drooped, giving his face the look of a death mask. “Yes. That's good. Are my things still upstairs?”

“Yes. We – didn't know...”

“No. All right, Joan. I'm going up and see what I can do about myself. And don't call her, Joan. You understand? I'm going down there myself, and I don't want you to call her.”

Her eyes widened. “But why? I should think...”

“Should you?”

He saw the curtain of subservience drawn back into place. She said, “Very well, Michael.”

He laughed. “That sounded like the old Vickers, by God!” He turned away. Over his shoulder he said, “Get yourself a drink, Joan. You look horrible.”

As he went upstairs he heard her say sulkily, “You might have let us know.”

At the top of the stairs he paused, then turned right to Angie's bedroom instead of left to his own. The house was silent. The servants, of course, would be at the beach. The hounds were still at his heels, and the bitch had finally stopped growling.

Angie was there as soon as he opened her door. The faint exciting spice of her perfume, her self in the bright draperies and the pictures and the yellow satin bedspread. He walked across to the huge double bed and touched the satin, and then he opened the closet door ­ a vast closet, full of lovely colors and textures, empty now of shape, waiting. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath, and the picture of her came before him clearly.

He turned away and glanced down at the floor, and frowned. There had been a great soft rug before the fireplace. It was gone now, replaced by an unwelcoming broadloom.

The cigarette box he had given her was on the bed­side table. A silver trinket picked up in Mexico. He took one of her cigarettes and lighted it with her silver lighter that matched the box. The extension phone was also on the table. Deliberately, being careful not to make an audible click on the line, he picked it up.

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