Dec 012014

Bruce Buckingham (a pseudonym of Dane Chandos, the first pseudonym of the writing duo of Peter Lilley and Anthony Stansfeld) was the author of two detective mysteries set in Mexico:

  • Three Bad Nights (London: Michael Joseph, 1956; Penguin edition, 1961) and
  • Boiled Alive (London: Michael Joseph, 1957; Penguin edition, 1961)

buckingham-three-bad-nights-hbThree Bad Nights introduces a Mexican detective, Don Pancho (short for “Francisco de Torla Saavedra, Marqués de Langurén y Orandaín”), an eccentric, laid-back, huarache-wearing former federal detective who, with his manservant sidekick Crisanto, solves jewel thefts, murders and other glamorous international crimes.

The designer of the hardback’s jacket (see image) was English artist, sculptor and writer Trevor Denning (1923-2009). Denning was born in Birmingham, UK., and was a key figure in the post-war Birmingham contemporary art scene.  According to Jonathan Watkins, the current director of the city’s Ikon Gallery, “Trevor Denning was vitally important for the post-war Birmingham art world. His incisive mind, his radical skepticism and commitment to cultural life here made an enormous difference. Ikon will always be in his debt.”

The setting of Three Bad Nights is the fictional Quinta de las Rosas hotel on the shores of the equally fictional Lake Zirapan. While there are insufficient clues to claim that this is anything other than an invented locale, the authors were extremely familiar with the Lake Chapala region of western Mexico, and the Posada Ajijic hotel in Ajijic. Since the book refers to Don Pancho’s “big hacienda in Jalisco” named La Chavinda Paz, it seems likely that the authors intended readers to infer that Lake Zirapan was  somewhere in the same state.

The hotel’s owner is Doña Lola, who one Xmas twenty years earlier, in England, had killed someone in self-defense with a paper knife. The hotel staff include the superstitious Juana, nightwatchman Rosario, house-boy Pablo and Senoña Delfina, the cook. The guests, each of whom comes under suspicion of murder at one point or another, include:

  • Light-fingered American tourist Mrs. Singer, who has left three ex-husbands in her wake, and is traveling with her niece Isobel Hesler
  • Lady Kendon, an English aristocrat, long separated from her philandering husband, who is accompanied by her two Aberdeen terriers, Scotch and Soda.
  • Colonel Rawlins who is due to meet his wife and daughters in Chicago within a few days, and who behaves more drunk that he really is at a hotel party.
  • Carlotta, “a beautiful Buenos Aires belle”, with valuable jewels to match, traveling with her “brother” Valentino.
  • Leslie King, a young American, who considers himself Isobel’s boyfriend, turns up part-way through the action.

buckingham-three-bad-nightsWithin a few pages, the first body is found. It turns out to be the hotel nightwatchman Rosario, whose body has been hidden in the reeds at the edge of the lake. The next morning, following a party that roared into the early hours, a second body is found. This time it is Carlotta, whose jewellery box has been broken into.

The food-loving Inspector Tovar (aka El Capitano) arrives from the big city to take charge of the investigation. As he, Don Pancho and Crisanto begin to investigate, they quickly find that everyone has something to hide. The following day, the body of Mrs. Singer turns up in the lakeshore reeds.

Slowly, patiently and methodically, Don Pancho manages to piece together what really happened, and who is responsible.

While the details are less keenly described than in the second Don Pancho book, this is a fun whodunit. It has long been out-of-print, but copies can still be found quite easily via secondhand book sites such as

Historical curiosity

In Three Bad Nights, the local mayor refers to the “twenty-eight United States of the Republic of Mexico” (Penguin edition, page 47). Assuming that the mayor kept up with the times, this dates the events in the book to sometime prior to January 16, 1952 when Baja California became the 29th state in Mexico.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

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Jan 032010

Charles Fleming Embree was born in Princeton, Indiana, October 1, 1874, the son of lawyer David Franklin Embree, member of a prominent pioneer family, and Mary Fleming Embree. Charles was still an infant when his father died in 1877. To this day, one of the main streets in Princeton is N. Embree Street, and the Fire Department Chief at the fire hall (on Embree and W. Brumfield) has the surname Embree.

embree-portrait-2Charles Embree was educated in Princeton public schools and entered Wabash College in the fall of 1892. After three years he left college without graduating to devote himself to writing, and achieved immediate success. For the Love of Tonita, and other tales of the Mesas was his first book, published in 1897. The success of his first book led to two more novels.

On January 18, 1898, he married Virginia Broadwell. The young couple moved to Mexico, and lived in Chapala for eight months in 1898, before moving to Oaxaca. The precise motives behind Embree’s decision to spend two years in Mexico remain frustratingly unclear.

Embree’s second novel, dedicated to his wife, is set in the Lake Chapala region, but was written while they were in Oaxaca. A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900), is illustrated with five black and white drawings by Henry Sandham (1842-1910), a very well-known Canadian illustrator of the time. From Oaxaca, Embree also penned a short newspaper piece about anthropologist Frederick Starr, who was conducting fieldwork there.

Embree’s third book, illustrated by Dan Smith, was A Heart of Flame: the Story of a Master Passion (1901). Embree also had several short stories published in McClure’s Magazine, from 1902 to (posthumously) 1906. In recognition of the distinguished place he had already achieved among American novelists, Embree was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by Wabash College in 1903.

Embree and his wife moved to Santa Ana, California. Sadly, the couple had not long celebrated the birth of their only daughter Elinor in 1905 when Embree was taken seriously ill. He died on July 3, not yet 31 years old.

A short extract from Embree’s “A Dream of a Throne” is included in Tony Burton’s “Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travellers’ tales” (Sombrero Books 2008).  This book has extracts from more than 50 original sources covering the period 1530-1910, together with short biographies of the writers, and an informative commentary setting the extracts in their historical context.