Friday, March 22, 2019

Case of the Negligent Nymph by Erle Stanley Gardner (1949)



About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Erle Stanley Gardner


Major characters:
  • George Alder, wealthy mansion owner
  • Corinne Lansing, George Alder's half sister
  • Dorley Alder, George Alder's uncle 
  • Minerva Danby, friend of Corinne, died while on Alder's yacht prior to story
  • Dorothy Fenner, the negligent nymph who stole the bottle and letter, Corinne's cousin 
  • Carmen Monterrey, Corinne's maid
  • Pete Cadiz, a beachcomber 
Locale: California coast

Synopsis: Perry Mason is about to engage in legal proceedings on a property line issue against wealthy George Alder. He decides to look over Alder's island estate from a canoe at night. While doing so, he observes a woman (Dorothy Fenner - the negligent nymph) enter the estate, and run out and into the water, chased by a guard dog. Mason pulls her into the canoe and takes her back to her small yacht riding at anchor.

She had taken a bottle from the Alder mansion, containing a manuscript written by Minerva Danby, who had drowned while on Alder's yacht. The manuscript accuses Alder of plotting to murder her, and Alder wants the manuscript back.

Alder convinces Fenner to visit him to discuss an agreement - her selling the manuscript back to him. Then he is found shot, and Fenner is the prime suspect - and Mason's client.

Review: At first this appears to be another Perry Mason controlling-stock issue, but that line of the plot disappears quickly. The story moves right along, with the usual incidents of Mason eyeing the ladies, even taking a kiss from a client. The courtroom scenes are the highlight, with Mason getting the prosecution all twisted up and exasperated as usual. Loose end: Is Corinne Lansing dead of alive? I could not find any definitive result on her.

No Hamilton Burger or Lieutenant Tragg in this one, too bad.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Vicky Van by Carolyn Wells (1917)

dustjackets.com

About the author: Carolyn Wells (1862-1942) was married to Hadwin Houghton, the heir of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing empire. Like Mary Roberts Rinehart, being in a publishing family created an easy pipeline for getting her works into print. She wrote a total of more than 170 books, including 61 Fleming Stone detective stories. See this Wikipedia article.



Major characters:
  • Victoria Van Allen ("Vicky Van"), wealthy party girl
  • Julie, her maid
  • Mrs. Reeves
The party guests:
  • Chester "Chet" Calhoun, our narrator, a lawyer
  • Cassie Weldon, a concert singer
  • Ariadne Gale, an artist
  • Jim Ferris, actor
  • Bailey Mason, actor
  • Bert Garrison, architect
The Schuylers:
  • Randolph Schuyler, a.k.a. Somers, murder victim
  • Ruth Schuyler, his wife/widow
  • Miss Sarah, his maiden sister
  • Miss Rhoda, another maiden sister
Others:
  • Norman Steele, Somers' companion
  • Inspector Mason
  • Aunt Lucy, Chet's aunt
  • Winnie, Chet's sister
  • Fleming Stone, private detective
  • Fibsy, Stone's "irregular"
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Narrator Chet Calhoun introduces carefree Vicky Van as she hosts one of her regular dinner parties. The guests arrive, and one of them, Norman Steele, brings along an extra uninvited stranger - Somers. Before the caterers can serve the meal, Somers is found stabbed in the dining room.

In the ensuing commotion, Vicky Van and her maid Julie have disappeared. Luigi, a caterer, states he saw her standing over the body with blood on her dress. The police arrive and soon "Somers" is found to be an assumed name for millionaire Randolph Schuyler, who lives around the corner on Fifth Avenue.

The search is on for Vicky Van and Julie. She cannot be found, but she communicates with - and visits with - Chet Calhoun - who is conflicted between loyalty to her, and revealing his knowledge to the police. Chet also has conflicting love interests - the widow Ruth, and Vicky Van herself.

The maiden sisters call in Fleming Stone to find Vicky Van and bring her to justice. Stone brings his irregular, Fibsy, to do the legwork.

Review:

Thoroughly enjoyable and unique book. The narrator, Chet Calhoun, is in a precarious and unique position - having some knowledge of Vicky Van's whereabouts but hesitant to disclose anything to the authorities. 

The book focuses on the search for Vicky Van. She mails little messages here and there, but otherwise has disappeared with no trace. Fibsy, the young assistant to Stone, manages to find the solution by compiling an impressive list of  circumstantial evidence. The solution is a total surprise, turning the plot on end completely. 

The best Carolyn Wells I have read thus far.

Note: contains pejorative term used for persons of Italian ancestry.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Ginger Cat Mystery by Robin Forsythe (1935)

(also published as Murder at Marston Manor)



Note: All five of Forsythe's Algernon Vereker mysteries are currently in print, available from Amazon and other sources.




MAR 17: Please check back. Currently reading, I fill this out as I go along. RM

About the author: Robin Forsythe (1879-1937) was born in Sialkot, in modern day Pakistan. He went to school in Glasgow and Northern Ireland. In his teens he had short stories and poetry published and went to London wanting to be a writer. In 1929 Robin Forsythe published his debut, Missing or Murdered. It introduced Anthony ‘Algernon’ Vereker, an eccentric artist with an extraordinary flair for detective work. It was followed by four more detective novels in the Vereker series, ending with The Spirit Murder Mystery in 1936. All the novels are characterized by the sharp plotting and witty dialogue which epitomize the more effervescent side of golden age crime fiction. (from Dean St Publishers Website)

Major characters:

At Marston Manor:
  • John Cornell, the patriarch
  • Josephine Rivron, his young, sophisticated wife
  • Frank Cornell, John's son
  • Roland Carstairs, Frank's old school chum
  • George Tapp, valet
At a nearby cottage on the grounds:
  • David Cornell, John's brother, who is blind
  • Stella Cornell, his daughter
  • Mary Lister, maid and caregiver to David Cornell
Mrs. --- Mayo
Miss Valerie Mayo, her daughter, Frank's fiancée

The authorities:


  • Anthony "Algernon" Verecker, news correspondent and investigator
  • Inspector Heather, Scotland Yard
  • Sergeant Goss, Scotland Yard


Locale: Marston-le-Willows, England

Synopsis: Aging widower John Cornell surprises everyone by marrying young, sophisticated Josephine Rivron - whom everyone thought would marry his son, Frank. The locals consider her a gold-digger. John dies and is buried. Several months later, David Cornell (John's brother) announces he suspects that John had been poisoned, and calls for an exhumation and autopsy. It is done, but no poison is found.

Then Frank Cornell is found shot to death in the manor. He has been shot in the eye, and fell outside the door to a mysterious "music room" which is always kept locked. There a rumors of a lady ghost who plays the piano within, while wearing her wedding dress.

The authorities arrive: Inspector Heather and Sergeant Goss of Scotland Yard, along with Anthony "Algernon" Verecker, a news correspondent who also serves as an investigator.

The investigation is complicated by several competing love interests. Clues include a bit of fur from a ginger tabby cat.

Review:

I thought I had it beat - having figured out the murder method and culprit early in the book. I was half right, I had the method, but not the murderer. That was a surprise to me in the last pages, a surprising and satisfying turn of events.

The reviews of Forsythe's works always mention the witty dialogue, and that is so. The repartee sparkles throughout and is a pleasure to read.
  • "You mustn't confuse the thriller with the detective story. The latter amuses people by making them think they're thinking, the thriller by doing its damnedest to prevent them thinking at all."
  • "Do you believe in spirits, Crawley?" asked Verecker as he looked around the gloomy, low-ceilinged room. "If they're good, a drop now and then don't do you no harm, but there's nothing to compare with good wine, sir.""I mean ghosts, Crawley."
An odd aspect is the paragraph structure. I am reading the 2016 paperback reprint, so not sure if it was written this way - but there are no paragraph breaks anywhere except when a new speaker chimes in; so you must work your way through some page-long paragraphs.

This book features the obligatory "well-oiled lock", which is discussed often. The ginger tabby, does not, alas, make an appearance - only a bit of her fur.

I am glad his works are back in print, and will seek out the others.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen (1929)

dustjackets.com


About the author: Ellery Queen is a crime fiction pseudonym created in 1929 by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, and later used by other authors under Dannay and Lee's supervision. Dannay and Lee's main fictional character, whom they also named Ellery Queen, is a mystery writer in New York City who helps his police inspector father solve baffling murders. (from Wikipedia - full article). 

Major characters:
  • Monte Field - the victim
  • William Pusak - clerk
  • Louis Panzer - theatre manager
  • Harry Neilson - theatre publicity agent
  • James Peale - lead actor
  • Stephen Barry - actor
  • Eve Ellis
In the audience:
  • Frances Ives-Pope
  • Benjamin Morgan
  • "Parson Johnny" Cazzanelli
  • Madge O'Connell
  • Dr. Stuttgard



Locale: New York City

Synopsis: The play "Gunplay" is playing to packed houses at the Roman Theatre on Broadway. Sometime in the second act, Monte Field is found dead in the last row of the audience. Cause of death is found to be an obscure poison. An odd aspect is that his top hat is missing. (Remember, this is 1929, and top hats are de rigeur for men at the theatre). The murderer must have been someone in the theatre. Field is found to have been a blackmailer, with a multitude of people having a motive to do away with him. But where has he stashed his blackmail evidence? And where is his hat? Also see this summary on Wikipedia.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge


Review: This is the first Ellery Queen novel, and provides the pattern for most of those to follow. It contains a listing of the characters, a map of the crime scene, and an intermission which contains a challenge to the reader - stating all facts have now been presented, and can the reader determine who the killer is?

The character list and the map provide a handy reference while reading. The search for the hat becomes a shell game as more hats pile up. It seems a distraction, yet turns out to be vital to the plot, so pay attention to the hats. 

Some cringe-worthy elements are the houseboy Djuna, who seems more a pet than a servant; and an explanation of the motive at the end which reveals the racism of the time. There are some loose ends left dangling at the end, but still a satisfying read.



Friday, March 1, 2019

Q As In Quicksand by Lawrence Treat (1947)



About the author: Lawrence Arthur Goldstone (1903–1998), better known by his pen name, Lawrence Treat, was an American mystery writer, a pioneer of the genre of novels that became known as police proceduralsTreat wrote several hundred short stories for mystery magazines and other publications. He was a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America and a two-time winner of the MWA's Edgar Award. (wikipedia)

Major characters:

  • Martin Folger, just out of the Army, was an accident witness
  • Quentin Gobelin, deceased, from a car accident
  • Jackie Gobelin, deceased, from a car accident. Quentin's son
  • Lydia Harte, widow of Quentin Gobelin
  • Asa Gobelin, co-owner of Gobelin Lock Works
  • Ward Gobelin, co-owner of Gobelin Lock Works
  • Roy Coonerly, attorney
  • Dominic St. Thomas, a sleazy private eye
  • Olive Standish, a sexpot
  • Mitch Taylor, police detective
  • Ralph "Long Ears" Reddick, the other accident witness

Locale: Gobelin, Pennsylvania

Synopsis: Gobelin is a company town, the company being Gobelin Lock Works; manufacturers or various locks - and during WWII, casket hinges. The company was run by three brothers: Quentin, Asa, and Ward Gobelin. 

Martin Folger is just out of the Army, and stops in to clear up a loose end. Three years previous, he and Ralph "Long Ears" Reddick were witnesses to car accident in which Quentin and his two-year old daughter, Jackie, died. There is a legal question as to who died first, as the inheritance path differs on that point. If Jackie died first, Quentin's estate passes to his brothers. If Quentin died first, the estate passed to Jackie, and then upon his death, to Quentin's widow Lydia Harte.

Martin falls for Lydia, but sexpot Olive Standish is a temptation. Competing interests want Martin to change his witness account to their benefit. Then Asa Gobelin is found dead in a locked room (of course). 

Review:

I have trouble following a lot of the action in Treat's writing, as he tends to not explicitly state what is happening, where the characters are, and who is present. He tends to follow the thoughts of random strangers who are in the vicinity; which is a distraction but runs his word count up. His writing is the hard-boiled style with lots of tough guy clichés and innuendo.

It does settle down about halfway through the book. Of special interest and enjoyment are the accounts of petty jealousies within the police department and how those are dealt with.

The plot of finding who died first (within seconds of each other) three years ago is interesting and resolved nicely.



Monday, February 25, 2019

Might as Well Be Dead by Rex Stout (1956)

dustjackets.com

About the author: Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was an American writer noted for his detective fiction. His best-known characters are the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, who were featured in 33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975. (wikipedia). (bibliography)


Major characters:

  • James R. Herold, Wolfe's client, father of...
  • Paul Herold, missing in NYC; a.k.a....
  • Peter Hays, on trial for murder of...
  • Michael M. Molloy, a.k.a. Richard Randall, husband of...
  • Selma Molloy, the widow, having an affair? with Peter Hays
  • Albert Freyer, attorney for Peter Hays
  • Delia Brandt, Molloy's secretary
  • Patrick A. Degan, friend of Michael Molloy, head of Mechanics Alliance Welfare Association
  • Jerry & Rita Arkoff, friends of Selma Molloy
  • Tom & Fanny Irwin, friends of Selma Molloy
  • Nero Wolfe, investigator
  • Archie Goodwin, investigator
  • Saul Panzer, operative
  • Fred Durkin, operative
  • Orrie Cather, operative
  • Johnny Keems, operative
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: James R. Herold of Nebraska hires Nero Wolfe to locate his missing son, Paul Herold; believed to be in New York City. Wolfe and Archie Goodwin find him right away, going by the name of Peter Hays, and unfortunately on trial for Murder One; and quickly convicted.

The victim, Michael M. Molloy, was found shot in his apartment. His wife, Selma Molloy, was apparently having an affair with Hays. Wolfe teams up with Hays' attorney, Albert Freyer, to see if this was a frame-up.

The killer had opportunity when Selma went to the theatre with her friends Jerry and Rita Arkoff and Tom and Fanny Irwin. The question is who got her to go away and leave Molloy alone? While operative Johnny Keems go to ask them, he is run over and killed by a hit-and-run driver.

Selma is in need of an administrator to handle her husband's estate, and asks friend Patrick A. Degan

The police had closed the case with the conviction of Hays, but reopen it when bodies continue to turn up as Wolfe gets closer to the real killer.


Review:

Archie Goodwin again narrates a page turner, while resisting getting involved with the attractive widow. I did find it surprising the NYC police put such efforts into locating a missing person - who is an adult and wishes to remain missing. I don't think that would do that today.

There is no appearance by Lily Rowan, a usual pleasant side attraction.

The smoothly operating Wolfe household is always an incentive for me to clean up my office and dust my globe.

On a sad note, this is the book in which one of Wolfe's regular operatives gets written out of the series.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The House of Brass by Ellery Queen (1968)

readingelleryqueen.com


About the author: Likely plotted by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. Different sources identify the author as either Theodore Sturgeon or Avraam Davidson.

Major characters:

Hendrik Brass, the host
Hugo Zarbus, his hulking, not-too-bright assistant
Vaughn J. Vaughn, his tough-guy lawyer/private detective

The six house guests:
  • Jessie Sherwood, now Jessie Queen; accompanied by Inspector Queen
  • Lynn O'Neill, the country woman from Wyoming
  • Keith Palmer, having a struggling marriage
  • Cornelia Openshaw, the "sex crazy old maid"
  • DeWitt Alistair, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, both hustlers
  • Dr. Hubert Thornton, a G.P.
Police Chief Victor Fleck

Locale: Phillipskill, in upstate New York

Synopsis: Six strangers each receive an invitation in the mail to visit Hendrik Brass in upstate New York. One of the strangers is Jessie Queen, née Sherwood; recently married to retired Inspector Queen (father of Ellery). Each invitation includes $100 in travel expense money, and half of a $1000 bill, to which they will receive the other half if they accept.

They arrive to find a large, decrepit mansion inhabited only by blind, elderly Hendrik and his assistant Hugo. 'Brass' is not only his name, but his business - he has built a fortune making brass appointments in the attached workshop. He reveals the six were chosen because the parents of each did a service to him years ago, and now he is choosing whom to include in his $6M will. His attorney/private eye Palmer Vaughn also sought three additional persons, but found two had died, and one - Harding Boyle - could not be found.

Brass' reason for choosing them is found to be false. Queen recruits his old cronies to chase down the past of each. Brass meets his expected end, and the six legatees are in line for $1M each - but where is it?

Review: This is the sequel to Inspector Queen's Own Case, and begins like a classic captive-audience mystery, with an odd assortment of people with no apparent connection summoned to a creepy country house. Unlike the usual mysteries of this type, the guests are free to come and go as they please. 

When old Brass announces his intention of leaving each of the six guests $1M each in his will, you know he is not long for this earth. The focus of the book is not so much finding his murderer, as it is finding the lost $6M treasure.

Plenty of surprises at the end (which reminded me of the end of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca).

Also see this review on Jon Mathewson's blog Readingelleryqueen.com