Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1926)

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The play came first (1920), then the book was back-written from it (1926). Wikipedia states in its article The Bat that "the The Bat is a three-act play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood that was first produced by Lincoln Wagenhals and Collin Kemper in 1920." It was remade into film several times as well.

Major characters:

Locale:

Synopsis:

Review:

Also see this review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Man Next Door by Mignon Eberhart (1942)

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About the author: (from Goodreads): Mignon Good (1899-1996) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1929 her first crime novel was published featuring 'Sarah Keate', a nurse and 'Lance O'Leary', a police detective. This couple appeared in another four novels. Over the next forty years she wrote a novel nearly every year. In 1971 she won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. 

Major characters:
  • Maida Lovell, our protagonist, secretary to Steve Blake
  • Steve Blake, head of a government wartime (WWII) project
  • Bill Skeffington, his assistant
  • Christine (née Favor) Blake, Steve's sister-in-law, a war widow
  • Angela Favor, Christine's high-maintenance younger sister
  • Walsh Rantoul, the effeminate boarder
  • Nollie Lister, a nosy neighbor
  • "Smith", a foreign agent
Locale: Washington DC

Synopsis: Pretty Maida Lovell, secretary to war department executive Steve Blake, stops by Christine Blake's house (his widowed sister-in-law) where he is living and has his home office. She is to pick up some notes for his radio speech later that evening. She is in love with him, and jealous that Blake has been spending time with Christine's elegant penthouse-lifestyle sister, Angela Favor. She encounters - and rebuffs - prissy Walsh Rantoul in the house, who is mixing drinks and coming on to her. She goes upstairs to retrieve the notes, and Blake stops in at the same time. After Blake departs for his meeting, Maida goes downstairs to find Blake gone and Rantoul dead in the kitchen. It looks like Blake has murdered him, since they had words earlier.

A stranger who calls himself "Smith" enters. In order to protect Blake from discovery, he offers to dispose of Rantoul's body and the evidence, if Maida will find information about airplane movements for him. The information he asks for is to be public knowledge anyway, so she complies. Now she is trapped. Smith is obviously an enemy spy and he has a hold on Maida to find out more and more intelligence on wartime materiel and personnel movements.

Review: A riveting murder/spy mystery and love story all rolled into one. As in many of Eberhart's books, the protagonist is the cute brunette girl-next-door caught up in intrigue as she also faces losing the man she loves to a high-maintenance blonde. The descriptions of Washington DC set the tone of the story, as well as emphasizes how much of the progress there occurs not in Congress, but behind closed doors at cocktail parties. The WWII restrictions add to the flavor. This is a tight novel, with a small cast of characters. She outwitted me as usual. Three or four times I predicted how this was going to work out, but I was wrong every time. Even the title misled me, I thought "the man next door" referred to a certain person, but again, wrong.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The House at Satan's Elbow by John Dickson Carr (1965)


About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Pennington Barclay, master of Greengrove
  • Deidre Barclay, his young wife
  • Fay Wardour, a.k.a. Fay Sutton, his secretary
  • Estelle Barclay, his sister
  • Dr. Edward Fortescue, family doctor
  • Annie Tiffin, cook
  • Mr. Justice Wildfare, long dead, but returning as a ghost?
  • Nick Barclay, New York magazine publisher
  • Garret Anderson, historical writer
  • Andrew Dawlish, attorney

Locale: England

Synopsis: Old Clovis Barclay had left the Greengrove estate to eldest son Pennington. Then a second will is found, which left the estate to grandson Nick Barclay instead. Nick comes to the UK, and heads for the estate with his friend Garret Anderson. Nick doesn't want the estate, and plans to give it to Pennington anyway.

The estate comes with a legend that the ghost of former owner Mr. Justice Wildfare visits periodically. They arrive to find the ghost has just visited Pennington, and shot at him; but the gun was loaded with blanks. They also discover that Pennington's secretary, Fay Wardour, is Garret's old girlfriend. The ghost makes a second appearance in a locked room and tries again with real bullets, this time wounding Pennington.

Review: First off, it is not a murder mystery - no one gets murdered, despite the cover blurb. It is two consecutive locked-room puzzles (same room each time). The Greengrove mansion is a sprawling, massive place with lots of overly specific description in the text - one sketch map would have been preferred - and could have avoided absurd statements of the obvious such as:

"What had been the left-hand window of the library as you stood inside the room looking out had now become the right-hand window as you stood outside looking in."

The details of room layouts, window layouts, etc. led me to believe something would be up with that, perhaps mirrors or a secret passage, but no. The household itself is an amusing collection of characters - manic Estelle is always running around, and beyond the sedate library and music room (with ear-shattering Gilbert and Sullivan records playing) is - yes, a pinball room at which the family enjoys playing pinball. Toss in a couple of love interests, and amongst all this fun is Annie Tiffin, the cook; who proves to be an enjoyable character and provides one of the keys for Dr. Fell to unravel the two puzzles.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Miss Pinkerton by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1932)

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About the author: Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 – 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie, although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie's first novel in 1920. Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase "The butler did it" from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase. Rinehart is also considered to have invented the "Had-I-But-Known" school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908). (from a Wikipedia article).

Major characters:
  • Herbert Wayne, deceased - but still warm - as story begins
  • Paula Brent, his girlfriend
  • Miss Juliet Mitchell, his elderly, deaf aunt
  • Arthur Glenn, attorney
  • Florence Lenz, Glenn's secretary
  • Hugo, the butler
  • Mary, the cook (Hugo's wife)
  • Nurse Hilda Adams, a.k.a. "Miss Pinkerton"
  • Inspector Patton
  • Dr. -- Stewart
  • Charlie Elliott, neighbor, Paula Brent's former boyfriend
Locale: unspecified

Synopsis: Herbert Wayne lives on the 3rd floor of his aunt's (Miss Julia Mitchell) run-down mansion. It has seen better days - the only servants remaining are Hugo (butler) and Mary (cook, and Hugo's wife). Herbert had been speculating on stocks and now he is found shot. No one can determine if it was murder, suicide, or accident (he had been cleaning his gun).

Miss Julia is feeling poorly so Inspector Patton plants Nurse Adams in the home as her nurse. Wayne's girlfriend, Paula Brent, is distraught. Then it comes to light that her former boyfriend, Charlie Elliott, has been hanging around and threatening to do away with Wayne in order to get Paula back. This puts him at the top of the suspect list.

Review:

Nurse Adams is a great sneak to be our investigator. When talking on the phone to Inspector Patton, she addresses him as "doctor" so the family won't suspect. A lot of the book is devoted to figuring out if waster Wayne is a murder, suicide, or accident - and there is a lot of hanky-panky going on with the crime scene evidence too. The use of a newspaper in a murder is a new one. 

I do like the amusing episodes - the funniest is when Nurse Adams is keeping watch over her patient, Miss Julia, at night; and each is waiting for the other to fall asleep (reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre- with alternating peeps over the bed's footboard. Another amusing happening is repeated incidents of people getting trapped on the mansion's roof!

I learned a few essential things from this book:
  • Risus Sardonicus - an involuntary grin caused by muscular action, "may be caused by tetanus, strychnine poisoning or Wilson's disease, and has been reported after judicial hanging." Do a Google Image search for some creepy pictures.
  • How to tell if a person in a faint is faking - you will have to read the book to find this little technique out!
  • Rolled Stockings - a rather rebellious action in the 1920's-1930's by ladies by unclasping their stockings from their garters and rolling the tops so they stay up all by themselves. Shocking! See this article.
  • How to shoot somebody at close range without leaving the telltale powder burns.


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Bachelors Get Lonely by A. A. Fair (1961)

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About the author: A. A. Fair is a pseudonym of Erle Stanley Gardner.

Major characters:
  • Montrose L. Carson, a property appraiser
  • Irene Addis, employee of Montrose Carson
  • Herbert Jason Dowling, a property appraise, Carson's competitor
  • Bernice Clinton, employee of Herbert J. Dowling
  • Donald Lam, investigator
  • Bertha Cool, his partner
  • Elsie Brand, his secretary
Locale: Los Angeles

Synopsis:

Appraiser Montrose Carson hires Cool & Lam to find out who is the leak in his office. Whenever he prepares to close on a deal, his competitor Herbert J. Dowling beats him to it at the last moment with a better price. Bertha Cool cooks up a scheme to reveal who the leaker is, by putting up a fake property deal with Donald Lam as the "seller". To help create a realistic identity, Lam moves into a bachelor apartment and secretary Elsie Brand poses as his girlfriend. Dowling's employee, Bernice Clinton, approaches Lam with a better (than Carson's) offer; and the details reveal Irene Addis as the leaker in Carson's office.

Lam follows Carson to a motel, where Carson meets a woman. After she leaves, Lam looks in the window to see Carson dead on the floor, and a bullet hole in the window.

Review:

With A. A. Fair you are always guaranteed skulking around looking in windows, and secret meetings at cheap motels, with every woman in the cast throwing herself at Donald Lam; and this one is no different. It is a fun romp with a clever trap set by Bertha Cool to find the leaker. The repartée between Lam and Elsie Brand is always enjoyable. I always find A. A. Fair works to be best taken at either one or at most two sittings, as everybody assumes various alias' throughout, and it's hard to keep it all straight over more than two days!



Sunday, July 28, 2019

There Is A Tide by Agatha Christie (1948)

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Major characters:
  • Gordon Cloade (deceased) and his widow, Rosaleen
  • Dr. Lionel Cloade (Gordon's brother), and his wife Kathie, a spiritualist
  • Jeremy Cloade (Gordon's brother), a lawyer, and his wife Frances
  • Rowley Cloade (Gordon's nephew), a farmer (engaged to Lynn Marchmont)
  • Adela Marchmont, Gordon's widowed sister
  • Lynn Marchmont, Adela's daughter, just out of the service
  • David Hunter, Rosaleen's brother, an adventurer
  • Robert Underhay (presumed deceased), Rosaleen's first husband
  • Enoch Arden, a blackmailer
  • Major Porter

Locale: Warmsley Vale, England

Synopsis: Wealthy, childless widower Gordon Cloade had always ensured his two brothers, one sister, and nephew they would be well taken care of when he died. Then he married a much younger woman, Rosaleen Hunter Underhay, widow of Robert Underhay, believed dead in Africa. Not long after the marriage, Gordon is killed in the London blitz bombing.

Now the Cloades: doctor Lionel Cloade, lawyer Jeremy Cloade, farmer Rowley Cloade, and Adela Marchmont are in an awkward position. All struggling financially, they had placed their hopes in a large inheritance. But now Rosaleen is his only heir; and she is burning through the fortune with her wild and crazy brother David Hunter. 

Enoch Arden shows up with a blackmail offer: How much is it worth to the Cloades for proof Robert Underhay is still alive? If he is, Rosaleen's subsequent marriage to Gordon is invalid, and the Cloade brothers are again heirs. This is worth quite a bit. On the other hand, how much is it worth to Rosaleen's scheming brother David Hunter not to reveal the information, since it would cut off his source of money? Place your bids. A dangerous game - Enoch Arden is found dead in his hotel room with no leads as to Robert Underhay at all. Suspicions are aroused that Enoch Arden is not his real name, as it is really the name of a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which has a similar plot. But who is he?

Hercule Poirot visits to investigate a murder in which everyone has a motive.

Review: A very tight Rubik's Cube of a novel. Each person has a motive for murder and they all interlock. One interesting plot element is the path of inheritence depending who dies in what order. Several twists and turns occur with a big surprise at the end. I had a bit of trouble figuring the family relationships out, with one enigma remaining: If Rowley is Gordon's nephew, who are his parents? Not Jeremy and Frances, it is stated they had only one child (Anthony) who was killed in the war. Not Lionel and Kathie, since he refers to her as his aunt. Not widowed Adela, since he is engaged to her daughter (who would then be his sister). Not essential to the plot, but still a naggy loose end.



Tuesday, July 23, 2019

El Rancho Rio by Mignon Eberhart (1970)

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About the author: (from Goodreads): Mignon Good (1899-1996) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1929 her first crime novel was published featuring 'Sarah Keate', a nurse and 'Lance O'Leary', a police detective. This couple appeared in another four novels. Over the next forty years she wrote a novel nearly every year. In 1971 she won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. 


Major characters:
  • Craig Wilson
  • Indian Joe, Craig's confidante and our primary investigator.
  • Rhoda Wilson, Craig's first wife
  • Guy Casso, who had affair with Rhoda
  • Susan Wilson, Craig and Rhoda's teenage daughter
  • Mady Wilson, Craig's current (second) wife
  • Boyce and Edith Wilson, Craig's brother and his wife
  • Mirabel, Craig's aunt
  • Jim Marsh - Mady's previous lover
  • Walter Banner - a lost tourist, or is he?


Locale: the Nevada desert

Synopsis: Craig and Mady Wilson, wealthy from mining discoveries, have a ranch, El Rancho Rio, in the Nevada desert. During his previous marriage to Rhoda Wilson, Craig and she had a daughter, now 12-year old Susan. Their marriage fell apart after Rhoda had an affair with Guy Casso. Craig had remarried, to our protagonist Mady Wilson.  One night Guy enters their home and assaults Mady, then runs away. The next day Mady is out riding and finds Casso's body in the desert, dead from being struck with a piece of souvenir railroad rail from their home. Indian Joe, Craig's assistant and confidante, is pressed into service as the de facto investigator.

Rhoda arrives with a deal for Mady - essentially to swap their men. Mady can have her former lover, Jim Marsh, back if she gives up Craig to Rhoda to remarry, so she (Rhoda) can again have custody of her daughter. Meanwhile a snowstorm comes in to trap the Wilsons along with Rhoda, Jim Marsh, Boyce and Edith Wilson, and lost stranger Walter Banner all in the same house - knowing one of them is a killer. And of course, the power goes out, and a gun is missing. (This is essentially the same plot setup as in Deep Lay the Dead by Frederick C. Davis.)

Edith Wilson mentions knowledge of Casso's killer, and she too is killed by someone on the ranch.

Review: Eberhart's stories are always enjoyable with the female protagonist who is always getting in trouble - as we follow her thoughts as she tries to get out of it. Eberhart excels in her place descriptions - this time the desert of Nevada (being from New England, this is a place I would not normally associate with snowstorms!). The desert locale is described almost as well as Erle Stanley Gardner. The character of Susan as a precocious 12-year old is well done and serves to move the plot along. Written in 1970, we see how far treatment of minorities in fiction had come (albeit with a long way still to go). Indian Joe (never dignified with a last name) is cast as Craig's confidante and our primary investigator. While some stereotypical language and mannerisms remain, it is also noted Joe has a Master's degree in Philosophy.