Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Boudoir Murder by Milton M. Propper (1931)

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About the author: See Mystery Monday: Who was Milton Propper? by Linda Shenton Matchett


Major characters:
  • Tommy Rankin, police detective
  • Lester Gordon, Rankin's assistant
  • William Condon, P.A. announcer at Broad Street railroad station
  • George Stokes, who didn't answer a page
  • Mr. Lippincott, manager of the Quaker Hotel
  • Ann Craig, a.k.a. Lillian Kennedy, the deceased
  • Horace Montgomery, host of the hotel's dinner dance
  • Mrs. Horace Montgomery, confined to bed
  • Andrew Montgomery, his son
  • Grace Thayer, Andrew's fiancĂ©e
  • Hugo Evans, Montgomery's butler
  • Mrs. Gorman, Montgomery's cook


Locale: Philadelphia, PA

Synopsis: William Condon is at work at Broad Street railroad station, announcing the trains. He receives a frantic call from a woman, begging that he page George Stokes to the phone - a matter of life and death. Condon makes the page - but no George Stokes replies. Condon returns to the phone call to hear the unmistakable sounds of a struggle before the phone is hung up.

Condon reports the incident to police, and detective Tommy Rankin traces the call to room 822 of the Quaker Hotel. He and hotel manager Mr. Lippincott enter the room to find a woman, registered as Lillian Kennedy, strangled. They find calls had been placed from that room to Horace Montgomery, who at the time was hosting a dinner dance in the hotel's ballroom in honor of the engagement of his son, Andrew Montgomery to Grace Thayer.

It quickly becomes evident the Montgomery household is deeply involved. Horace goes to view the body, and is surprised to find it is his maid, Ann Craig, who had left employment just that morning. Rankin interviews the domestic staff to find:
  • George Stokes was Ann Craig's suitor and departed after an argument, 
  • butler Hugo Evans was apparently eloping with her, and 
  • son Andrew had been seen kissing her (a Montgomery kissing a servant? shocking!)
With three men all vying for Ann Craig, motives abound.

Review: I do like a mystery with starts right out with some action, and this early police procedural jumps right in. Our victim is dead by page five. Tommy Rankin is cast as the young up-and-coming detective who relies upon speedy, yet proper police procedures. The action continues without pause as Rankin zeroes in on the Montgomery household and the Thayer household in turn.

I like following Rankin's thought processes, all neatly detailed and recorded, as he decides which clues are important enough for him to follow, and which to delegate to others. 

I laughed out loud when reading Propper's backhand compliment of Rankin's assistant, Lester Gordon: "Gordon, while neither particularly clever nor able, was persistent. Once set on a trail which had been ferreted out for him by another, he could be counted on to follow it to its very end." It immediately brought to mind Knox's Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction (1929) which has as commandment #9: "The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson ... his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader." 

I was a bit disappointed that Rankin is such a sterile character - we learn nothing about him. Is he married? single? where does he live? Does ever eat? drink? smoke? All unknown, perhaps revealed in another book. He is a machine, on the job 24/7. I will keep an eye out for more Milton Propper titles.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1936)

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Major characters:
  • Miss Harriet Vane
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Violet Cattermole, who drank too much
  • Reggie Pomfret, admirer of Harriet Vane
  • Jukes, a dishonest servant
  • Lord Saint-George, Peter Wimsey's nephew
  • Miss Newland, who almost drowned
  • Annie Wilson, a "scout" (custodian)
  • Arthur Robinson, Annie Wilson's former husband, deceased
Locale: Oxford, England

Synopsis: Harriet Vane, a writer of detective stories, is off to a Shrewsbury College reunion, which will be topped with a party called 'The Gaudy'. Meanwhile, two things are happening in her life: she - and others - receive a series of anonymous letters with vague threats, and Lord Peter Wimsey (LPW) is continuing his campaign of seeking to marry her.

Harriet gets involved trying to find the writer of the poison-pen letters, who not only writes the anonymous letters, but also commits acts of vandalism at the college. Harriet catches a man climbing in over the wall - Reggie Pomfret - who turns out to become a friend and admirer. Harriet also gets to know Peter Wimsey's nephew, Lord Saint-George, who tends to run up a lot of debts for LPW to bail him out of.

Harriet wishes LPW were there to assist in finding the culprit, but he is off on various travels. Things come to a head when Miss Newland, terrorized by the anonymous letters, attempts to drown herself. LPW finally arrives on the scene and the two story lines of the anonymous letters and the repeated marriage proposals are finally resolved.

Review: This book starts off quite slowly with long descriptions of the college campus as the reunion approaches, replete with some some undefined acronyms with mystify this reader. A visit to this Wikpedia page explains that J.C.R. means Junior Common Room and S.C.R. means Senior Common Room - which not only refer to an actual room, but also the members of that room.

The anonymous letters are treated more of a nuisance than a real problem at the beginning, until the real harm of the vandalism begins.

I was waiting - waiting - for something to happen to kick the story into a murder mystery. After a long time, a body is apparently found hanging; and I thought this was the point - but alas, it was not a real body but a dummy. I was teased again when it appeared Miss Newland was a murder victim, but no, she survives quite well. There is one death - but it occured prior to the story line, and is dispensed of with a couple of sentences at the denouement as a part of the motive explanation.

This has been described as a novel with a detective story within, and it is. The happenings at the college are told in great detail - sometimes too much detail - and the action moves very slowly but steadily.

Lord Peter Wimsey has but a minor role in the book, appearing only at the end to figure out the anonymous letter mystery and provide the denouement.


See also this review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.

Friday, March 6, 2020

The D.A. Cooks a Goose by Erle Stanley Gardner (1942)

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#5 of 9 in the Doug Selby series. The full series is:
  1. The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937) 
  2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
  3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
  4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
  5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
  6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
  7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
  8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
  9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)


 Major characters:


  • Mrs. --- Hunter, a widow, in a car accident
  • Baby Mary Hunter, her infant daughter, died in the accident
  • Terry Blossten of Louisiana, owner of the car which hit the Hunters
  • Mrs. Sadie Grolley Blossten, his wife
  • Ezra Grolley, miser hermit, Sadie's Grolley's brother
  • Alice Grolley, Ezra's wife for a short period, then a murder victim
  • Baby Ruth Grolley, their infant daughter, left in the bus station
  • Jackson Teel
  • Margaret Faye, hitchhiker, was in the Hunter car

  • Doug Selby, D.A.
  • Sheriff Rex Baldwin, 
  • Otto Larkin, Chief of Police
  • Sylvia Martin, crime reporter for The Clarion 
  • Inez Stapleton, Selby's old girlfriend, now attorney for Sadie Grolley
  • A.B. Carr, attorney for Mrs. Hunter and Alice Grolley

 Locale: Madison City, California 

Synopsis: Mrs. -- Hunter, her baby daughter Mary, and hitchhiker Margaret Faye are riding on a mountain road when their car is hit by another. The Hunter car rolls down an embankment, and baby Mary dies.

The car which hit them was reported stolen. It belongs to Terry and Sadie Blossten of Louisiana. They are in the area to visit Sadie's ailing hermit brother, Ezra Grolley. Ezra is separated from his young wife Alice and their infant daughter Ruth. Ezra passes away in the hospital.

Alice and Ruth were waiting in a bus station when Ruth is called to the phone. She is apparently abducted, leaving the baby behind. D. A. Doug Selby and Sheriff Rex Baldwin enlists the help of Baldwin's wife to care for the baby while they search for Alice. Alice is eventually discovered murdered.

Ezra's shack is found ransacked, and it appears he had hidden away a fortune, now missing, but leaving behind a suspicious will. 

Mrs. Hunter and Sadie Grolley lawyer up. Hunter retains sleazy A. B. Carr, and Sadie Grolley Blossten retains Inez Stapleton, Selby's former flame and current grudge-holder.

A fight over Ezra's will is looming between his sister (Sadie) and - now that his wife is dead - his infant daughter who would be next to inherit. It appears the car accident may have been staged in an estate grab.

Review: I have read that this Doug Selby series offers more of an experience than the Perry Masons - more character development and depth than the assembly line Masons, and I agree. The D.A. Selby is our protagonist, quite the opposite of the Masons, and he is more thoughtful, well rounded, and less likely to be the tough guy. And he certainly is not in a position to juggle evidence like you-know-who.

Whenever ESG goes off on technical details of investigations, it is always fascinating and has the ring of truth for technology of the time. In this series, Selby has the opportunity to introduce technical subjects - while in the Masons, they are usually placed in the Foreword as a dedication to a particular person. Here we have two technical topics explored: how an Examiner of Questioned Documents works, and how blood spatters tell a story.

Whenever a ESG story has two similar-appearing people, or twins, you can always tell the old switcheroo is coming, and this story - with two similar women each having a same-age baby, is no exception.

One cringe-worthy element, though: this is the second time in the Selby series we have Inez Stapleton crying, an unnecessary stereotype.

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace (1920)

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About the author (Goodreads): Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was a prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright, who wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, and countless articles in newspapers and journals.

Edgar Wallace


Mar 2: under construction!

Major characters:

The Four Just Men:
  • George Manfred, the leader
  • Leon Gonsalez
  • Poiccart
  • Miguel Thery, a.k.a. Saimont
  • Bernard Courtlander, a replacement
Sir Philip Ramon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
Billy Marks, pickpocket turned informant
Detective Superintendent Falmouth
Charles Garrett, reporter for The Megaphone
Countess Maria Slienvich, a.k.a. The Woman of Gratz

Locale:

Synopsis: "The Four Just Men" (FJM) are a group who seek to enact justice outside the law. They are responsible for the deaths of 16 people over time, who in their opinion, escaped justice. 

Part I: Sir Philip Ramon has come to their attention. Ramon is Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and while having committed no crime, is responsible for the introduction of a bill which the FJM oppose. This is the Aliens Extradition bill, which will allow the expulsion of persons who have come to England for sanctuary. The FJM have just replaced one of their number with Spaniard Miguel Thery. They groom him to execute Sir Philip, in the event he fails to withdraw his bill as they demand. The FJM, although killers, are exceedingly fair; and warn their victims in advance. Extraordinary measures are taken to protect Sir Philip. Newspaper ads are also placed offering rewards for the capture of the FJM, but it appears his end is inevitable.

Part II: An anarchist organization, the Red Hundred, is now the target of the FJM. After Miguel Thery meets his end, a new fourth is added -- one who goes by the name Bernard Courtlander. Manfred's cat-and-mouse game with the Woman of Gratz continues. Manfred winds up arrested and imprisoned, where he maintains he will escape to avoid the death penalty. 

Review: The Four Just Men are like four Simon Templars all at once. They go after those who escaped justice, and mete it out themselves; to the wink-wink of the authorities. Part I, the affair of Sir Philip Ramon, is exciting and winds up as a locked-room puzzle. Part II becomes confusing and hard to follow, as there are three distinct groups (FJM, Red Hundred, the police) - then four (adding the cult-like Rational Faithers) all against each other simultaneously. It then turns into a locked-room mystery as Manfred looks to escape from the condemned cell at the prison. The attitudes of the prison authorities are interesting as they treat Manfred with great respect as they reluctantly bring him to the execution house. Will he escape? If there is to be a sequel (and there are several!) he must!

One aspect which I found a bit annoying: Sherlock Holmes-like references to fictitious previous cases which are not authored anywhere. At least when the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew plug a different case, it really exists!


Also see this Wikipedia article.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The D.A. Goes to Trial by Erle Stanley Gardner (1940)

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#4 of 9 in the Doug Selby series. The full series is:

  1. The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937) 
  2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
  3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
  4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
  5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
  6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
  7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
  8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
  9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)


 Major characters:


  • Mark Crandall, bank director who witnessed an odd event
  • John Burke, a.k.a. Allison Brown, an accountant
  • Thelma Burke, his wife
  • Unidentified hobo, deceased
  • George Lawler, head of Los Alidas Lumber Company
  • James Lacey, Arizona rancher
  • Oliver Bennell, a greasy bank president
  • Doug Selby, D.A.
  • Sheriff Rex Baldwin Chief of Police
  • Jed "Buck" Reilly, deputy sheriff in Tucson, Arizona
  • Sylvia Martin, crime reporter for The Clarion 
  • Inez Stapleton, Selby's old girlfriend, now an attorney
 Locale: Madison City, California and Tucson, Arizona

Synopsis: One night, outside Madison City, a hobo is struck by a train and killed. It appears accidental. However, a number of odd aspects soon come to light.

Bank director Mark Crandall approaches D.A. Doug Selby with a concern. He had recommended John Burke for employment as accountant at the Los Alidas Lumber Company. Then he saw him meeting with a broker, but going by the name of Allison Brown. Suspicious of financial wrongdoings, he asks Selby to investigate. The problem is there has been no crime - so nothing to investigate.

Meanwhile, it comes to light the dead hobo was seen earlier at the home of John Burke, getting cozy with Burke's wife, Thelma. Selby finds auditors at work at the lumber company, but bank president George Lawler brushes that off as routine and claims nothing is wrong.

The coroner fingerprints the hobo's body as part of routine identification. He contacts the hobo's brother, Horatio Perne, who requests an immediate cremation. This is done, the ashes sent to the brother, but they are returned as undeliverable. It appears the cremation may have been ordered to delay identification, but Selby has the fingerprints.

Selby and reporter Sylvia Martin fly to Tucson to find Thelma Burke has run off with Arizona rancher James Lacey, who was her first husband. Some have identified the dead hobo as her curren husband, John, but some are absolutely certain it is not him.

There are lots of suspicious circumstances, but still Selby finds no crime. Then George Lawler is found shot in his bank vault, the vault looted. Now there is a crime.

With a tentative identification of the dead hobo as John Burke, Lacey and Thelma are arrested on a murder charge. They retain attorney Inez Stapleton, Selby's rebuffed former girlfriend, so now they are legal adversaries as well.

Review: I have always enjoyed Gardner's writings about the desert - both in fiction and nonfiction. This story has a lot of action taking place at an Arizona ranch in the desert, and the descriptions of the ranch house and the desert itself are a treat. It is obvious ESG is quite familiar with a desert environment.

The chain of events leading to the two murders turns out to be quite complex, and after a certain point I cease trying to follow it all in my head and just take the writer's word for it. There are a lot of events, but really no red herrings. Everything, no matter how trivial, is all tied together at the end.

Not only does this story present a lot of loose threads, there is also the tension between Selby, Inez Stapleton (the former girlfriend, now defense attorney), and current flame Sylvia Martin. There are a lot of dagger-stares between the two women.

The usual ESG court scene is surprisingly brief.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Penthouse Murders by Raymond Holden (1931)

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About the author: Little is known (by me) about this author. Wikipedia has an article on author William P. Holden, but I am not convinced it is the same person; as the one in the article wrote books of poetry and music history, no fiction is mentioned.

Locale: New York City

Major characters:
  • Tappan Willett, wealthy New Yorker
  • Charles Corlear, his wealthy friend
  • George Harper, private investigator
  • Eliphalet Barnwell, found dead on the penthouse terrace
  • Julio, Barnwell's manservant, found dead inside the penthouse
  • Barbara Holger, last person to see to Barnwell alive
  • Rufus Polhemus, Barnwell's attorney


Synopsis: Two wealthy New York City buddies, Tappan Willett and Charles Corlear, live together summers in the city while their families head off to the luxurious suburban estates. One night they decide to go to a penthouse party of an acquaintance (Eliphalet Barnwell), and on the way pick up their P.I. friend George Harper. 

They arrive at Barnwell's penthouse. As they are going in, they meet a woman (Barbara Holger) on her way out. Once inside, they find Barnwell dead - stabbed - on the terrace. No one seems to be around. Harper heads out in pursuit of Holger, as she must have been the last one to see Barnwell alive. Willett and Corlear call the police, and while looking around, find Barnwell's manservant, Julio, alive and well, sleeping in his room. The police arrive. While they investigate, Julio is now found with a knife in him - dead. 

Barnwell's attorney, Rufus Polhemus, arrives for an appointment with Barnwell, unaware he is no longer living.

Harper follows Holger to her apartment. She attempts to escape but Harper finds her in the adjacent building. While in his custody, she sustains a minor gunshot wound also.

Review:

There are some issues with this book. 

  • Tappan Willett and Charles Corlear and two cardboard characters who are really not necessary to the plot, they only serve to introduce P.I. George Harper, who takes the plot forward. While Harper investigates, Willett and Corlear amuse themselves by instructing the police how to do their jobs. One of these characters could be easily cut, perhaps both.
  • There is only one female character to be found (but in her defense, she does have three identities!)
  • Some of the description is ... well ... you decide: "The unshaded kitchen globe, accustomed to casting its radiance upon flour-drifted meatballs, batter bowls, and dismembered vegetables, dropped a kind of shroud of pallor over the lovely face of Miss Barbara Holger, who was laid out like a large salmon on the linoleum."
  • Barbara, shot through the arm, calmly brushes it off and continue with life as usual.

This book had a great premise - a murder (Julio) occurring while the police are present, but no murderer to be found.

As the last few pages approached, I was skeptical all the loose ends could be wrapper up - there were too many outstanding: the coded message? who killed Barnwell? who killed Julio? how was it done with the police present? who shot Barbara? Why does she have three different identities?

The Barnwell murder is the primary puzzle, and the murderer is, indeed, revealed. We find the murderer used the old dodge (well, in 1931, it could have been a new dodge) of injuring himself following the murder, to make it appear he is an additional victim).

The big letdown is the Julio murder. At the end, this is brushed off with a speculation that someone came in the window and did it, then left. Sigh.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers (1933)

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About the author:  See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:

Staff of Pym's Publicity:
  • Victor Dean, deceased from falling down the stairs
  • Death Bredon, the new copy writer
  • Other copy writers: Mr. Ingleby and Miss Meteyard
  • Copy Chiefs: Mr. Hankin and Mr. Armstrong
  • Mr. Pym, owner 
  • Mr. Willis
  • Mr. Tallboy, group manager for the Nutrax account
  • Assistants: Miss Rossiter and Miss Parton
  • Mr. Prout, photographer
Others:
  • Pamela Dean, the late Victor Dean's sister
  • Dian de Momerie, wealthy dilettante who runs with the party crowd
  • Major Tod Milligan, drug distributor
  • Inspector Charles Parker
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
Locale: England

Synopsis:  Pym's Publicity is a busy advertising agency with a chaotic staff. Between floors is an iron spiral staircase, which some have always considered unsafe. Copy writer Victor Dean has just fallen down these stairs and died as the story begins, and Death Bredon is coming in as his replacement. Bredon is curious about the incident, and finding a note from Dean suggesting something is fishy at Pym's, leads him to suspect murder. He seeks to learn about it, and strikes up a friendship with Dean's sister, Pamela. 

Through Pamela, Bredon is introducted to the drug party crowd of enchanting Dian de Momerie. Bredon attends a party in harlequin costume, and begins a teasing on-again, off-again relationship with de Momerie; always remaining in his costume to hide his identity. He becomes a legend, appearing without warning.

Bredon finds the connection between the party crowd and Pym's is the method of distributing drugs; which led to the murder of Dean, the man who knew too much.

Review:

A very nice page-turner, I did not mention Lord Peter in the synopsis as it would be a spoiler. 

The sudden revelation of the identity of Death Bredon came as a surprise to me, I should have seen it coming.

The chaotic activities at Pym's are sometimes hard to follow, with a parade of every employee challenging the reader to keep track of who's who. The descriptions show some of the true absurdities of corporate life. 

Much is made of the fact that Victor Dean did not relinquish his hold on a book during his fatal fall, yet this turned out to be a big red herring which never was brought up again.

The interplay of Bredon (as the harlequin) and Dian de Momerie is rather fairy-tale, especially the forest scene with him playing the pan pipes in a tree to Dian below. Dian becomes enchanted with this mysterious figure, reminding me of Luisa and the bandit El Gallo of The Fantasticks.

The chapter "Unexpected Conclusion of a Cricket Match" is a highly detailed play-by-play of the game, which didn't mean anything to me - not being familiar with the game - but the ending of the game did provide a plot element as a catalyst to wrap the story up.

The method the drug dealers use in dealing with security risks gets a bit repetitive, send them out on the sidewalk and a convenient truck jumps the sidewalk and runs over them (happens 3 times).

The denouement explains the involvement of Pym's and the drug trade, a clever little strategem involving the use of the advertisements themselves, a World War II -era espionage staple.

PS> If  you enjoy books set in advertising agencies, also try The Hand of Power by Edgar Wallace, which features Pawter's Publicity Services.

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