Saturday, November 16, 2019

Murder in the Willett Family by Rufus King (1931)

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About the author: Rufus King was an American author of Whodunit crime novels. He created two series of detective stories: the first one with Reginald De Puyster, a sophisticated detective similar to Philo Vance, and the second one with his more famous character, the Lieutenant Valcour. (from Goodreads). Also see this article.

Locale:

Synopsis:

Review:



Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Eye in Attendance by Valentine Williams (1923)



About the author: Valentine Williams (1883–1946) was an English journalist and writer of popular fiction. Williams was awarded the Military Cross as a soldier and wrote two autobiographical books about his war-time experiences. In the aftermath of war, he travelled widely as a reporter.  It was during this period that he began writing thrillers and around 1926 he gave up his post at the Daily Mail to pursue a full-time career as an author. (Wikipedia)

Major characters:


Residents of Node House:


  • Sir Harry and Lady Ethel Fubsy, owners
  • Ned Fubsy, their son .. in Brazil at the moment
  • Alix Barleston, Lady Fusby's niece
  • Major Frankie Barleston, (Alix's husband), over his head in debt
  • Captain Ronald "Ronnie" Dene, Alix's lover
  • Isobel "Freckles" Dalgleish, Alix's sister
  • Gerrard "Gerry" Leese, an American diplomatic secretary
  • Curtiss Vrogue, an author (apparently)
  • Cantle, the butler
  • Vance, the maid

Basil Stanismore. M.P. (Member of Parliament), wealthy financier
Keene Kavanagh, one of Frankie's creditors


Superintendent Nolling, local police
Inspector George Manderton, Scotland Yard

Locale: Isle of Wight, off the coast of England


Synopsis: Beautiful Alix Barleston has too many men in her life. There is her estranged debt-ridden no-good gambling husband, Frankie Barleston. There is her secret lover, Ronnie Dene. Now enter wealthy financier Basil Stanismore, who has bought up Frankie's debt; and makes an astounding offer to Frankie: Stanismore will forgive his debts and set him up with a fresh start and a job somewhere distant; if he will just look the other way as Stanismore takes Alix as his mistress.

Sir Harry and Lady Ethel Fubsy own Node House on the coast. Alix and Ronnie are staying as guests (separate rooms, of course). There is a creepy tower on the property which has a room which was the Fubsy's only daughter who has died, and it is kept intact. Stanismore meets Alix in the tower, and begs Alix to be his mistress; which she rebuffs. Returning to her room, Frankie appears at her room and begs to remain there all night.

American Gerry Leese and Alix's sister, Isobel "Freckles" Dalgleish are returning from a date by boat, and when landing at Node House, discover a body on the beach - later identified as Basil Stanismore. He had been murdered.

Pretty much everyone has a motive, but all keep quiet when Inspector Manderton arrives; as no one wants to finger anyone else.

Review: This is a nice tight self contained page-turner, and not one of the Clubfoot series. 
I wish/hope Williams had authored more of these - perhaps he has since I have not read them all. 
I will have to refer to the bibliography. That said, a good country house mystery set on an island. 
There are six servants stated, but we only meet two. One aspect which I thought would lead 
elsewhere was the mysterious tower room once occupied by the only daughter who died, 
but it only serves as a tryst location. The final chase scene as the perpetrator escapes by boat is
very well done.


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Clubfoot The Avenger by Valentine Williams (1923)


"Being Some Further Adventures of Desmond Okewood of the Secret Service"

About the author: Valentine Williams (1883–1946) was an English journalist and writer of popular fiction. Williams was awarded the Military Cross as a soldier and wrote two autobiographical books about his war-time experiences. In the aftermath of war, he travelled widely as a reporter.  It was during this period that he began writing thrillers and around 1926 he gave up his post at the Daily Mail to pursue a full-time career as an author. (Wikipedia)

Major Characters:

Desmond Okewood, British Secret Service
Francis Okewood, his brother
Miss Vera Slade, a.k.a. Vera Sokoloff, femme fatale spy #1
Madamoiselle Xenia, femme fatale spy #2
Madeleine McKenzie, femme fatale spy #3
Dr. Adolf Grundt, a.k.a. "Clubfoot"; a.k.a. Dr. Madjaroff, German Secret Service,
Heinrich, a.k.a. Kriege, Clubfoot's assistant with a scar

Synopsis:

This novel consists of three independent spy thriller novelettes strung together in a sequence: The Clue of the Purple Cabriolet, The Affair of the Constantinople Courier, and The Girl at the Hexagon.

Desmond Okewood, retired after the war (which would later be known as World War I, of course), is called back into service for the British. It seems Dr. Adolf Grundt, "Clubfoot", is in England with a list of British Secret Service contacts to do away with, and so far he has plugged three of them.

In The Clue of the Purple Cabriolet, secret service agent Gustaf Törnedahl, is found dead in Vera Slade's car. Desmond and Vera begins to look into it, and is kidnapped and brought before Clubfoot. Before Clubfoot can do away with them, they are rescued by Desmond's brother Francis Okewood. Patricia Maxwell, a friend of Francis' wife, comes to the Okewoods with a strange story. She was bidding on an old Russian ikon painting at auction, and won it against another bidder who ran the price up. At home, she was visited by Dr. Madjaroff (Clubfoot) who offered any price she would name for it. Suspicious, the Okewoods have the ikon examined by an expert, who finds a quantity of radium concealed inside it.

In The Affair of the Constantinople Courier, a King's Messenger is abducted and documents stolen from him. However, the documents are in code and Desmond is grabbed to decode them with the unwilling assistance of femme fatale #2, Xenia, who is being held hostage.

In The Girl at the Hexagon, femme fatale #3, Madeleine McKenzie, is a regular at the Hexagon night club. She gets instructions from her handlers from a flower-seller using flowers as a signal. Desmond masquerades as another to get himself grabbed, and thus taken to Clubfoot. A package of precious jewels is in the balance.


Review:

I wonder if Ian Fleming read this author prior to writing his James Bond novels (when it was written, Fleming was 15 years old!). The story line is a predictor of the James Bonds. Here we have a British Secret Service agent, having - ahem - liaisons with a femme fatale spy, chasing an arch criminal, who captures the pair and ties them up. While passing the time before killing them, the master criminal and our hero engage in witty repartée - and we are only on page 35 by this point!

The Valentine William's spy thrillers are set in the period between World War I and II, when you might assume things were quiet. But the action is nonstop and all are good reads.




Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr (1937)

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Major characters:

Ted Stevens, works at a publishing house
Marie Stevens, neé D'Aubray, his wife
Ellen, cook

Gaudan Cross, author

Miles Despard, deceased
Mark Despard, Miles' nephew
Lucy Despard, Mark's wife
Edith, Mark's sister
Ogden Despard, Mark's brother
Joe Henderson, gardener
Althea Henderson, Joe's wife; housekeeper and cook
Margaret, maid
Miss Myra Corbett, nurse

Jonah Atkinson, undertaker
Dr. Tom Partington
Captain "Foxy Frank" Brennan, Philadephia police

Locale: Crispen, New Jersey

Synopsis: Ted Stevens is working on a manuscript submitted to his publishing house. The manuscript, by Gaudan Cross, is about historical poisonings by women. One of the photographs in the book is captioned "Marie D'Aubray, guillotined for murder, 1861". This happens to be Ted's wife's maiden name, and the photo is his wife, in period dress, wearing her favorite bracelet.

When he asks Marie for an explanation, she brushes it off, and the photo disappears from the manuscript - later the entire chapter will disappear.

Another resident of the village, Miles Despard, had died recently of a stomach ailment. After the burial, his nephew, Mark Despard, begins to suspect arsenic poisoning. He arranges to open the crypt and have Dr. Partington do a secret post-mortem to see if arsenic is present. Mark, Dr. Partington, Ted, and gardener Joe Henderson open the crypt and open the coffin - but there is no body inside.

The mystery deepens when it is learned that Miles had a visitor just before he died - and this woman left his room through a bricked-up door!

How did the mysterious woman escape from his locked bedroom through a bricked-up door? And how did how did his body get out of the coffin and crypt?

Review: This Carr gives us two locked-room mysteries in one. After these are set up, the middle portion of the book delves into the historical/witchcraft themes of which Carr is so enamored; yet they have little bearing on the mysteries at hand; and just serve as misdirection. I didn't pay too much attention to following these historical notes (and it is not clear whether they are factual or not); and that didn't affect my understanding of the present-day mysteries. There are plenty of red herrings tossed about. A good read - but don't worry about the past too much.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

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Major characters:

Residents of Little Paddocks:
  • Miss Letitia "Letty" Blacklock, owner, our hostess
  • Dora Bunner, her ditzy companion
  • Patrick Simmons, her cousin
  • Julia Simmons, her cousin
  • Mitzi, the paranoid maid
  • Phillipa Haymes, widow, a boarder
Neighbors and friends:
  • Colonel and Laura Easterbrook
  • Miss Hinchliffe of Boulders Cottage
  • Miss Amy Murgatroyd of Boulders Cottage
  • Mrs. Swettenham
  • Edmund Swettenham, her son
  • Mrs. Diana "Bunch" Harmon, the vicar's wife
The Goedlers:
  • Randall Goedler, deceased; former employer of Letitia Blacklock
  • Belle Goedler, Randall's wife; near the end
  • Sonia Goedler Stamfordis, Randall's sister
  • Dmitri Stamfordis, Sonia's husband
  • Pip and Emma, children of Dmitri and Sonia
Others:
  • Rudi Schwerz, the victim
  • Myrna Harris, his girlfriend, a waitress at The Royal Spa
  • Inspector Craddock
  • Miss Jane Marple


Locale: Chipping Cleghorn village, England

Synopsis: It is post-war England and things are still a bit austere. One parlor game amusement which is popular is the "Murder Game", in which one person is selected as "murderer" and that person chooses a "victim", and the remaining guests have to be the "detectives".

One day a classified ad appears in which "A murder is announced", giving time (6:30 PM) and place (Little Paddocks). The catch is that the owner of Little Paddocks, Miss Letitia Blacklock, knows nothing about it - but assumes a friend set it up; so she goes along in good fun and gets refreshments prepared.

Her friends arrive for the party. At 6:30 PM a man appears in the doorway. The lights go out. Then he fires two shots at Miss Blacklock - slightly wounding her. Then a third shot,  and he himself falls dead. When the lights are restored, he is found to be a stranger. Who is he? Was his death accidental or murder? And what could the motive be?

The investigation leads back into the past, and conditions of a dead man's will.

Review: This is Christie's 50th mystery novel. The unravelling of the motive follows two parallel paths, due to a condition in a will. The deceased (Randall Goedler) specifies his fortune shall pass to either of two people, depending on who predeceases whom. This pits the two legatees against each other.  It can be a bit confusing, but demonstrates the pitfalls of attempting to predict the future when composing a will. An enjoyable read, with Miss Marple making a bare minimum of appearances; but enough to point the way to the solution.




Monday, October 14, 2019

The Broadway Murders by Edward J. Doherty (1929)

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About the author: Edward J. "Eddie" Doherty (1890 – 1975) was an American newspaper reporter, author and Oscar-nominated screenwriter. He is the co-founder of the Madonna House Apostolate, and later ordained a priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church (Wikipedia) full article.

Major characters:

  • Big Joe Carozzo, owner of the Corsairs Club
  • Marcia Caponi, a.k.a. Snake Eyes, Big Joe's girlfriend
  • Anthony Sommers, Big Joe's mouthpiece (lawyer)
  • Pietro Bonofiglio, a.k.a. Spots Larkin
  • Pio Mora, night club performer
  • Monica Lane, night club performer
  • Molly Sommers, a.k.a. Eileen Drew, Anthony's daughter
  • Ted Morehouse, Molly's fiancé
  • Anson Keen, deputy D.A.


Locale: New York City

Synopsis: The Corsairs Club is Big Joe Carozzo's night club in a penthouse on the roof of the Allegheny Building in Times Square; complete with dancing, gambling, and bootleg liquor (this was, after all, written in prohibition times). Big Joe's lawyer, Anthony Sommers, meets with Spots Larkin in the office, arranging purchase of a large diamond. Then Larkin is found dead, the diamond missing, and Sommers passed out drunk outside the door. Sommers is arrested and goes to trial.

Sommers puts on his own defense, but is convicted and sent to prison. His daughter Molly Sommers heads to New York to infiltrate the Corsairs Club as a singer "Eileen Drew", to learn who the real killer is. She stays in a rooming house along with Monica Lane, a singer, who claims to know who the killer is; but is found dead by poison. Molly reasons that whoever has the diamond must be the killer.

Molly's fiancée Ted Morehouse comes to New York to find Molly. He is shocked to find her with Big Joe Carozzo, who claims they are to be married, and spirits her away his penthouse. Ted goes after her by climbing an unfinished skyscraper and crossing the gap sixty stories over Broadway.



Review: This 1929 novel is straight from the tough-guy world of Guys and Dolls, with hoodlums who carry guns in each hand, cocaine fiends, and gamblers with names like "Mickey Finn" and "Flat Wheel". It is interesting that an author who becomes a priest has such insight into the seamier side of Times Square night life! Anthony Sommer's court defense seems crazy, yet he has a reason, and it is well presented - reminding me of Erle Stanley Gardner's courtroom scenes. Molly's mother presents an actual sermon(!) to Molly - based upon the Book of Judith*, which fits quite nicely into the plot to provide Molly's incentive to become the investigator; at which point she becomes our protagonist.

The climax of the book is Ted's climb up the under-construction skyscraper - in the snow - with the police behind. This turns into a thriller similar to The Saint series. Once past that, the denouément is long and involved, and full of Italian-accent phonetics which get tiring ("He ees theenk Larkin geev heem the doubla-cross"). Overall, a good thriller typical of the period.

*The Book of Judith is one of the apocryphal books of the Bible. It appears in the catholic Bible, but is not included in the protestant Bible. You can read it online here.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Men Who Explained Miracles by John Dickson Carr (1963)


About the author:

This is a compilation of six short stories and a novelette, all but one in the usual locked room / impossible crime theme.

Synopses:

The Department of Queer Complaints stories

William Wilson's Racket - Lady Patricia seeks the help of Colonel March. Her fiancé, Francis Hale, has disappeared. She tracked him to a prestigious office, and walks in to find him locked in embrace with the secretary! She huffs out to the hallway (through the only door), then decides to let him have it and goes back inside. He has vanished, yet his clothes remain!

The Empty Flat - Douglas Chase is bothered by a loud radio playing downstairs. He visits the apartment of Kathleen Mills below his (#10), but it's not coming from there. He and Kathleen find the radio is going in the empty flat next door, #11, and turn it off. The next day a body is found in #11. How did it get there?



Dr. Fell stories

The Incautious Burglar - Marcus Hunt has three valuable paintings on display in plain sight, where they may tempt a burglar. One night a burglar enters, and is killed in the act of stealing them. When the burglar's mask is lifted, his identity is quite a surprise.

The Invisible Hands - Brenda Lastrange goes for a swim every morning. One morning she is found dead on the sand, strangled with her own scarf. Yet the only footprints in the sand are her own!



Secret Service stories

Strictly Diplomatic - M. Dermot is taking a vacation at a French spa. There he meets Betty Weatherill. They are enjoying dinner outside. There is a tunnel-like arbor between the hotel and the dining patio. She gets up suddenly and enters the arbor, yet does not emerge from the other end; which is verified by a witness, diplomat Dr. Vanderver. Only a bloody knife remains. Where did she vanish to?

The Black Cabinet - In 1868 Paris, a woman seeks to assassinate Napoleon III. A mysterious man intervenes to prevent it. 


Novelette All in a Maze - Sir Henry Merrivale sets out to assist Jennifer, who is being receiving anonymous death threats. The first threat comes in a cathedral's whispering gallery, and the action moves to a climax in a hedge maze.


Review:

Six quick little stories - only three are murder mysteries. Fun quick reads. All are of the locked room / impossible crime genre, except The Black Cabinet, which is more of a historical exercise and not as enjoyable.

The novelette All in a Maze is fun and takes us to some exotic places. The challenge here is to find how the whispering gallery trick was worked. This will be more meaningful to those who have actually experienced a whispering gallery.