Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Clue of the Rising Moon by Valentine Williams (1935)

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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:

Locale:

Synopsis:

Review:



Monday, December 2, 2019

Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937)


About the author: J. Jefferson Farjeon worked for Amalgamated Press in London before going freelance. One of Farjeon's best known works was a 1925 play, Number 17, which was made into a number of films, including Number Seventeen (1932) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and joined the UK Penguin Crime series as a novel in 1939. He also wrote the screenplay for Michael Powell's My Friend the King (1932) and provided the story for Bernard Vorhaus's The Ghost Camera (1933). Farjeon's crime novels were admired by Dorothy L. Sayers, who called him "unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures." (from a Wikipedia article). 

Major characters:

Train passengers:
  • Mr. Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society
  • Robert Thomson, a clerk
  • David Carrington
  • Lydia Carrington, David's sister
  • Jessie Noyes, the blonde chorus girl
  • Mr. Hopkins, "the elderly bore"
Smith, the local cockney
William Strange, owner of the house
Nora Strange, his daughter
Charles Shaw, their house-sitter

Locale: near Hennersby, England

Synopsis: Six passengers share a compartment on the local train, which becomes snowbound on Christmas Eve. They decide to risk walking out. They trudge through the snowstorm, and decide to seek shelter in a nearby house. The door is unlocked, so they go in to find no one home, but the fire going and tea on the stove. While they are warming up, they notice a knife on the floor and decide to leave it as is. 

Mr. Hopkins had followed later and became lost in the snow. The group pulls him in, and he tells that he saw a dead man (W. T. Barling) in the next train compartment.

They are soon joined by a local Cockney, Mr. Smith, who is a bit crude and disreputable.

While investigating a mound in the snow nearby (is it a body?) they find William Strange and Nora Strange - owners of the house - their car was stuck in a ditch neaby.

All stay in the house for Christmas - suspicious of each other - and eventually learn the fate of some earlier residents.

Review: This is a good Christmas read. A lot of emphasis is placed on following and interpreting tracks in the snow, and the order of departure from the train and arrival at the house, but these points, like the knife on the floor, are not relevant to the story. In fact, two of the murders occurred long ago and are only revealed now.

One aspect I found most interesting was when Edward Maltby, somewhat of a psychic, discusses how touching artifacts from the past can lead to a connection. I have always enjoyed the ability to touch items from the past - whether it a book with a long-ago gift inscription, or the piece of a Japanese airplane my father brought home as a war souvenir - and imagining how another person had touched these same objects long ago.

Another refreshing aspect - there is no detective in the story. The housebound passengers are left to resolve events all by themselves. There is even a bit of love story worked in as well. I will now have to check for other Farjeon books - I see there is another railway mystery "The Z Murders".

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

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Holiday Homicide by Rufus King (1940)


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.

Major characters:

  • Myron Jettwick, nut collector, dead as the story opens
  • Miss Emma Jettwick, his sister
  • Helen Jettwick, his widowed sister-in-law AND ex-wife (see note below).
  • Bruce Jettwick, a.k.a. Bruce Lane, 'The Unknown Troubador' of radio fame; Helen's son
  • Jepson "Spider" McRoss, Myron's secretary
  • Wallace Emberry, Myron's lawyer
  • Cotton Moon, detective
  • Bert Stanley, Moon's assistant, our narrator
Note: Helen Jettwick's first marriage was to Alfred Jettwick. They had a son, Bruce. Alfred was run over by a taxi and died prior to the story. Helen then married Alfred's brother, Myron. This marriage ended in divorce. Helen is unattached in this story.

Locale: New York City and Tortuagas (Florida).

Synopsis: Detective Cotton Moon and his sidekick (and our narrator) Bert Stanley are aboard his boat, Coquilla, docked at Wharf House in Manhattan. The boat in the adjacent dock is Myron Jettwick's Trade Wind. Myron has just been found shot. Myron's sister, Miss Emma Jettwick, hires Moon to find the killer, even before the body has cooled.

Circumstantial evidence points to Bruce Jettwick, last to see him alive. Bruce is Myron's nephew - although for a while he was his stepson (see note above). Bruce has a radio show, "The Unknown Troubador" under the name Bruce Lane.

The trouble seems to stem from the acrimonious breakup of Myron and Helen's marriage (her second). Myron had invited all the parties in the divorce on a pleasant everybody-kiss-and-make-up cruise, but the murder occurred before they could sail. 

Moon decides to make the cruise happen after all, and all parties set forth for Tortuagas (an island in the Florida keys). This brings things to a head when an additional murder occurs.

Review: Bev Hankins, in this review on My Reader's Block, pointed out the similarities of Cotton Moon / Bert Stanley to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin. So as I read, I looked for some similarities ... let's see:

Similarities:
  • Both narrators are our wise-cracking sidekicks
  • Wolfe collects exotic orchids, Moon collects exotic nuts
  • Both are book lovers: Moon repeatedly plugs a real book, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, and even works some of its text into the plot
  • Both wear yellow pajamas!
  • Both have reserved afternoon "executive time"; Wolfe for his orchids, Moon for his nap
  • Both set in New York City
  • Both hire additional P.I.'s rather than do routine legwork themselves
  • Both manipulate apparent evidence to mislead the authorities
  • Both narrators occasionally speak directly to the reader, posing rhetorical questions
Differences:
  • Moon is much calmer, and does not exhibit explosive anger like Wolfe
  • Bert Stanley makes up snarky nicknames for people based on their personal appearance, rather lowbrow behavior only since duplicated by Donald Trump
This is the sixth Rufus King I have read, and I am surprised how the writing style varies in each. This one mirrors Rex Stout, with the wise-cracking sidekick narrator who doesn't take things too seriously. An enjoyable book, although the denouement is quite convoluted. Still, a good read especially for those who enjoy Rex Stout.


Monday, November 25, 2019

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings by Rufus King (1944)

photo: The Passing Tramp

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.

Major characters:
  • Carrie Giles, owner of River Rest
  • Kent Giles, her grandson
  • Michael Hopkins, her handyman/chauffeur, and his wife Ella
  • Joel, her gardener
  • Leila, the "not quite bright" maid - and Joel's niece
  • Dawn Davis, a reporter
  • Russell Stedman, country prosecutor
The boarders:
  • Effie Ashley
  • Dugald Smith
  • Fergus Wade, Dugald's "nephew"
  • Jefferson Parling

Locale: New York state

Synopsis: World War II is underway and many people working in war-related factories are in need of housing. Widowed Carrie Giles has a big house, River Rest, with four vacant rooms which she decides to rent for workforce housing. Assuming all war workers are men, she is surprised when a woman, Effie Ashley, applies.

Carrie is a bit paranoid and imagines things about her new boarders. Could Effie Ashley be a spy? Is that a badge attached to Jefferson Parling's wallet? Her paranoia increases when she sees solider grandson Kent Giles, home on leave, sharing an intimate moment with Effie out on the lawn late at night - the day before he arrives by train. The next morning, the dead body of a stranger is found at the spot. Could Kent really be a killer? She begins to cover up what she assumes is his crime.

Carrie had a hobby of producing etchings when she was young, and the equipment is all up in her attic. After seeing one of her etchings on the wall, the boarders all seem too inquisitive about the setup.

Review: Carrie is a fun character - a bit naive perhaps, but there is a war on now. It is interesting seeing her get over her head as boarders fill her house, and sad as she sees her old way of life slowly fading away; and her elegant home slowly deteriorate. The boarders make the story - none of them are red herrings, they all play a part in the plot, and none of them are what they appear. There are clues dropped in here and there about the intrigue which is occurring behind the scenes, and the reader will have an inkling of what is going on. There is a unique denouement, which is presented by one of the "bad guys", not the detective! Of the six Rufus Kings on my shelf, this one is the best.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Steps to Murder by Rufus King (1960)

This is a collection of seven short stories previously published in The Saint Detective Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The stories, mostly set in Florida, include:

The Steps to Murder: Mabel Gervais is a ruthless ladder-climber who will stop at nothing to gain the post of ambassador. She steps on various people on her way up, and the final obstacle is her own husband.

The Patron Saint of the Impossible: Elise Hoffman and her husband (no first name given) live in Halcyon, Florida, along with their niece Candice. Candice plans to run off and marry their neighbor, Raul; of which Hoffman objects. Elise comes home to find Hoffman dead, Candice hospitalized, and Raul missing. Is he the killer? Neighbor Monsignor Lavigny figures it out for the police.

Murder on Her Mind: Psychologist Helmut Seibermann has a comfortable practice in Florida. Enter two sisters: Carlotta Zaleski and Florence Pike. Each inherited half of a sizable estate, and now Carlotta has burned through her half and has her eyes set on getting Florence's half. She cooks up a scheme to use Seibermann to get it... whoever dies last, wins.

A Little Cloud ... Like a Man's Hand: An accountant, Mr. Burd, was quite an amateur chef. While he was out, another accountant, Miss Ott, stops in his office and finds some notes about an embezzlement plan. Sure enough, lots of money is missing. But who is the embezzler?

Rendezvous with Death: Lily Verta was on her way to being a spinster. She gets a surprise medical diagnosis she has but a few months to live. She meets up with Duke Hart, jumps into marriage, and tries to cram a lot of living into her remaining time. Someone has plans to do away with her even faster.

A Borderline Case: Jackson, a Florida bank manager, embezzles $230,000. He is found out by another employee, Parker. There's only one thing to do: kill Parker. The complication is that Jackson is afraid of being caught and executed. He finds Rhode Island has no death penalty, and has the idea to perform the killing there. Now he just has to lure Parker all the way to Rhode Island.

The Tigress of the Chateau Plage: Madame Dufour owns a luxury hotel. An old acquaintance, Mr. Henri Pazz, arrives from Canada and Madame gets him placed in a certain room. Pazz turns out to be a blackmailer, and there is only way to deal with a blackmailer.


Review:

The Steps to Murder is about a woman so nasty you can't look away, but the karma at the end is satisfying. The Patron Saint of the Impossible uses a trick similar to the famous trick in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and any Christie fan will see through it immediately. Murder on Her Mind I found hard to follow, only a few characters but hopelessly tangled up.

A Little Cloud ... Like a Man's Hand, Rendezvous with Death, Borderline Case, and The Tigress of the Chateau Plage are all nice tight stories, and far surpass the first three.

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.

Major characters:
Mrs. Kate Willett, widowed matriach
Jess Willett, her eldest son
Linda Willett, Jess’s wife
Henry Willett, 18
Arthur Willett, 19
Larry Stone, Kate Willett’s nephew
Wilbur Strange, caregiver to Henry & Arthur
Slade, butler
Lt. Valcour
NYC Police Commissioner John ---

Locale: the Adirondack mountains of New York, Bermuda, and New York City

Synopsis: Widow Kate Willett has three sons: Jess (married to Linda), and two younger - Henry and Arthur. She describes Henry and Arthur as “young for their age”, today we would describe them as developmentally delayed. They have a live in caregiver/tutor, Wilbur Strange. 

Kate approaches the New York City police after receiving threatening letters. Someone is demanding $20,000 else he will kidnap Arthur and Henry. She took the money to the meeting point, but no one showed up. Lt. Valor is assigned to the case.


The family heads to their summer "camp" in the Adirondacks. Lt. Valcor will accompany them. A fourth letter arrives, with one word: “soon”. That evening, Lt. Valcor and Arthur are in the living room. Arthur becomes unresponsive, he is dead from a bullet wound. The family goes to Bermuda for a respite, but additional murders follow.

Review: The book is prefaced with a sketch map showing the relationship of New York City, the Adirondacks, and Bermuda - which is pretty obvious - a much better choice would have been a sketch map of the Adirondack "camp" where most of the intrigue occurs. I have made one from the text - this seems to fit:

click to enlarge

The story is hampered by the constant change of locale, we go from a hotel in NYC to the camp, to Bermuda, to the NYC town house; having to mentally follow the layout of ear. 

The story comes to an end rather darkly, and brings up the unsettling question of whether persons with disabilities (Arthur and Henry) are seen as burdens to the family. There are a number of loose ends left unexplained (the blackmailer? the $20,000? and Slade's motivation for his act?), and the reader is left to tie them in. A bit more explanation would have been satisfying.





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.