Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Black Heart by Sydney Horler (1928)





Sydney Horler (photo: vintage45.wordpress.com)


About the author: Here is a Wikipedia article about Sydney Horler. He also has three titles in the Mystery League series: The Curse of DoonePeril! and The False Purple.

Major characters:

Gilbert Chertsey, an author-turned-adventurer

The members of The Black Heart:
  • Sir Luke Benisty, the tall, slim aristocrat
  • Sylvester Lade, owner of the teahouse
  • Barrington Snell, writer for the scandal sheets
  • Lefarge, the square-bearded man
  • Thibau, the pale shadow
  • C. R. J. Simpson, the dead man in the closet
The good guys:
  • Ann Trentham, the violet-eyed mystery woman in black
  • Honorable William Summers
  • Napoleon Miles, a.k.a. Paul Lorenzo, club guitarist
  • Washburn Rinehart, a.ka. James Forbes, advisor to the US president
Locale: Paris and London

Synopsis:

Gilbert Chertsey, of Clarges Street, London, is a romance novel author who sets out to see Paris in search of plot ideas for his novels. He is accosted by two men, Lefarge and Thibau, who offer him a large amount of money to return to London and take up residence in a certain apartment at 712, Guildford Street. Intrigued, he accepts the offer. A mysterious woman in black (Ann Trentham), warns him not to go through with it. 

He arrives at the apartment to find a dead man (Simpson) inside. He goes out and encounters Trentham, who again warns him not to stay there. When he returns to the apartment, the body is gone. Sir Luke Benisty invites him into The Society of the Black Heart, and he decides to join - as a spy for Ann Trentham, whom he is falling for.

Chertsey is given an assignment by the Black Heart - to spy on an arriving American, James Forbes. Chertsey meets up with him to find, to his astonishment, he is really his uncle, Washburn Rinehart, travelling incognito. Rinehart is travelling on behalf of the president of the US to forestall a war in Europe.

Rinehart, Chertsey, and Trentham all wind up prisoners of the Black Heart in an old mansion.

Review:

Syndey Horler is a writer of thrillers - and thrillers they are! They are page turners from Page 1. The story begins with a beautiful mystery woman, dark tea houses on the side streets of Paris, and the streets of London.

The action continues to pick up with no letup. The story is similar to Hitchcock's plots in which the innocent man is drawn into intrigue; and there are many similarities here to Hitchcock's North by Northwest. The action comes to a climax in - where else? A dark, moldy old castle complete with secret passages, sliding doors, and a dungeon.

I continue to seek out Horler's books. Three of his titles appear in The Mystery League publications of the 1930's. See my blog, Reading the Mystery League.


Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Perfect Crime by Ellery Queen (1942)

photo: Wildwood Antique Malls


Major characters:

Ellery Queen, detective
Nikki Porter, his secretary

Walter Mathews, young millionaire
John Mathews, his uncle, a stock swindler
Carlotta "Aunty Carlo" Emerson, Walter's maiden aunt with the on/off accent
Togo, her pet chimpanzee
Arthur Rhodes, a lawyer, partner of John

Raymond Garten, rare book collector
Marian, his daughter, fiancée of Walter
Henry Griswold, his librarian

Locale: New York City

Synopsis:

Rich Walter Mathews comes to ask Ellery Queen for his help. His uncle, John Mathews, has swindled many people with oil well stock scams; including Raymond Garten, the father of Walter's fiancée, Marian Garten.

Raymond Garten, now broke, is forced to auction his beloved rare book collection. Altruistic Walter has an idea: He gives Ellery $250k to purchase the collection for him as a third-party, so Raymond will be unaware Walter is the buyer. He plans to give it to Marian as a wedding gift, so that it will stay in the Garten family and Raymond will be unable to refuse it. Ellery buys the lot and moves it to Walter's home; next door to the Mathews home.

No sooner has this been accomplished than John Mathews is found dead in his study. 


Review:

This book is prefaced with "Based on the Columbia Motion Picture Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime", an ominous admission that it was back-written from the movie - generally a bad sign, and one that the Queen authors (Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee) had little to do with writing it. Eye-rolling continued when I find that one of the characters is a chimpanzee who has been taught how to shoot a gun (thought this sort of thing went out with Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue).

However, I was pleasantly surprised to find a respectable, concise plot; in the same vein as Queen's country-titled novels of the same era (Chinese Orange, French Powder, etc). My 1942 Grosset & Dunlap edition has a sketch map of the crime scene in Chapter 6 (p. 75), which is essential if you wish to figure out how the murder occurred, and careful study of the map itself may provide the answer for you.

A rather humorous aside is the conversations in which the investigators speculate 1). does a chimpanzee have fingerprints, and 2). if so, is it possible to take them?





Sunday, December 16, 2018

Murder in the Rain by Wilson Collison (1929)




Wilson Collison (wikipedia)


About the author: Wilson Collison (1893-1941) abandoned plans to become a scientist when he found he preferred writing. He was nine when a Columbus newspaper accepted one of his stories. His writing was largely self-developed, as he completed only one year of high school. He worked as a printer, a stenographer, an advertising writer, and as a clerk in the wholesale and retail drug business. (excerpt from wikipedia article)

Major characters:


  • Richard Trent, Assistant District Attorney, our narrator
  • Molly Vare, news reporter
  • Barry Maldon, actor
  • A. H. Heiman, theatrical producer
  • Lefty Murgan, bootlegger
  • Kyra Weldon, a.k.a. Miss Ardley
  • Carter Welson, her husband
  • Maisie Tate, a blonde ingénue
  • Henry -- , a taxi driver
  • Morton Wendover, District Attorney
  • Inspector Jason Breene
  • Captain Corrigan


Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Our narrator, Richard "Dick" Trent, Assistant District Attorney for New York, sends his wife off on vacation to California. While she is gone, he keeps platonic company with friend Molly Vane, an elegant, pushy theatre news reporter in the style of Brenda Starr. They attend a theatre opening starring Barry Maldon, latest heart-throb actor. The next morning, Maldon is found stabbed to death in his apartment. Trent is placed in charge of the investigation, and Vane worms her way in, citing her knowledge of theatre circles.

The investigation becomes an analysis of people moving in and out over the murder scene over a period of time, and witnesses' stories are compared. Meanwhile, Molly Vane pursues her own path outside of the authorities, to identify the killer and the unusual technique.

Review:

The novel is prefaced with both a "foreword" and a "reviser's note" which seek to drum up excitement about the spectacular, unique crime and and its solution.

This is a tight novel, with a very small cast of characters, deeply intertwined. I was tempted to chart out the people's movements over time, as this could have graphically led to the killer - but I did not and let the novel take its course.

The unusual technique of the murder is hinted at throughout the book, and I did foresee the technique used - but not the identity of the murderer. 

Molly Vane pops in at the dénouement and presents the full reveal - including much information which had not been shared earlier - a bit of unfairness to the reader.

Friday, December 7, 2018

From This Dark Stairway by Mignon G. Eberhart (1931)

photo: eBay seller maclinhaven

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:

Hospital staff:
  • Nurse Sarah Keate
  • Nurse Lillian Ash
  • Nurse Nancy Page
  • Surgical Nurse Fannie Bianchi
  • Student Nurse Ellen Brody
  • Miss Jones
  • Ellen --
  • Nancy --
  • Dr. Felix Kunce
  • Jacob Teuber, orderly
  • Dr. Leo Harrigan, surgeon
The patients:
  • Peter Melady (in 309, scheduled for an operation), head of Melady Drug Company
  • Dione Melady (sunburn*), Peter's daughter
  • Ina Harrigan (in 307, broken arm*), wife of Dr. Harrigan
       *hospital seems to have a low threshold for admissions - gotta keep those beds filled!


Others:
  • Kenwood Ladd, architect, possible love interest of Ina Harrigan
  • Thomas Wepling, Ina Harrigan's lawyer
  • Courtney "Court" Melady, husband (and cousin!) of Dione
  • Lieutenant Lance O'Leary

Locale: somewhere in the midwest

Synopsis: It is a hot, sultry night in Melady Memorial Hospital. Nurse Sarah Keate is in charge of patient Peter Melady, grandson of the founder, hospitalized and scheduled for an operation by Dr. Harrigan the following morning. He is rather irascible, smoking cigars in bed, and sending Nurse Keate to his home to retrieve his favorite little blue snuff bottle.

Nurse Keate returns from break to find, her surprise, her patient is gone. The nurse on duty reports Dr. Harrigan had come in, and decided that Melady's operation needed to be done immediately. Nurse Keate goes to the operating room, but no one is there. Melady cannot be found, and she discovers Dr. Harrigan murdered, in the elevator. Suspicion points first to the missing Peter Melady, then to architect Kenwood Ladd, who spends a lot of time visiting now-widowed Ina Harrigan.

During the investigation, someone attempts to strangle Dione Melady, she survives. It becomes apparent the blue snuff bottle is the key to the mystery, but it cannot be found.

After the police arrest a suspect, Lieutenant Lance O'Leary (secret love interest of Sarah Keate) arrives and they collaborate on finding the killer.

Review:

This, as well as the other Sarah Keates, give us a view of healthcare in the 1930's and makes us appreciate our high premiums today! We are guests of a hospital without air conditioning, having flying insects, gender stereotypes [doctors are male, nurses are female], surgery using an Ether cone, and a rather nostalgic world where nurses wear starched white uniforms, caps, and white stockings which whisper when they walk. Makes the ugly scrubs of today downright appalling.

If you read the Sarah Keate series for the appearance of Lance O'Leary, you may be disappointed. He does not show up until the very end after Sarah Keate has done all the work. 

A troubling aspect of this title is the one African-American who plays a key role in the story, is only referred to as "the Negro" and denied the dignity of a name. He also suffers the stigma of being a case in the Charity Ward. Certainly a reflection of the 1930's. Caution: the N-word appears once in a conversation. 

As far as the mystery goes, it is a guesser right up to the abrupt end, the last two words of the book being the name of the murderer.



Saturday, December 1, 2018

Waylaid in Boston by Elliot Paul (1953)



About the author:  Elliot Harold Paul (1891-1958), was an American journalist and author. Here is a Wikipedia article about him.

Elliot Paul


Major characters:

Homer Evans
Finky Maguire
Leverett "Levie" Bengay
Mirak Mirakian, a dapper young Armenian
Angus Ferguson, a Scottish wool broker
Ephraim Poole, an accountant
Julio Etchgaray, an Argentine
Madamoiselle Solange de Lassigny, a mysterious, elegant Canadian
Senorita Erica Strella, a guest in hotel room 607
Elbridge "Edgy" Gerry
Blaise Laneer, "pointed face man", a bank clerk
Dr. Rodolfo Gonzalez
Sergeant Aloysius Ryan
Captain Moriarty


Hotel staff:
Bozo Shafter, elevator operator
Clothhead Muldoon, parking lot attendant
Jellyroll Morton, lounge pianist
Elsa, a maid

Locale: Boston MA

Synopsis: Biblio.com states "Paul, the author of "The Last Time I Saw Paris," also wrote a series of humorous mystery novels featuring a pair of intrepid private detectives, Homer Evans and Finky Maguire. This, the tenth book in the series, is set in Boston, where Homer, consulting with a botanist in order to complete his research on meat-eating plants and Oriental poisons, is suddenly chasing one murderer, or is it two?"

Boston natives Homer Evans and Finky Maguire stop in to the Lantern Room lounge of the Dorsetshire Hotel for a drink. Music is provided by pianist Jellyroll Morton. Evans' friends, Angus Ferguson and Leverett Bengay stop in. Together they discuss a magazine article about the challenges of detectives shadowing subjects, and this leads to a bet: can one of them follow a complete stranger for 48 hours, and learn enough about the subject to compile a report? Canadian Solange de Lassigny joins the group, and the bet.

The bet is agreed upon. Jellyroll Morton will select the stranger. He selects a man sitting in the bar, name unknown, his only distinguishing characteristic being a pointed nose; so for lack of a name, he is referred to as "the pointed-face man". Leverett Bengay will be the follower.

As soon as the subject leaves the bar, Bengay follows. At the same time, Angus Ferguson disappears. The subject is found to be Blaise Laneer, a bank clerk, who then is murdered in his apartment at 14 Newbury Street, across the street from the hotel. While investigating that murder, Dr. Rodolpho Gonzalez is poisoned. It becomes clear there is an Argentinian connection to the murders. The action moves to the Arnold Arboretum where Homer exposes the murderer.

Review:


Humorous murder mysteries are hard to pull off, but this one works. Homer Evans has minimal appearances, and Finky Maguire does all the legwork. Nonstop action with a large cast of colorful characters, in the style of Manning Coles. It was bit difficult keeping track of the names even while documenting them above. Persons familiar with Boston will enjoy the familiar places around town where the action occurs. The final scene in Arnold Arboretum was both humorous and cringe-worthy at the same time, an odd feeling! This was my first Elliot Paul book, and I will look for more.

If you enjoy mysteries set in Boston, also see They're Going to Kill Me by Kathleen Moore Knight. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Silver Key by Edgar Wallace (1930)

dustjackets.com

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

Nov 25 2018: Under construction. Check back soon!


Major characters:

Dick Allenby, inventor of a silent air-powered gun
Gerald "Jerry" Dornford, of Half Moon Street, man about town, gambler
Mike Hennessey, theatre manager 
Mary Lane, actress, fiancee of Dick Allenby
Leo Moran, of 17 Naylor Terrace, banker and speculator
Horace Tom Tickler, burglar
Washington Wirth, a party-giver with an eye for the young ladies
Hervey Lyne, rich, moneylender, disabled, guardian of Mary Lane, uncle of Dick Allenby
Binny, Hervey's assistant
Chief Inspector Surefoot Smith, C.I.D.


Locale: London

Synopsis: Horace Tom Tickler, a small time burglar, is hanging around rich Hervey Lyne's place, plotting to get in. Chief Inspector Surefoot Smith encounters him and moves him along. Later that night, Smith is looking for a cab for put actress Mary Lane, in - and the cab he chooses has Ticker dead inside; and the cab is found to have been stolen. An anonymous note suggests he go talk to banker Leo Moran to find out about the killer.

Moran has been dealing in some shady financial transactions, and flees to parts unknown. While Surefoot investigates, he comes across a curious large silver key. Hervey Lyne, while in the park in his Bath Chair (type of wheelchair), is shot. 

Mary Lane takes on the role of a private investigator and sets out to find where the silver key fits, and runs into danger.

Review:

Edgar Wallace has thrown in plenty of traditional mystery plot elements: secret rooms, secret identities, secret keys, disguises, stolen cars, and secret hideaways. Surefoot plods along, making progress; but Mary Lane takes the initiative to go find the lock to which the silver key fits. An enjoyable Wallace, with the culprit being revealed well before the end; then the task is finding him!

The vacant room which Surefoot locates - having just the silver key and a wardrobe of clothes - is a similar plot element to Ellery Queen's Halfway House. which would follow in 1940.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

No Hands on the Clock by Geoffrey Homes (1939)

dustjackets.com

About the author (gadetection): Geoffrey Homes was a pseudonym for Daniel Mainwaring (1902-1977), an American novelist and screenwriter. He was born in California, and attended Fresno University. He held various jobs, including migrant fruit picker, private investigator and reporter, before turning to writing in the thirties. He subsequently became a screenwriter for movies. Homes's series characters were Jose Manuel Madero, LA reporter Robin Bishop and PI Humphrey Campbell. Bishop eventually marries Mary Huston, a secretary at the Morgan Missing Persons Bureau detective agency.

Major characters:
  • Humphrey Campbell, 28, works for Oscar Morgan
  • Oscar Morgan, age 65, 310 lbs, owner of Morgan Missing Person Bureau of Los Angeles
  • Warren E. Benedict, millionaire
  • Dale Benedict, his son, disappered
  • Rose Benedict, ward of Warren Benedict, fiancee of Dale
  • Mrs. Billie Toker, a.k.a. "Gypsy", waiting out her divorce interval in a Reno bar
  • David Paulson, the bar's piano player, who knows everything and everyone
  • Irene Donovan, the redhead last seen with Dale
Locale: Reno, Nevada

Synopsis: In the opening, workers are installing a strange clock on the outside wall of the Darwin Mortuary - a clock with no hands. Leon Darwin explains it is because "death is timeless".

Humphrey Campbell is in a bank when it is robbed, and one of robbers mentions that Campbell is familiar. The robbers escape. Campbell and Oscar Morgan work as private "heir finders", and are hired by millionaire Warren E. Benedict of Lake Tahoe to locate his missing son, Dale Benedict, last seen in Reno. Dale is engaged to Warren's ward, Rose Benedict.

Campbell and Morgan head to Reno. Campbell meets up with "Gypsy" (Mrs.  Billie Toker), who is waiting out the residency requirement to obtain a divorce by hanging out in a bar, where David Paulson plays piano and knows everyone and everything. Paulson tips him off that Dale had left with redhead Irene Donovan. Campbell heads to her place, only to find her murdered. Then a ransom note arrives for Dale Benedict.

Review:

This book reminds me of the writings of Erle Stanley Gardner, when he wrote at A. A. Fair. There are no long descriptions, but nonstop tough guy action on every page. We have the wisecracking P.I. who is, of course, irresistable to women. Much of the action takes place out in desolate desert at night, again reminiscent of Gardner. 

There are a couple of odd aspects: every character gets named, no matter how brief their appearance in the story. When someone pops in for a moment, the reader wonders if he will have to remember this character for future reference. The other odd aspect is the clock with no hands installed at the mortuary - from its appearance in chapter one, one expected it would have a central point in the story - much like the various clock and candle gimmicks in Gardner - but it was carefully described at the beginning and that was that. There was only one additional passing reference to it near the end. And I was looking forward to hearing more about it.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Haunted Lady by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1942)


Major characters:
  • Nurse Hilda Adams, "Miss Pinkerton"
  • Inspector Fuller
  • Eliza Fairbanks, 72, the widow 
  • Carlton Fairbanks, her son
  • Susan "Susie" Fairbanks, nee Kelly; his wife
  • Marian Fairbanks Garrison, 38, her daughter (divorced)
  • Francis "Frank" Jarvis Garrison, Marian's ex-husband
  • Eileen Garrison, 35, Frank's second wife, pregnant
  • Janice Garrison,  19, daughter of Frank and Marian
  • Dr. Courtney Allen Brooke, 28, Eliza's doctor and neighbor
  • William, butler
  • Amos, handyman who lives above the garage
  • Margaret "Maggie" O'Neil, the cook
  • Ida Miller, 40, the maid
Helpful hint: If you get confused about the relationships of the players, refer to Chapter 16 which has a police report and full bio on everyone.

Locale: New York City

Map: The Dell Mapback provides this handy map for us (click to enlarge):



Synopsis: Frail, paranoid widow Eliza Fairbanks complains to the police that bats are getting into her bedroom, although there are no obvious apertures. She wants a police officer to resolve this, but Inspector Fuller sends Nurse Hilda Adams ("Miss Pinkerton") over instead, to stay with her and calm her down, and see what can be done about the bats. Nurse Adams does indeed come across a bat, and an occasional rat also. Although she searches the room thoroughly, she cannot find how they got in.

Eliza also states someone attempted to poison her with arsenic and there are also rats in the house in addition to the bats. Both statements are confirmed - Dr. Courtney Brooke (quite friendly with Eliza's granddaughter Janice Garrison) identified the arsenic, and Nurse Adams saw a rat herself.

Drama comes along: Frank Garrison is visiting to see his daughter Janice, and his ex-wife Marian Garrison disappears. His 2nd wife, pregnant Eileen Garrison, shows up at the door. She is not feeling well and is put to bed in Marian's bed, wearing Marian's nightgown. (Oh, this will be most awkward when Marian gets home!)

Hilda goes in to check her patient to find she has been murdered in her bed. Suspicion immediately falls on son Carlton, last person to enter her bedroom.

Review: It seems as if we have been here before. The dark old family manse, ruled by a frail, elderly (wait a minute - she's only 72!) widow dowager with loads of money in the bank - and inhabited by sniping relatives (don't these kids ever move out?); most of them impatient to get to the reading of the will. Mysterious sounds in the night, and doors that open and close by themselves add to the atmosphere.

We shall overlook the fact that having rodents in the house is not a police matter, and furthermore insufficient to justify placing an RN in residency*; when a cat would be the more appropriate choice. But Nurse Hilda is our investigator, and here she is. Mary Roberts Rinehart's signature "Had I But Known" teasers abound, pointing us to clues to remember as we go along.

Nice unexpected twist at the end reveals the murderer whom I did not suspect.

*This writer is fortunate to have an RN in residency, and she is adamant that rodent control is not in her job description.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

This Fortress by Manning Coles (1942)


About the author (wikipedia): Manning Coles is the pseudonym of two British writers, Adelaide Frances Oke Manning (1891–1959) and Cyril Henry Coles (1899–1965), who wrote many spy thrillers from the early 40s through the early 60s. The fictional protagonist in 26 of their books was Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon, who works for the Foreign Office.

Major characters:
Tom Languish, soldier and owner of garage
Griggs, his first mechanic
George Mathews, his second mechanic
Dimmock, his cook/housekeeper
Baron Alberich von Rensburg
Hildegarde von Rensburg
Otto von Rensburg, their son
Jessica Casey, local resident

Locale: England and Germany

Synopsis: While Tom Languish is serving in occupied Germany, he is billeted at Schloss Rensburg; home of Baron Alberich von Rensburg and his young wife Hildegarde. Tom becomes close friends with Hildegarde. He is demobilized and returns to England, and opens a small garage with his mechanic Griggs and housekeeper/cook Dimmock. He keeps in touch with Hildegarde by letter, learning that she and the Baron now have a son Otto.

The Baron eventually dies. Tom visits Hildegarde. They discuss marriage, but cannot agree on where to live - Germany or England - and have an uneasy parting due to that disagreement.

The borders close, and Tom loses touch with Hildegarde. He is occupied with his garage, and strikes up a friendship with Jessica Casey while England is enduring air raids from Germany. Mechanic Griggs is called up, and he hires George Mathews as a replacement. Mathews renovates a room above the garage and moves in. During an air raid, Mathews rescues two twin girls from a collapsed house and becomes a local hero.

Review:

This is one of Manning Coles' non-Tommy Hambledon books. Not quite a mystery, nor a thriller, but a captivating tale of life in England during the war; and all the privations that came with it. Suspense comes in when there is suspicion of a German spy in the village. The events take a number of surprising turns at the end, with the final ending quite poignant and satisfying. It is easy to imagine reading this book with airplanes droning overhead as searchlights look for them.



Sunday, October 21, 2018

This Death Was Murder by March Evermay (1940)

No dust jacket photo found.

About the author (from encyclopedia.com): Pseudonym of Mathilde Eiker (1893-1982). As March Evermay, Eiker wrote three detective novels. Like British contemporaries, she minimizes brutality to emphasize motive and intellectual process. In They Talked of Poison (1938), scrupulous, sentimental Inspector Glover patiently solves a murder for a university seminar of expert suspects. In This Death Was Murder (1940), he explains three suspicious deaths despite the jealous quarrels and loyal deceptions of five sibling heirs. A final mystery, Red Light for Murder (1951), ended Eiker's writing career See also this biography.


Major characters:


Marcella Humphrey

Erich Humphrey, her 2nd husband
Zunella, Humprey's maid

Marcella's five children:

  • Teresa Haskell, the sweet innocent one
  • Rachel Haskell Dunlop, the nasty one
  • Millicent Haskell Remington, who stayed in Miami instead
  • Frederick Thomas Haskell, a drunk waster
  • Raymond Blair Haskell
Anna Humfried, a.k.a. "Freida", a strip club dancer
Curtis Anderson, attorney
Richard Hollis, attorney
Inspector Glover

Locale: East coast of US


Synopsis: We follow the actions of our protagonist, Teresa Haskell. Her mother, Wealthy Marcella Humphrey of the lavish estate Pine Acres has just died as the story opens. Teresa and her four siblings gather for the funeral. It is awkward for them, as their mother had recently remarried - to Erich Humphrey - and had converted to his Catholic faith; of which they are unfamiliar. 


After the service, they gather for the reading of the will. They knew each would receive 1/5 of her substantial estate. All are surprised when Marcella's long-time attorney, Curtis Anderson, announces she had made a later will with a different attorney, Richard Hollis. When this later will is read, each of her children now only get $20,000 each, with the remaining $3 million going to her husband, Erich Humphrey.


The shocked siblings discuss whether they should contest the will - and whether she was influenced by Humphrey to make it in his favor. Influence seems unlikely, Humphrey is a kind man of simple tastes, having moved from the estate to a small house and eating beans and bacon every day. His only plan for his windfall is to make some modest renovations to his home to allow him to paint as a hobby.


Humphrey phones Teresa and asks to meet with her to discuss the fate of the Pine Acres estate. She goes to his home and finds him dead of a gunshot wound. While they consider the effect this will have on their inheritance, rumors surface that Humphrey was keeping a mistress on the side. An additional murder throws the inheritance-chain into confusion for the money-grubbing relatives.


Review:


Oh, this was a looooong book. It could have been improved by editing it down to half the length. The unnecessary initial story line of the mother being poisoned was abandoned and faded away. After this false start, things slow down. The tedious middle portion of the book (with chapters subdivided into numbered subchapters) examines all possibilities in great detail. We are teased with the Teresa Haskell / Richard Hollis relationship which doesn't go anywhere. The denouement goes into far too much detail. The critical clue which breaks the case is pretty clever though. 


Tip for the reader: Anna Humfried and Frieda are the same person. Anna is her real name, Frieda is her stage name. This is not stated anywhere and it took a while to determine they are one person.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Murder by the Clock by Rufus King (1929)

dustjackets.com

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:


  • Herbert Endicott, the victim
  • Mrs. Endicott, his wife
  • Mrs. Siddons, their gaunt housekeeper
  • Miss Roberts, a maid
  • Dr. Sanford Worth, their personal physician
  • Nurse Murrow
  • Nurse Vickers, who chose a bad time to go make coffee
  • Marge Myles, the other woman
  • Madame Miramar Velasquez, her mother
  • Thomas Hollander, the old war buddy, Herbert's only friend
  • Jerry Smith, Hollander's roommate
  • Lieutenant Valcour, police detective
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Mrs. Herbert Endicott fears for her husband Herbert's safety, although he has only been gone two hours - but to see his girlfriend Marge Myles. Mrs. Endicott calls the police and Lieutenant Valcour stops in. He looks around and discovers Endicott's body stuffed in his closet, the door closed. Mrs. Endicott takes it quite calmly, as if it happens every day.

Dr. Sanford Worth is summoned to pronounce him dead, and he attributes the death to his poor heart (but if so, how did he get shut in the closet?). Apparently someone startled him, causing his death. They move the body to the bed. Dr. Worth decides to try to revive him with a shot of adrenaline to the heart, which works.

Endicott's old war buddy, Thomas Hollander, is called in to sit at bedside until Endicott regains consciousness. The police keep a close watch, and Hollander produces a stiletto and begins to approach Endicott with it. The police shoot and wound Hollander. Endicott is found dead - again - this time from a gunshot wound. Hollander didn't have a gun, and it wasn't a police bullet, so what happened?

Review:

Well, this was my first read of Rufus King, and hopefully not my last. This book is a lot of fun with some crazy happenings, plus exquisite use of language:

"There it was again: that wretched wave of hearsay showing its baffling crest above the placid sea of established fact."

and this one wins the Best Simile award: "Her voice was as disagreeable as the clash of dishes in a cheap restaurant."

The entire story takes place over a 24-hour period, as we watch the authorities deal with an investigation instead of getting some sleep. First the police respond to a call from Mrs. Endicott because her husband has been missing for two hours - plus she knows just where he is - with the "other woman" (try that and see what happens).  Then Endicott is found dead, revived, and murdered all in the space of a couple hours. His wife isn't too concerned about it anyway, just another day. It takes a long time for the doctor to prepare for the "operation" which consists of giving the dead man a shot; and requires a big cast of nurses and others to administer.

It is enjoyable to follow the thoughts of Lieutenant Valcour, whose mind wanders away a lot. He likes to challenge suspects with made-up explanations just to see their reaction.

The ending is quite ironic and enjoyable, and brings up deja vu for the reader.

The "Murder By The Clock" title only refers to the various time stamps on the chapter titles, and has nothing to do with the plot.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Second Shot by Anthony Berkeley (1930)

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About the author:  Anthony Berkeley Cox was an English crime writer. He wrote under several pen-names, including Francis Iles, Anthony Berkeley and A. Monmouth Platts. One of the founders of The Detection Club (from Goodreads)

Major characters:

  • Cyril "Pinkie" Pinkerton, our narrator
  • John Hillyard, the host - farmer and detective story author
  • Ethyl Hillyard, his wife
  • Elsa Verity - a "charming pretty little thing"
  • Eric Scott-Davies, a cad - and the victim
  • Armorel Scott-Davies, his cousin
  • Sylvia de Ravel, wealthy society woman
  • Paul de Ravel, her puppy-dog husband
  • Roger Sheringham, a private investigator



Locale: England

Synopsis: This is a story-within-a-story, as narrator Cyril "Pinkie" Pinkerton is writing a novel describing how a murder mystery party goes wrong with one of the guests actually winding up murdered. His novel, which he calls the 'manuscript' comprises the text of this book, which he had buried in a box but the police recovered and are reading as we go along. This manuscript is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue, in which he describes to the reader the setup for his writing it; and delivers the denouement at the end. Once you get your head around this awkward concept, it progresses as follows.

John and Ethyl Hillyard operate Minton Deeps Farm - which, not being too profitable, is supplemented by John's writing of detective stories. At a gathering, it is suggested they put on a murder mystery evening for fun. Our narrator, Cyril 'Pinkie' Pinkerton, is one of the guests.

Eric Scott-Davies, a wealthy ne'er do well, being a thoroughly annoying bully and disliked by all, is cast as the victim. Just before the play acting begins, he announces his engagement to girl-next-door Elsa Verrity - stealing her away from Cyril. The play acting begins, and, surprise, after two gunshots are heard he is found dead. John Hillyard admits fired one innocent shot into the air as part of the theatrics, but who fired #2 which took out Scott-Davies?

It turns out that all the guests had motive to do away with him. Since the body was found by Cyril, and he has the strongest motive (the engagement to Elsa Verrity), suspicion points at him. He calls in old friend investigator Roger Sheringham to help clear him. His love interest gets complex as he now ignores Elsa and begins taking up with Armorel Scott-Davies, cousin to the deceased Eric.

As the investigation gets under way, we are treated to confessions from no less than four of the guests!

Review:

It takes a bit of concentration to follow which of the account is the play-acting script, and which is the actual murder; but once we get the concept the book moves right along. I call Roger Sheringham a private investigator, but it is never stated who he really is. Since he is a series character, perhaps this occurred in an earlier novel. 

The narrowing down of suspects involves figuring who-where-when, and fortunately a sketch map is provided in my 1931 Crime Club edition.

The retrospective narration in the prologue/epilogue is a precursor to the same technique in a couple of favorite noir movies: Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). If you enjoy those films, you will love this book!

I am looking for more by this author - inexpensive paperback reprints are widely available but the original hardcovers are scarce. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Tragedy of Z by Barnaby Ross (Ellery Queen) 1933

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About the author/series: Barnaby Ross is a pseudonym of Ellery Queen. This is the third of four books in the Drury Lane series, the remaining three being The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y, and Drury Lane's Last Case.

Major characters:

  • Inspector Thumm, retired and now a private investigator
  • Patience "Patty" Thumm, his daughter, and our narrator
  • Governor Walter Bruno, former district attorney
  • John Hume, current district attorney
  • Aarow Dow, convict at Algonquin Prison
  • Elihu Clay, owner of Clay Marble Quarry
  • Dr. Ira Fawcett, his silent partner
  • Fanny Kaiser, a mannish madam
  • Honorable Joel Fawcett, Ira's brother, a state senator
  • Jeremy Clay, Elihu's son
  • -- Carmichael, Joel Fawcett's secretary
  • Drury Lane, retired Shakespearean actor
Locale: Leeds, NY

Synopsis:

Elihu Clay is suspicious of his silent partner, Dr. Ira Fawcett; believing he is behind possible corruption in getting state contracts for materials from his quarry. Clay hires private investigator Thumm to look into it. Thumm and his daughter, Patience (our narrator) travel to the Clay mansion in Leeds, NY. 

Soon after their arrival, Senator Joel Fawcett is found stabbed to death in his library. He had been receiving threats from prisoner Aaron Dow, who had been released earlier that same day. Dow is arrested for the crime. Drury Lane is consulted and proclaims him innocent. Despite this, Dow is convicted on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Dow is placed on an outside work detail, and escapes. While on the run, Dr. Ira Fawcett is murdered. Dow is captured. Again, Drury Lane proclaims him innocent. He is sentenced to death. 

Review:

It is refreshing to have a woman narrator appear - Patience Thumm. Her point of view adds a new element to the series. Drury Lane does not even appear until about halfway through the book. Lane assures us the obvious suspect is innocent, so we know right away who is not the murderer. Lane discovers the obscure motive, much like in The Tragedy of X. Another good Barnaby Ross read. It would have been good for the series to have more titles.

In the Author's Note, it is poignant to read the teaser "In the intervening period [between Tragedy of Y and Tragedy of Z] Drury Lane solved many strange and perplexing cases, the more interesting of which will be recorded at some future time." It is sad that prediction did not come to pass, and we must be content with only four titles in the series.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Tragedy of X by Barnaby Ross (Ellery Queen) 1932

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About the author/series: Barnaby Ross is a pseudonym of Ellery Queen. This is the first of four books in the Drury Lane series, the remaining three being The Tragedy of Y, The Tragedy of Z, and Drury Lane's Last Case.

Major characters:

  • Harley Longstreet, a broker
  • John O. DeWitt, his partner
  • Mrs. Fern DeWitt, John's wife
  • Miss Jeanne DeWitt, their daughter
  • Louis Imperiale, a foreign visitor
  • Michael Collins, a politician
  • Charles Wood, a streetcar conductor
  • Juan Ajos, consul from Uruguay
  • Martin Stopes, organized a mining expedition in Uruguay
  • William Crockett, one of the mining speculators
  • Walter Bruno, district attorney
  • Inspector Thumm
  • Drury Lane, retired Shakespearian actor
  • Quacey, his familiar

Locale: New York City

Synopsis:

Drury Lane, retired actor, maintains a lavish Shakespearean-themed estate on the Hudson River north of New York City. District Attorney Walter Bruno and Inspector Thumm consult him on a puzzling case.

Broker Harley Longstreet and a handful of friends took a crosstown Manhattan streetcar on a rainy night. He put his hand in his pocket, immediately collapses and dies. A cork ball loaded with poisoned needles is found in the pocket. The authorities narrow the suspects to those on the streetcar. Each companion is investigated for motive, the leading suspect being his partner, John O. DeWitt, known for having an affair with Longstreet's wife, Fern; as well as making advances to their daughter, Jeanne.

An anonymous letter arrives, promising information about the killer, who they term "X". On the way to meet with the writer aboard the NJ/NY ferry, a man is killed - Charles Wood, the conductor of the streetcar. John DeWitt happens to be on board, and the only passenger who was also on the streetcar that night.

Drury Lane investigates to find the killing has its roots in a earlier mining syndicate in Uruguay, comprising Martin Stopes, William Crockett, Longstreet, and DeWitt.

Review:

I read the four Barnaby Ross books periodically to immerse myself in the eccentric world of Drury Lane in his Hudson estate, the same environs of Philo Vance of the S. S. Van Dine series. I been been fortunate in finding copies of all four. The novel is straight police procedural, until the police get bogged down and resort to consulting Drury Lane. Several obvious suspects, but they, of course, turn out to be red herrings. Lane uses his theatrical skills to engage in some sleuthing of his own and find the ulterior motive behind the murder. As always, reading the four books in the proper order (Tragedy of X, Tragedy of Y, Tragedy of Z, Drury Lane's Last Case) is always recommended, as each tends to refer to previous exploits. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Endless Night by Agatha Christie (1967)




Major Characters:
  • Michael Rogers, narrator
  • Fenella "Ellie" Guteman, a.k.a. Ellie Goodman
  • Cora Van Stuyvesant, her stepmother
  • Andrew Lippincott, an attorney, her uncle
  • Frank Barton, her uncle
  • Greta Andersen, Ellie's companion and assistant
  • Claudia Hardcastle, a neighbor
  • Rudolf Santonix, architect, brother to Claudia Hardcastle
  • Mrs. Esther Lee, a fortune-telling gypsy
  • Major Phillpot
Locale: England

Synopsis: Michael Rogers, our narrator, is a wanderer who picks up odd jobs, mostly driving wealthy people in Europe. He is curious about an estate auction of an abandoned, run down property and runs into "Ellie" Guteman on the property. They fantasize about buying it. They marry and do so, despite warnings of a curse by gypsy Esther Lee. It turns out Ellie is quite wealthy.

They commission their dream house from ailing architect Rudolf Santonix, who hopes to complete it before his death. Michael and Ellie move in and try to keep the grasping relations at bay.

Ellie is found dead from an apparent riding accident. More tragedies quickly follow. Are they the result of the curse?

Review: A slow start to this novel as much time is spent with organizing and placating the relatives. Ellie is found dead, and everything unravels from there. There is a startling twist to the plot as additional deaths follow quickly. I did not see the twist coming, and it completely turns the plot on end. An exciting read.

Also see these reviews on The Passing Tramp and My Reader's Block

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Vanity Case by Carolyn Wells (1925)

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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.

Carolyn Wells


Major characters:

  • Myra Heath, 29
  • Perry Heath, her husband
  • Herrick, their butler, head of the servants
  • Lawrence "Larry" Inman, her distant cousin
  • Berenice "Bunny" Moore, 21, the cute little blonde
  • Mrs. Emily Prentiss, the nosy, insomniac neighbor
  • Todhunter "Toddy" Buck, Emily's nephew, self-appointed detective
  • Alexander Cunningham, amateur detective appointed by the Country Club
  • Sam Anderson, Country Club member
  • Detective Mott, of the police
  • Steve Truitt, a private detective



Locale: Gaybrook Harbor, A seaside town on Long Island, NY

Synopsis:

Myra Heath runs her Gaybrook Gardens bungalow home in precise and exacting manner. She and her husband, Perry Heath, an artist, have two house guests: Her distant cousin Larry Inman, and little ingenue Bunny Moore. Meanwhile, Larry Inman is in love with Myra; and Perry (knowing this), courts after Bunny - "All were of broad and tolerant views", indeed! Myra also collects old bottles.

One night the Heath marital problems come to a head when Perry catches Myra and Larry together. The next morning, Myra is found dead on the studio floor, struck down with one of her antique bottles. Perry is nowhere to be found. Adding to the mystery: Myra - a non-user of cosmetics - is found quite painted up and decorated, and the vanity box containing the cosmetics missing.

The neighbor, Emily Prentiss, couldn't sleep and while watching the Heath home out her window, had observed lights in the night when the murder occurred. Her nephew, Todhunter Buck, becomes quite taken with Bunny.

Buck decides to solve the crime for himself, and teams up with Alexander Cunningham, appointed by the nosy Country Club who wonder where their member Heath went. Police Detective Mott questions people without result, and Buck brings in his old pal, private detective Steve Truitt.



Review:

The first chapter describes the locale of Gaybrook Harbor, which is clearly divided in two sections: Harbor Park, where the posh uppity old-money live; and Harbor Gardens, a Bohemian artist community in their eclectic bungalow homes. The descriptions sound exactly like so many coastal communities in Maine, and the description of the bungalow home is completely familiar.

There are only three possible suspects: Bunny, Inman, and Heath; and suspicion flips to each many times. When it appears that only one remains viable, a surprise turn explains everything in a satisfying manner. 

The only drawback of the novel is the plethora of detectives (four!): Mott, of the police; Truitt, a P.I.; and the two amateurs Buck and Cunningham.