Monday, September 17, 2018

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

dustjackets.com

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
  • 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.

Review:

It is refreshing to have a woman narrator appear - Patience Thumm. Her point of view adds a new element to the series. 

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.


Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Bronze Hand by Carolyn Wells (1925)

yesterdaysgallery.com

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:

  • "Oily" Oscar Cox, oil magnate
  • Hudder, his odd butler
  • Max Trent, writer of detective stories, the reluctant investigator
  • "Polly" Pollard Nash, the reluctant Watson
  • Maisie Forman, the reclusive I-want-to-be-alone "princess"
  • Harold "Hal" Mallory
  • Sherman Mason, lawyer, reprobate, old friend of Maisie's father
  • Owen Camper
  • Amy Camper, hs wife
  • Lily Gibbs
  • Captain Van Winkle
  • Stanhope, the quiet one
  • Fleming Stone, detective

Locale: aboard the S.S. Pinnacle, en route from New York to Liverpool

Synopsis: A handful of well-to-do embark on the liner Pinnacle bound for England. The most remarkable man is "Oily" Oscar Cox, wealthy oil magnate; and Maisie Forman, a reclusive pretty little thing who just wants to be left alone. Cox shows off his prized possession, a life size bronze casting of a hand, which he regards as his lucky charm. The next morning of the voyage, Cox is found murdered on deck, bludgeoned by the bronze hand. The apparent motive is theft of jewelry for his new wife, whom no one can track down, not even knowing if the marriage has happened yet.

Captain Van Winkle is at a loss what to do next, and appoints Max Trent to investigate - being the most qualified by virtue of being a writer of detective stories. Trent enlists the aid of friend Pollard Nash and they proceed to investigate.

Meanwhile Sherman Mason is making moves on Maisie, who is disgusted and because she and Max Trent are now a thing.


Review: Oh, the virtues and complexity of 1920's etiquette! Say person A and person B wish to converse, they must not do so until they are Properly Introduced by a mutual acquaintance C; otherwise all they can do is raise their eyebrow and sniff "Are we acquainted?". If you have no mutual acquaintance, you are out of luck. Since all the passengers are unknown to each other at the beginning of the voyage, this raises an immediate Dilemma and many pages go by before they gradually become Properly Introduced and can Function as a Society by Speaking to Each Other.

Series detective Fleming Stone finally shows up for a cameo appearance on page 270. Where has he been? Didn't people buy this book to read about him and here we are only 50 pages from the end? It is revealed, but I won't spoil it. Good book to bring on your next sea cruise and enjoy in your deck chair.






Monday, August 6, 2018

Inspector Queen's Own Case by Ellery Queen (1956)

queen.spaceports.com


The full title of this book is Inspector Queen's Own Case: November Song. Technically, too late for the "Golden Age" (between WWI and WWII) but Ellery Queen's writing began in that period.

Major characters:

  • Inspector Richard Queen, New York Police (retired), widower
  • Abe Pearl, Chief of Police, Taugus CT
  • Beck Pearl, his wife
The Humffrey household:
  • A. Burt Finner, shyster attorney, seller of babies
  • Alton K. Humffrey, millionaire resident of Nair Island
  • Sarah Humffrey, his wife
  • Michael Humffrey, "adopted" (purchased) child of the Humffreys
  • Jessie Sherwood, RN, 49 year old nurse for Michael 
  • Mrs. Charbedeau, cook
  • Mrs. Lenihan, housekeeper
  • Rose Healy, upstairs maid
  • Marie Tompkins, downstairs maid
  • Stallings, gardener
  • Henry Cullum, chauffer
  • Sadie Smith, laundress
  • Ronald Frost, Alton's nephew, ne'er do well with big gambling debts
  • Charlie Peterson, guard at the island gatehouse


Locale: Nair Island, off the Connecticut coast; a part of the town of Taugus

Synopsis: The wealthy Humffrey family has a summer home on Nair Island, part of Taugus, CT. There are five other homes on the island, which connects to the mainland by a causeway. Alton and Sarah Humffrey are childless and aging, and arrange a shady purchase of a newborn from shyster attorney A. Burt Finner, whom they name Michael Humffrey. The child is cared for by nurse Jessie Sherwood, 49, single - having lost her fiance at Normandy.

Richard Queen (Ellery's father) has just been forced into retirement, having reached the age of 63. He is somewhat despondent at that, and takes a summer vacation at the home of his friend Abe Pearl, chief of Taugus police.

There is tension from Ronald Frost, Alton's nephew. Ronald runs up gambling debts to which Alton has bailed him out in the past, but no more since Michael has arrived. Ronald had planned to be Alton's only heir, but now that is no longer the case.

One night, someone enters the nursery and smothers Michael with a pillow. Investigation begins by Abe Pearl, along with Richard Queen. Queen and Jessie Sherwood hit it off and a romance blossoms. While searching for a motive, attorney Finner is murdered, and his adoption records stolen.

Review:

Besides the story line, there are two other big themes lurking here. First, the murder of a baby - and children in general - has long been off-limits for mystery writers - but in 1956 that was still happening, so we must overlook the revulsion factor. Second, the theme of persons being seen as outdated and useless to society as they age is ever present in Richard Queen's thoughts; as he considers being pushed out of his organization to make room for younger ones; and collects up his other retired buddies to operate a sub-rosa investigation.

This novel shows the turning point in writing away from the Golden Age style, and into the gritty too-much-detail 1960's style. The Golden Age never discusses things like the appearance of bullet holes, or menstruation! This is what attracts me to the writing of this era. 

The case progresses and is somewhat predictable, with the obvious suspect being eliminated at the last minute. The steady progression of the Queen/Sherwood relationship is handled well and leads to a satisfying conclusion.





Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Patient in Room 18 by Mignon Eberhart (1929)

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Major characters:

  • Nurse Sarah Keate
  • Nurse Maida Day
  • Dr. Louis Letheny, head doctor, and victim #2
  • Corole Lethany, his cousin
  • Dr. Balman, assistant to Dr. Letheny
  • Dr. Fred Hajek
  • Jim Gainsay, visiting civil engineer
  • Mr. Jackson, victim #1 
  • Higgins, janitor, victim #3
  • Lance O'Leary, detective


Locale: St. Ann's Hospital, locale not defined

Synopsis:

St. Ann's hospital is a former large residence which has been converted into a hospital. Dr.  Louis Letheny lives in the "doctor's cottage" on the grounds, with his cousin, Corole Letheny. She hosts a dinner party there one evening where the main topic of conversation is the extravagant spending by the hospital administration. An example is the recent purchase of 1 gram of radium for $65,000. (And this is in 1929, when an entire ambulance costs $8000).

Nurse Sarah Keate returns to the hospital for the midnight shift after the dinner party. A sudden storm rolls in, and she is surprised by seeing some object fly out a window nearby - then the power goes out. By candlelight, she discovers elderly Mr. Jackson dead in Room 18 - he had been receiving a radium treatment (which consists of taping the radium to the skin for a while, a bit cruder than today's radiation treatments). The precious radium is missing. 

Attempts to find Dr. Lethany are unsuccessful, and he is initially suspected - until his body is found in the locked closet of Room 18 - victim #2. Debonair detective Lance O'Leary arrives on scene to head up the investigation.

Everyone is on edge. Janitor Higgins confesses to Sarah Keate that he saw the murderer, but rushes off without naming the person. Then the lights go out again, a shot is heard, and Higgins is found dead .. in Room 18. 

Sarah Keate stumbles across the missing radium, and gives it to O'Leary. Before he can get it to the police station, he is hit on the head and it is stolen again.

Quotes:

"Here is the coffee," she said huskily. "As coffee should be: black as night, hot as hell, and sweet as love."

Review:

The action is page-turning Mignon Eberhart. Storms, fog, people lurking in and out of windows, dark corridors, strange noises. Suspicion points at each person in turn, until Lance O'Leary sets a trap for the murderer with the aid of Nurse Keate. This is the first Nurse Keate novel, and sets the stage for further episodes of the two. A little longing-from-afar from Keate's perspective, but she is much too professional to let anything romantic progress along that line.

The hospital takes us back to an earlier day when nurses wore caps, capes, crisp white uniforms, and stockings - no ugly baggy scrubs here. The facility is certainly laughable by today's standards (open doors, no emergency lighting, loose radium, each nurse has her own personal hypodermic syringe, lots of morphine and ether, one telephone per floor, open unscreened windows) but remember this is 1929.

One thing I like about her books, and this one especially, is the limited cast of characters. Other authors load us up with throwaway 1-dimensional red herrings just to fill out the suspect pool, but not Eberhart. Each character is here for a purpose.

Speaking of red herrings, there are a few and I was convinced they were the real deal; but I was fooled. The denouement reveals the killing/radium theft was a complex shell game - I confess a bit too complex for me to follow without mapping it out - but it comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

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

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Orient Express by Graham Greene (1932)

photo: abebooks.com

Major characters:


  • Carleton Myatt, a wealthy Jewish businessman
  • Coral Musker, a chorus girl
  • Richard John, retired doctor, hiding his identity as Dr. Czinner
  • Mabel Warren, hard-drinking lesbian journalist
  • Janet Pardoe, her girlfriend
  • Josef Grunlich, burglar
  • Quin Savory, author
  • -- Stein, Myatt's business associate, and uncle of Janet Pardoe



Locale: Ostend, Belgium > Cologne, Germany > Vienna, Austria > Subotica, Serbia > Constantinople

Synopsis:

Carleton Myatt boards the Orient Express on a business trip. He gives up his compartment to chorus girl Coral Musker, who falls ill en route. She is attended to, rather unwillingly, by Dr. Richard John. Journalist Mabel Warren boards the train and seeing Dr. John, remembers him from a trial years before; in which he was a witness for the prosecution but disappeared during the trial. His real name is Dr. Czinner, and he is returning home to Belgrade to lead an uprising.

Josef Grunlich is burgling a home near the Vienna station, and is surprised by the owner. He shoots and kills the owner, and escapes by boarding the train which is in the station.

Myatt becomes affectionate for Coral Musker and they become lovers.

At Subotica, troubles begin. The area is under martial law after an uprising, and troops search the train looking for Czinner, who was to be a leader of the uprising. Czinner, Coral, and Grunlich are taken from the train and given a military tribunal trial. They escape, but Czinner is fatally wounded in the attempt. Coral is rescued by Mabel Warren, who dreams of her as her new lover.

Myatt continues to Constantinople - not knowing what happened to Coral. He and Janet Pardoe meet with his business associate Stein, also Pardoe's uncle; and plan their future.


Review:

This book is a bit hard to follow at times, as the author follow's everyone's thoughts, and not always identifying who is doing the thinking. Some of thoughts are fantasies of better days and faraway places, and they tend to distract from the story line.

There are two distinct story lines here. Up until Subotica, the novel is reminiscent of Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (which was based on this book), and we are just follow the characters as they pair up and get to know each other. Once at Subotica, it becomes a grim story of martial law, a token tribunal trial, escape, and death.

After leaving Subotica, the story returns to our main character Carleton Myatt as he pursues both women and his career.

It was surprising that a book written in 1932 would devote so many pages to Mabel Warren and her relationship with her lover Janet, and yet when Myatt and Coral consummate their affair in the sleeper car, it is all over in one sentence.





Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Let the Tiger Die by Manning Coles (1947)

goodreads.com

Major characters:
  • Tommy Hambledon, of British Intelligence
  • James Hyde, of British Intelligence
  • Johannis, Hambledon's friend in Rotterdam
  • William Forgan, modelmaker
  • Archibald Henry Campbell, modelmaker

The "Middle Europeans":
  • Isidore Skutnas, temporarily called "Brown"
  • Lukas Olgar, temporarily called "Jones"
  • Moritz Wenezky, temporarily called"Robinson"
The Germans:
  • Horaz Kenrade, of the SS (56) aka Kalvag
  • Col. Leonhard Torgius of the Afrika Korps, manager of the Hotel Bienvwnida, aka W. Martin
Captain Dirk Gielink of the Melicent Myrdal

Locale: Sweden > the Netherlands

Synopsis:

Tommy Hambledon is in Stockholm, Sweden. He observes a German abducted by three "Middle Europeans" whom he calls Brown, Jones, and Robinson (BJ&R) - not knowing their real names. He follows i a taxi. The German attempts to escape. In the fracas, Brown, Jones, and Robinson shoot the taxi driver, and the German - who hands Tommy a mysterious packet before he dies, whispering the words "Santa Brigida".

BJ&R tell the police it was Tommy who shot the others, and now Tommy is wanted. He boards the boat rented by the trio, which sets out. The ship's engineer attempts to throw Tommy overboard but falls out  himself. The boat becomes disabled, Tommy gets a tow from the Melicent Myrdal to Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

There is great confusion upon arrival. Skutnas gets arrested. 

Hambledon, travels to Paris. He is followed by Olgar and Wenezky, who are after the packet. Hambledon crosses into Spain and winds up in a prison. His old friends William Forgan and Archibald Henry Campbell, track him down and contrive to wind up in the prison as well. The local communists attack the prison and the three of them escape. Finally they arrive at Santa Brigida to find various Nazis taking over a hotel and planning the comeback of the Third Reich. 

Review:

Any Manning Coles novel is a delight. Tommy Hambledon is an adventurous agent, always jumping into conflicts with little planning, hoping that, as his favorite saying goes, "some scheme will doubtless present itself." These schemes always involve impersonations, sketchy border crossings, chases, escapes, making general fools of the enemy, chaos, and explosions.

His friends Forgan and Campbell can always be counted on to jump to his side and assist. The chase across Europe occupies most of the book, with the Nazi encounter not occurring until the end. The Nazi meeting is disrupted in a most satisfying manner with the help of a friendly dog and a not-so-friendly fish.


Friday, July 20, 2018

The Needle's Kiss by Austin J. Small (1929)

dustjackets.com

Major characters:

  • Gilan Maxick, the body in the river
  • Erich Maxick, his brother
  • Toby Essex, owner of the Spindrift
  • Hilary Kittredge, his girlfriend
  • Johnny Kittredge, brother of Hilary
  • Sir John Kittridge, their father, newly appointed Police Commissioner
  • Grosman, Chinese captain of the Yangtse freighter
  • Manning, of the Thames River Police
  • Proctor, his assistant
  • Chinky the Junk, a junk dealer
  • Engleberg, a.k.a. "The Hamburger", a keeper of chickens
  • Blind Rudley, a seller of matches
  • Graham Lingard, a drug dealer



Locale: the Thames River, London

Synopsis:

Toby Essex and Hilary Kittridge are aboard the Spindrift as they observe the Thames River Police fish a body out of the river, while the Chinaman Grosman watches them and makes threatening gestures from the freighter Yangtse. The body is later identified as Gilan Maxick, and the cause of death is a Chinese dagger tipped with poison. 

Manning and Proctor of the Thames River Police are being pressured to find the source of cocaine being smuggled into London via the river. Grosman is their prime suspect, but they have no evidence.

Hilary Kittridge, daughter of the newly appointed Police Commissioner, visits a local night club with her brother, Johnny Kittridge. She is an adventurer, and decides to board the Yangtse to see if she can find evidence linking Grosman to the murder, but she is caught and held captive aboard ship. Grosman seeks to control her by forcibly addicting her to cocaine. Meanwhile, Manning manages to turn Erich Maxich, brother of the dead man, to provide evidence.

Review:

Dark foggy nights along the Thames River? Perfect setting for a murder mystery, what? As Chapter 1 opens: "Dank river smells, cold and clammy, and as transient as the dawn itself, hung faintly on the air and fused into the sharp tang of the mist wraiths that swirled about likes wisps of torn gossamer above the fast-running tide." Makes "It was a dark and stormy night" look like a Kindergarten exercise.

This is more a police procedural than a mystery - the culprits are known right away, and the action focuses on finding evidence to make an arrest. Hilary Kittridge is a Nancy Drew-like adventurer, lurking around the docks in evening dress and heels with her trusty flashlight, investigating on her own and winding up in big trouble. 

The details of the cocaine trade are detailed and could be taken from today's news. The descriptions of reactions to cocaine, and its withdrawal, are very specific and scary. 

One chapter seems a bit theatrical as a dying stabbing victim repeatedly gets up to argue the entire case with his assailants. After Hilary is kidnapped, she disappears from the narrative for many chapters, leading us to wonder what happened to her. Not to fear, she eventually reappears.

All in all, excellent scenes and descriptions. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Red Mass by Valentine Williams (1925)

My copy does not have a dust jacket, but this photo is from an eBay listing by seller departedbooks.

Major characters:

  • Lt. Hector Fotheringay of the British Third Guards, a.k.a. Jean-François Charpentier
  • Lady Betty Marchmont, his love #1
  • Mr. Gray
  • Engstrom
  • Loison Mallet, a young Parisian girl, his love #2
  • Citizen Commissary Grand-Duc, a customs official
  • Citizen Couthon, a revolutionary leader
  • Public Accuser Fouquier, equivalent to a district attorney
  • Citoyenne Regnault, a beautiful, wealthy villa owner, mistress to the real  Jean-François Charpentier; his love #3

Locale: England and France, 1794

Synopsis:

It is two years into the French Revolution. Lt. Hector Fotheringay of the British Third Guards leads an idle life in England. He is in love with Lady Betty Marchmont, but there is a problem. He has lots of debts and only a small annual allowance of £200. Under the terms of his late father's will, he will come into his inheritance only when he marries, so he needs a wife.

One night in a tavern, he hears Betty's name being bantered about, and promptly throws his drink into the man's face, not recognizing him as the Prince of Wales - an unheard of affront. His military career is immediately in jeopardy as he is arrested.

A Mr. Gray offers him a deal: if he will perform a secret mission in France, Mr. Gray can get his action forgiven. Fotheringay accepts. As he is fluent in French, he is told to impersonate a French citizen, Jean-François Charpentier and meet with a certain Engstrom in Paris.

Hector travels to Paris, where the revolutionaries are in charge and the aristocrats are being sent to the guillotine every day. He passes the inspection of  Citizen Commissary Grand-Duc, (a hunchback). He then finds Engstrom has already been executed. Wearing the distinctive tricolor cockade ribbon to show his [assumed] allegiance, he takes a position as a spy for the disabled revolutionary Citizen Couthon, During his search for his contact, he meets and falls in love (#2) with a young Parisian girl, Loison Mallet.

Charpentier is under constant suspicion as a fake by Grand-Duc, who sends for Citoyenne Regnault, the mistress of the real Jean-François Charpentier, and asks her to either identify or expose him. But to his surprise, she claims he is the real Jean-François Charpentier; and whisks him away to her villa where he falls in love with her (#3).



Review:

Having read about a dozen of Valentine Williams' books, I expected this to be his usual murder mystery set in the period following WWI. I was quite wrong. This book was a complete and exciting surprise.

If you enjoyed Les Misérables, you will love this book. It features many of the same themes: assumed identities in Paris during the period of the French Revolution, love interest in a poor Parisian woman, and political skullduggery.

Just listen to the opening of Chapter X. Can you hear the people sing? 

  • There are moments in the life of every man when the clamour of the world is stilled, and in the brief ensuing silence he seems to hear the pendulum of eternity ticking away the hours of his allotted span. In these rare interludes a man may see himself scaled down to his true proportions in the scheme of things, and realise, though but dimly, that all around him, from the cradle to the grave, immense, unfathomed forces are directing the current of his life.

A basic knowledge of French is helpful to follow this book, as occasional passages are rendered in that language.

An appeal:

Do you have this book? One page is missing in mine! I do not have page 3/4, so I may be missing the very beginning of the story! The first sentence I have (on p.5) is "May was approaching its close." If you have a previous page of text, would you be kind enough to photograph/copy it, and send it to me? If you have the Kindle version you may be able to copy/paste. 


Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1945)

dustjackets.com

Major characters:
  • Carol Spencer, 24
  • Greg Spencer, her brother, coming home on leave
  • Virginia Demarest, his fiancee
  • Mrs. Spencer, their elderly mother; widow of George Spencer
  • The victim, who gave names of Marguerite Barbour and Mary D. Breed
Crestview staff:

  • Joe Norton, caretaker at Crestview
  • Lucy Norton, his wife
  • George Smith, gardener at Crestview
  • Maggie, Nora, and Freda, maids
Locals:
  • Colonel Richardson, neighbor to Crestview
  • Nathaniel Ward, another neighbor
  • Floyd, chief of police
  • Lt. Jim Mason, state police
  • Major Jerry Dane, recovering from a leg injury
  • Alex, lost an eye in Italy, companion to Major Dane
  • Tim Murphy, Jerry Dane's investigator
  • Harry Miller, grocer
The Hilliards, of Providence:
  • Elinor Hilliard, sister of Carol Spencer
  • Howard Hillard, her husband
  • Caswell, their butler
Characters deceased before the story begins:
  • Don Richardson, fiance of Carol Spencer, killed in action
  • George Spencer, husband of Mrs. Spencer
Locale: Crestview, the Spencer's summer home in Maine

Synopsis:

Carol Spencer, her mother, Mrs. Spencer, and three maids Maggie, Nora, and Freda travel to Maine to open their summer home, Crestview,  for an expected visit by her brother Greg, coming home on leave from the South Pacific during WWII.

Crestview, is much too large for them now, and has been neglected during the war. They arrive to find it empty, but with signs of recent habitation. They find that Joe and Lucy Norton, the caretakers, are both hospitalized - Joe with appendicitis, Lucy with a broken leg. Lucy tells a story of being grabbed in the night by a stranger, resulting in her falling down the stairs. The locals refer to this stranger as "Lucy's ghost".

Carol and the maids work on opening the house. They find two unpleasant surprises: a woman's dead body in the linen closet, with remnants of a fire; and evidence that someone has been sleeping in the "Yellow Room". The dead woman's clothing and effects are missing from the home.

Jerry Dane, on medical leave from the Army, serves as the investigator. Exactly what his military role was is not revealed, but hinted he was in Intelligence.

Carol's wealthy sister, Elinor Hilliard, arrives for the inquest. Lucy Norton dies while in the hospital, and can not provide any information about the dead woman. A fire on the hillside above the home burns the area, and possible the dead woman's clothing, which had been suspected buried there. While out in the burned area, Elinor is injured by a gunshot.


Review:

Being one of Mary Roberts Rinehart's later mysteries, her earlier dated "had I but known" pattern of foreshadowing references has been left behind, as this takes the form of a classic golden age mystery. It is a good page-turner, with the culprit and motive a surprise until the last few pages. The last chapter kept me alert as various teasers pointed at different culprits before settling on the real one.

Set during WWII, the military is well represented with the few men in the story having cover stories of being on medical leave, to explain their presence in Maine despite the war being underway. I kept wondering when Jerry Dane's background and authority as the investigator would be revealed, but this did not occur.

This is a great country house mystery, complete with the requisite staff of servants lurking around. Rinehart plays fair with the reader as the mystery comes to a satisfying close.



Friday, June 29, 2018

The D.A.'s Daughter by Herman Petersen (1943)



Pretty Sinister Books





About this title: This is also published as Dell Mapback #55. I have three books by Herman Petersen (my other two are Murder RFD and Old Bones). The spelling of his name is Petersen on two, and Peterson on the other, so I am not sure which is correct. If you search for his books, try both spellings. He also wrote Murder in the Making which I have yet to locate.

As this enjoyable book takes place in the countryside during haying season, it has been my tradition* to reread it every summer here as soon as the first hay is being cut. This summer (2018) will be my 11th reading!

Major Characters:
  • Henry "Hank" Wilbur", narrator, putting himself thru college by selling life insurance
  • Lydia Bannock, Hank's girl-next-door, daughter of the D.A.
  • Charles Bannock, the D.A.
  • Charles Andrews, who bought a home/pond in Pleasant Hollow, he is dead before the story begins.
  • Sara Andrews, 36-year old charming blonde cougar, widow of Charles
  • Clarabelle Thompson, the rugged dairy farmer
  • George Tanner, fishing friend of Hank
  • Big Joe Hustin, hard-drinking lug who likes to pick fights
  • Horace Phelps, secretary of the Andrews family
  • Simon Blake, attorney for the late Charles Andrews, owns a horse farm
  • Sergeant Baker of the State Troopers
  • Trooper Nolan
Locale: fictional Pleasant Hollow in upstate New York



Synopsis:

Hank Wilbur, our narrator, is selling life insurance to pay for college in the fall. He has become quite cozy with blonde widow Sara Andrews, hanging out with her and giving her swimming lessons. Since the death of her husband Charles Andrews, local lug Big Joe Hustin has taken it upon himself to be Sara's protector, and slugs any men who show interest in her.

Sara drives home alone after a community supper. Later, Hank and girl-next-door Lydia Bannock drive the same way, to find a broken guard rail, and Sara's car overturned in the river. Hank dives in to try to assist, but she is already dead. Police find a skid mark indicating the car's brakes have been tampered with. She had just purchased a $100,000 life insurance policy from Hank - with Avery Hayden as beneficiary. This is a A-1 motive for murder, but who is Avery Hayden? Turns out he is a inmate of Sing Sing, serving a life sentence - a watertight (forgive the water reference) alibi.

Hank and Lydia try to find the motive, and narrow down the suspects. Lydia, with her exposure to her D.A. father, leads the way as Hank tries to keep up.

Favorite quotations:

"Let's drive around the square," Lydia suggested. "I need a breath of night air."
"What have you been breathing since sundown?"

Lydia: "Plant a good looking blonde widow anywhere and you've sown the seed of murder."

Trooper Nolan: "What'd he [Charles Andrews] die of?
Hank: "I think it was his heart."
Trooper Nolan: "Stopped, eh?"
Hank: "I think it stopped."
Trooper Nolan: "It usually does. It's a common cause of death."


Review:

This is one of the most enjoyable books I have encountered (having read it 11 times). Herman Petersen was a master of perfect, musical sentence construction ("Peaceful was the countryside over which the shadows of evening grew long.") and irony - too bad he only authored four books; of which I have obtained three. 

The scene of the sleepy rural village is well portrayed. Petersen was a rural letter carrier in upstate New York, and perfectly captures the countryside. 

There are hints of a potential relationship building between 21-year old** Hank and 36-year old Sara - today she would termed a "cougar". It is a surprise when she turns out to be the victim early on. There are also hints that Lydia has her eye on Hank as well. The repartee between them is enjoyable.

This is a perfect book for summer reading in a hammock, with the sound of a tractor cutting hay in a nearby field.

Please also see this synopsis/review by J F Norris.

*My other seasonal reading tradition is to read Deep Lay the Dead by Frederick C. Davis during a blizzard, as it takes place in a country house being buried in snow.

**inferred - Sara states she is 36 when making the insurance application, and Lydia mentions that Sara is 15 years older than Hank.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Jade Venus by George Harmon Coxe (1945)

goodreads.com

Major characters:

Kent Murdock, Army captain, former news photographer
Lt. Bacon, Homicide

Erloff and Leo, the abductors
Professor Albert Andrada
Louise Andrada, widow of the Professor's nephew, Donoto
Carl Watrous, theatre producer
Arlene, the Andrada maid
Barry Gould, newspaperman
Gail Roberts, niece/assistant to Professor Andrada, girlfriend of Roger Carroll
Roger Carroll, artist
George Damon, owner of the Art Mart gallery 
Tony Lorello, guitar player, the messenger

Locale: Boston, Massachusetts

Synopsis:

Kent Murdock is coming home to Boston on leave by train. Murdock is in the Fine Arts Division of the AMG (Army Materials Group) which inventories artwork in Europe for restoration after the war. He is briefly abducted by Erloff and Leo, who borrow his ID to impersonate him to Professor Andrada; who has acquired three odd paintings shipped from Italy. However, Andrada knows Murdock by sight, and sees through the imposter. Erloff and Leo were after one specific painting, called The Jade Venus.

Erloff and Leo smack the professor and make off with the painting. Soon after, the professor is found dead. Murdock finds a letter describing the shipment, which implies that The Jade Venus was a diversion painted over a map showing the location of an art treasure trove in Italy. Tony Lorello, the messenger who delivered the letter is then also found dead.

The Jade Venus shows up in a gallery, the Art Mart, a gallery owned by George Damon. However, it turns out to be a copy painted by Roger Carroll. The hunt for the original continues.

Review:

Kent Murdock is a believable character, and the story takes place during WWII when he is home on leave. His search for a painting turns into a search for a murderer. His newspaper background and contacts provide the experience for him to chase down the murderer. The action is nonstop, and the book is a page-turner. The book also provides much insight into the Nazi plundering of European artworks, and the efforts that were made to protect them for posterity. 

Also see this review by Bev Hankins.

Introduction and Title List

This blog is for the discussion of various Golden Age (generally, the period between WW1 and WW2) mysteries. The intent is to document individual books. I also have several blogs devoted to specific authors, linked here:
Now, on to the contents of this blog (by author):
To see the complete list of all books read/reviewed by author (compiled in one place from all the above blogs) see this web page.