Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Patient in Room 18 by Mignon Eberhart (1929)

dustjackets.com

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.