Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Portcullis Room by Valentine Willliams (1933)

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


Major characters:

The new arrivals:
  • Stephen Garrison, wealthy American
  • Philip Verity, Stephen's European manager
  • Mrs. Dean
  • Phyllis Dean, her daughter, Stephen's girlfriend
  • Captain Donald McKenzie, captain of the Ariel
Residents and locals:
  • "Toray" McReay, the laird (lord) of the castle
  • Flora McReay, his daughter
  • Andrew Jamieson, "The Factor" (McReay's financial agent)
  • Old Duncan, major-domo of the castle
The bad guys:
  • Vicomte Raoul d'Arenne
  • Oscar Berg, head of a gambling ring
  • Major Carlos Mansard
  • Nick Boldini
Long dead prior to the story, but important to it:
  • Hugh MacNeil, enemy of the Torays
  • Ronald McReay, son of Toray, killed in the war
Locale: Hebrides Islands, off Scotland

Synopsis: Wealthy American Stephen Garrison has a whim to buy a Scottish castle. He and his accountant, Philip Verity; girlfriend Phyllis Dean, and her mother Mrs. Dean arrive at Castle Toray by boat. Toray McReay, laird (lord) of the castle welcomes him - the place is way too big for him to deal with any more. His daughter, Flora McReay, is not quite so sold on the idea of selling.

Toray's son, Ronald McReay, was killed in the war. But he did manage to pass a pile of worthless checks while gambling, and now snarky Vicomte Rauol d'Arenne shows up to collect from his father, bringing along his tough guys Oscar Berg, Major Carlos Mansard, and Nick Boldini. Stephen remembers the Vicomte, they had come to blows a few years earlier.

The castle has a big bedroom called the Portcullis Room, as it was situated above the old portcullis (long gone) which shut the castle off from the sea. Generations ago, an enemy of the McReay's, Hugh MacNeil, sought shelter from a storm and they put him up for the night in the Portcullis Room. Come morning, he is found stabbed to death, his blood permanently staining the floor. His ghost is said to walk the castle every year on the anniversary of his death (Sept. 29), which happens to be Michaelmas.

Here is it Michaelmas again. Vicomte d'Arenne is put up in the Portcullis Room. He is then found stabbed with McReay's dirk (dagger), lying on the very spot where High MacNeil died.

Tidal conditions and storms delay arrival of authorities. First, Oscar Berg takes on an investigation. Then the laird appoints Philip Verity to take over. Meanwhile, things are not going well between Garrison and Phyllis, as he has his eye on Flora.

Review:

What's not to like about a stormy night in a dark old castle on an island, replete with a scary history, and secret passages? Once you have the cast figured out (see list above), it moves right along. It is a bit predictable as you just know who is going to get it, how, and where. It is interesting how one of the "bad guys" (Oscar Berg) takes the role as the initial investigator, serving a good purpose nonetheless.

I had to look up definitions a few times - to save you the trouble:

  • a dirk is a ornate jeweled dagger
  • a factor is a financial agent
  • a laird is a lord, as in lord of the castle

We also see the "ugly American" theme present, when the Americans arrive with unlimited money to just buy up a castle sight unseen just because they don't have one.

Dialects (English with a Gaelic accent, and Italian) are rendered in phonetics and difficult to read and understand.



Friday, December 13, 2019

Mysterious Miss Morrisot by Valentine Williams (1930)

Also published as Mannequin

Valentine Williams

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

Major characters:
  • Miss Jacqueline "Jack" Morrisot, executive for The Great Victor
  • The Great Victor, famous clothing designer
  • Oliver Royce, laid-off journalist, our protagonist
  • Mousie Hersent, a past-her-prime high-mileage widow
  • Don Luis "Neque" Ribeira, a wealthy Argentine
  • Doña Isabella, Ribeira claims she is his sister
  • Esteban Pinedo, Doña Isabella's husband
  • Harvey Nolan, wealthy American idler
  • Harriet Bronstein
  • Henri Laurent, murderer
  • Inspector Dufour
Locale: Cannes and Paris, France

Synopsis: As the story opens, we learn that Jacqueline "Jack" Morrisot, as a child, witnessed her mother's murder by Henri Laurent, who is believed to have drowned shortly afterwards. The whereabouts of Jacqueline's father is not known, the only clue a letter she has signed "Vin."

Fast forward many years. Jacqueline is an executive assistant to famous dress designer 'The Great Victor'. Oliver Royce, our protagonist, loses his journalist job in a buyout; takes his savings to rub elbows with the wealthy at Cannes. He meets and becomes fascinated with Jacqueline.

Quickly running out of savings, Oliver grudgingly accepts lodging with wealthy widow Mousie Hersent, and reluctantly takes the role of a gigolo - escorting her to society events. Jacqueline finds out and insults Mousie Hersent, which results in her (Jacqueline) losing her job. Oliver quits the gigolo gig in disgust.

Jacqueline is approached by wealthy Argentine Don Luis "Neque" Ribeira, who offers her a position as traveling companion to himself and his sister, Doña Isabella; and they drop from sight. Meanwhile, Oliver finds work as a steward aboard the luxury yacht of bored-stiff idler Harvey Nolan. Oliver and Harvey become friends in spite of their employer/servant relationship; with Harvey providing the resources for Oliver to find Jacqueline.


Review:

This is a thriller, with two mysteries woven in: Is murderer Henri Laurent still alive, and where is he? And where is Jacqueline's father?

I was immediately struck by deja vu with the writer-gigolo theme. The 1950 film Sunset Boulevard casts the identical triangle of lead roles:
  • Down-on-his-luck writer turned gigolo: Oliver Royce (Sunset Boulevard's Joe Gillis)
  • Wealthy widow: Mrs. Hersent (Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond)
  • Rebuffed love interest: Jacqueline Morrisot (Sunset Boulevard's Betty Schaefer)
It gets a bit dizzy with the characters constantly zooming between Paris and Cannes. Once they get to Mousie Hersent's Paris home, Les Charmettes, the action picks up and becomes an exciting thriller as the parties all converge.

Inspector Dufour has a minor role, primarily at the cleanup.

Readers who enjoy the knight-errant stories of Leslie Charteris' The Saint will enjoy this book, as it moves from the glittery gaming tables of Cannes to a damsel-rescue in Paris. 

Saturday, December 7, 2019

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

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Valentine Williams

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

Major characters:

At the lake house:
  1. Victor Haversley, rich Illinois brewer
  2. Graziella Haversley, his wife
  3. Miss Barbara Ingersoll, his secretary
  4. Dave Jarvis, engaged to Sara Carruthers
  5. Sara Carruthers, engaged to Dave Jarvis, Edith Lunsden's niece
  6. Peter Blakeney, playwright, our narrator
  7. Charles Lumsden, owner of the camp and host
  8. Edith Lumsden, his wife
  9. Dickie Lumsden, their teenage son
  10. Cynthia Lumsden, their teenage daughter
  11. Buster Leighton
  12. Myrtle Fletcher
  13. Dr. Oscar Bracegirdle, retired physician
  14. Miss Janet Ryder
and...
  • Jake Harper, local hillbilly farmer
  • Fritz Waters, Graziella's old flame
  • Eben Hicks, an old hunter
  • Ed Wharton, a New York gunman
  • George Martin, escaped convict
  • Hank Wells, sheriff
  • Detective Sergeant Trevor Dene of Scotland Yard
Locale: Wolf Lake, in the Adirondack mountains of New York

Synopsis: Charles and Edith Lumsden have a sprawling lakeside "camp" in the Adirondacks, consisting of several individual cottages as well as their main house. Wealthy Victor and Graziella Haversley are there, and their marriage is already on the rocks. Graziella seems quite interested in old flame Fritz Waters who is hanging around.

Playwright Peter Blakeney (our narrator) has the guests stage a reading of his latest play. He wants to test his theory that Graziella and Waters are lovers, and assigns them the lovers' roles. When the big kiss moment comes, Victor is enraged, argues with Graziella, and injures her. Fritz threatens to kill him. He's not the only one out for Victor - he has enemies from the labor unions who represent workers at his brewery.

A shot is heard at 11 PM, and Victor is found dead in the "Trapper's Cabin". He is initially thought a suicide. Sheriff Hank Wells and Detective Sergeant Trevor Dene find the scene was "tidied up" after the shot, therefore it must be murder. Motives abound - an estranged wife, her lover bent on revenge, labor unionists, and a couple of random toughs - an escaped convict and a shadowy gunman.

Review:

It is a bit odd to have a Scotland Yard detective at a New York wilderness camp, but it does work out. We have the isolated camp populated with drama, and the added complexity that the village (and the sheriff) are only accessible by boat - although there is a road to the village as well; but the boat is the preferred mode of travel. 

The solution rests in building a timeline of the crime and verifying alibis one by one. This gets a bit tedious but it does slowly narrow the suspect pool. Measuring the oil remaining in the oil lamp is a bit of fine-combing of clues, the sort that would be put to use later by Erle Stanley Gardner and his routine examination of candles and lamps in his stories. 

A map of the camp would have been helpful. Perhaps the original has one, but my Collier reprint does not. Here is a sketch made from the text which seems to fit:


click to enlarge

Overall, a good mystery to take to your camp on the lake!








Monday, December 2, 2019

Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937)


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

Major characters:

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

Locale: near Hennersby, England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Holiday Homicide by Rufus King (1940)


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

Major characters:

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

Locale: New York City and Tortuagas (Florida).

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 25, 2019

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

photo: The Passing Tramp

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

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

Locale: New York state

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Steps to Murder by Rufus King (1960)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review:

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

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

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Murder in the Willett Family by Rufus King (1931)

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

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

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

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


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

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

click to enlarge

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

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





Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Eye in Attendance by Valentine Williams (1923)



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

Major characters:


Residents of Node House:


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

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


Superintendent Nolling, local police
Inspector George Manderton, Scotland Yard

Locale: Isle of Wight, off the coast of England


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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Clubfoot The Avenger by Valentine Williams (1923)


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

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

Major Characters:

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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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


Review:

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

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




Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr (1937)

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Major characters:

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

Gaudan Cross, author

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

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

Locale: Crispen, New Jersey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

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Major characters:

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


Locale: Chipping Cleghorn village, England

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

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

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

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

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




Monday, October 14, 2019

The Broadway Murders by Edward J. Doherty (1929)

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

Major characters:

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


Locale: New York City

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

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

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



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

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

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

Friday, October 11, 2019

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


About the author:

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

Synopses:

The Department of Queer Complaints stories

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

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



Dr. Fell stories

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

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



Secret Service stories

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

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


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


Review:

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

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Museum Piece No. 13 by Rufus King (1945)


Also published as Secret Beyond the Door

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:

The Blaze Creek household:
  • Lily Rumney, formerly Lily Constable, 2nd wife of Earl Rumney
  • Earl Rumney, wealthy newspaper owner
  • (the late Eleanor Rumney - Earl's first wife)
  • (the late Wilbur Constable, Lily's first husband)
  • Aderic Rumney, teenage son of Earl and Eleanor
  • Diana Goff, Earl's sister
  • Silas Goff, Diana's husband
  • Dillon Sobolenski, a dour composer and house guest
  • Zelma McQuillan, Earl's personal secretary, who conceals her face
  • Mrs. Lovelake, creepy housekeeper
  • Mildred, Lily's maid
  • Griswold, chauffeur
Others:
  • Hubert Coache, bank VP, Lily's old friend and confidante
  • Leona Drumm, news columnist
  • Dr. Lawrence Russack, a psychiatrist
  • Dr. Harley Linder, a physician
Locale: Lebanon Falls, New York; near New York City

Synopsis: 

Our protagonist Lily Constable is newly married to Earl Rumney and moving to her new mansion home, Blaze Creek. It is a second marriage for both - Lily's first husband, Wilbur Constable and Earl's first wife, Eleanor Rumney, are both dead. Earl has a teenage son, Aderic, by his first wife. 

Blaze Creek is a big mansion with a big staff, 12 women and six men. It is run by housekeeper Mrs. Lovelake, with business affairs handled by secretary Zelma McQuillan; who partially conceals her face with scarves.

Already there is belief that Earl has only married Lily for her money. His newspaper needs a lot of capital, and Lily is quite wealthy. Lily is barely moved in when Earl has her sign a power of attorney (red flag!).

Earl has told her he has a hobby of decorating certain rooms in the mansion. In fact, there are 13. It turns out that each room contains a tableau of a murder (with no bodies, just the rooms staged as they appeared). 12 of the rooms are "public" and he happily shows them to guests. But room 13 is his secret room, and no one, including Lily, is allowed to see inside. Lily is concerned about his mental health, as her psychiatrist friend Dr. Lawrence Russack has warned her to beware if Earl keeps any of the rooms a secret. Russack urges her to get a copy of the key and look inside.

Review: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." If you can identify that opening line, you will enjoy this book. This story is a parallel to Daphne DuMaurier's 1939 novel Rebecca. The second wife coming to be mistress of a creepy mansion with a cold husband, the ever-present memory of the former mistress, and a creepy housekeeper is right out of that novel; although our protagonist Lily Rumney is quite a bit more assertive than the wife in Rebecca (who even lacks a name).

Then it gets interesting, with the addition of the secret rooms (taken from the French folktale Bluebeard). 

There are 13 rooms, but we only get a peek into a couple. The content of the secret room is easy to predict, but still an enjoyable read as Lily seeks to solve the mystery in some daring escapades.

My only criticism is that the author has made quite a word salad in this book, full of long complex words which may send you to the dictionary repeatedly. There were some paragraphs which just defy understanding completely.