Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1926)

dustjackets.com

The play came first (1920), then the book was back-written from it (1926). Wikipedia states in its article The Bat that "the The Bat is a three-act play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood that was first produced by Lincoln Wagenhals and Collin Kemper in 1920." It was remade into film several times as well.

Major characters:

Locale:

Synopsis:

Review:

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

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Man Next Door by Mignon Eberhart (1942)

dustjackets.com 

About the author: (from Goodreads): Mignon Good (1899-1996) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1929 her first crime novel was published featuring 'Sarah Keate', a nurse and 'Lance O'Leary', a police detective. This couple appeared in another four novels. Over the next forty years she wrote a novel nearly every year. In 1971 she won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. 

Major characters:
  • Maida Lovell, our protagonist, secretary to Steve Blake
  • Steve Blake, head of a government wartime (WWII) project
  • Bill Skeffington, his assistant
  • Christine (née Favor) Blake, Steve's sister-in-law, a war widow
  • Angela Favor, Christine's high-maintenance younger sister
  • Walsh Rantoul, the effeminate boarder
  • Nollie Lister, a nosy neighbor
  • "Smith", a foreign agent
Locale: Washington DC

Synopsis: Pretty Maida Lovell, secretary to war department executive Steve Blake, stops by Christine Blake's house (his widowed sister-in-law) where he is living and has his home office. She is to pick up some notes for his radio speech later that evening. She is in love with him, and jealous that Blake has been spending time with Christine's elegant penthouse-lifestyle sister, Angela Favor. She encounters - and rebuffs - prissy Walsh Rantoul in the house, who is mixing drinks and coming on to her. She goes upstairs to retrieve the notes, and Blake stops in at the same time. After Blake departs for his meeting, Maida goes downstairs to find Blake gone and Rantoul dead in the kitchen. It looks like Blake has murdered him, since they had words earlier.

A stranger who calls himself "Smith" enters. In order to protect Blake from discovery, he offers to dispose of Rantoul's body and the evidence, if Maida will find information about airplane movements for him. The information he asks for is to be public knowledge anyway, so she complies. Now she is trapped. Smith is obviously an enemy spy and he has a hold on Maida to find out more and more intelligence on wartime materiel and personnel movements.

Review: A riveting murder/spy mystery and love story all rolled into one. As in many of Eberhart's books, the protagonist is the cute brunette girl-next-door caught up in intrigue as she also faces losing the man she loves to a high-maintenance blonde. The descriptions of Washington DC set the tone of the story, as well as emphasizes how much of the progress there occurs not in Congress, but behind closed doors at cocktail parties. The WWII restrictions add to the flavor. This is a tight novel, with a small cast of characters. She outwitted me as usual. Three or four times I predicted how this was going to work out, but I was wrong every time. Even the title misled me, I thought "the man next door" referred to a certain person, but again, wrong.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The House at Satan's Elbow by John Dickson Carr (1965)


About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Pennington Barclay, master of Greengrove
  • Deidre Barclay, his young wife
  • Fay Wardour, a.k.a. Fay Sutton, his secretary
  • Estelle Barclay, his sister
  • Dr. Edward Fortescue, family doctor
  • Annie Tiffin, cook
  • Mr. Justice Wildfare, long dead, but returning as a ghost?
  • Nick Barclay, New York magazine publisher
  • Garret Anderson, historical writer
  • Andrew Dawlish, attorney

Locale: England

Synopsis: Old Clovis Barclay had left the Greengrove estate to eldest son Pennington. Then a second will is found, which left the estate to grandson Nick Barclay instead. Nick comes to the UK, and heads for the estate with his friend Garret Anderson. Nick doesn't want the estate, and plans to give it to Pennington anyway.

The estate comes with a legend that the ghost of former owner Mr. Justice Wildfare visits periodically. They arrive to find the ghost has just visited Pennington, and shot at him; but the gun was loaded with blanks. They also discover that Pennington's secretary, Fay Wardour, is Garret's old girlfriend. The ghost makes a second appearance in a locked room and tries again with real bullets, this time wounding Pennington.

Review: First off, it is not a murder mystery - no one gets murdered, despite the cover blurb. It is two consecutive locked-room puzzles (same room each time). The Greengrove mansion is a sprawling, massive place with lots of overly specific description in the text - one sketch map would have been preferred - and could have avoided absurd statements of the obvious such as:

"What had been the left-hand window of the library as you stood inside the room looking out had now become the right-hand window as you stood outside looking in."

The details of room layouts, window layouts, etc. led me to believe something would be up with that, perhaps mirrors or a secret passage, but no. The household itself is an amusing collection of characters - manic Estelle is always running around, and beyond the sedate library and music room (with ear-shattering Gilbert and Sullivan records playing) is - yes, a pinball room at which the family enjoys playing pinball. Toss in a couple of love interests, and amongst all this fun is Annie Tiffin, the cook; who proves to be an enjoyable character and provides one of the keys for Dr. Fell to unravel the two puzzles.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Miss Pinkerton by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1932)

dustjackets.com

About the author: Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 – 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie, although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie's first novel in 1920. Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase "The butler did it" from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase. Rinehart is also considered to have invented the "Had-I-But-Known" school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908). (from a Wikipedia article).

Major characters:
  • Herbert Wayne, deceased - but still warm - as story begins
  • Paula Brent, his girlfriend
  • Miss Juliet Mitchell, his elderly, deaf aunt
  • Arthur Glenn, attorney
  • Florence Lenz, Glenn's secretary
  • Hugo, the butler
  • Mary, the cook (Hugo's wife)
  • Nurse Hilda Adams, a.k.a. "Miss Pinkerton"
  • Inspector Patton
  • Dr. -- Stewart
  • Charlie Elliott, neighbor, Paula Brent's former boyfriend
Locale: unspecified

Synopsis: Herbert Wayne lives on the 3rd floor of his aunt's (Miss Julia Mitchell) run-down mansion. It has seen better days - the only servants remaining are Hugo (butler) and Mary (cook, and Hugo's wife). Herbert had been speculating on stocks and now he is found shot. No one can determine if it was murder, suicide, or accident (he had been cleaning his gun).

Miss Julia is feeling poorly so Inspector Patton plants Nurse Adams in the home as her nurse. Wayne's girlfriend, Paula Brent, is distraught. Then it comes to light that her former boyfriend, Charlie Elliott, has been hanging around and threatening to do away with Wayne in order to get Paula back. This puts him at the top of the suspect list.

Review:

Nurse Adams is a great sneak to be our investigator. When talking on the phone to Inspector Patton, she addresses him as "doctor" so the family won't suspect. A lot of the book is devoted to figuring out if waster Wayne is a murder, suicide, or accident - and there is a lot of hanky-panky going on with the crime scene evidence too. The use of a newspaper in a murder is a new one. 

I do like the amusing episodes - the funniest is when Nurse Adams is keeping watch over her patient, Miss Julia, at night; and each is waiting for the other to fall asleep (reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre- with alternating peeps over the bed's footboard. Another amusing happening is repeated incidents of people getting trapped on the mansion's roof!

I learned a few essential things from this book:
  • Risus Sardonicus - an involuntary grin caused by muscular action, "may be caused by tetanus, strychnine poisoning or Wilson's disease, and has been reported after judicial hanging." Do a Google Image search for some creepy pictures.
  • How to tell if a person in a faint is faking - you will have to read the book to find this little technique out!
  • Rolled Stockings - a rather rebellious action in the 1920's-1930's by ladies by unclasping their stockings from their garters and rolling the tops so they stay up all by themselves. Shocking! See this article.
  • How to shoot somebody at close range without leaving the telltale powder burns.


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Bachelors Get Lonely by A. A. Fair (1961)

dustjackets.com

About the author: A. A. Fair is a pseudonym of Erle Stanley Gardner.

Major characters:
  • Montrose L. Carson, a property appraiser
  • Irene Addis, employee of Montrose Carson
  • Herbert Jason Dowling, a property appraise, Carson's competitor
  • Bernice Clinton, employee of Herbert J. Dowling
  • Donald Lam, investigator
  • Bertha Cool, his partner
  • Elsie Brand, his secretary
Locale: Los Angeles

Synopsis:

Appraiser Montrose Carson hires Cool & Lam to find out who is the leak in his office. Whenever he prepares to close on a deal, his competitor Herbert J. Dowling beats him to it at the last moment with a better price. Bertha Cool cooks up a scheme to reveal who the leaker is, by putting up a fake property deal with Donald Lam as the "seller". To help create a realistic identity, Lam moves into a bachelor apartment and secretary Elsie Brand poses as his girlfriend. Dowling's employee, Bernice Clinton, approaches Lam with a better (than Carson's) offer; and the details reveal Irene Addis as the leaker in Carson's office.

Lam follows Carson to a motel, where Carson meets a woman. After she leaves, Lam looks in the window to see Carson dead on the floor, and a bullet hole in the window.

Review:

With A. A. Fair you are always guaranteed skulking around looking in windows, and secret meetings at cheap motels, with every woman in the cast throwing herself at Donald Lam; and this one is no different. It is a fun romp with a clever trap set by Bertha Cool to find the leaker. The repartée between Lam and Elsie Brand is always enjoyable. I always find A. A. Fair works to be best taken at either one or at most two sittings, as everybody assumes various alias' throughout, and it's hard to keep it all straight over more than two days!



Sunday, July 28, 2019

There Is A Tide by Agatha Christie (1948)

dustjackets.com

Major characters:
  • Gordon Cloade (deceased) and his widow, Rosaleen
  • Dr. Lionel Cloade (Gordon's brother), and his wife Kathie, a spiritualist
  • Jeremy Cloade (Gordon's brother), a lawyer, and his wife Frances
  • Rowley Cloade (Gordon's nephew), a farmer (engaged to Lynn Marchmont)
  • Adela Marchmont, Gordon's widowed sister
  • Lynn Marchmont, Adela's daughter, just out of the service
  • David Hunter, Rosaleen's brother, an adventurer
  • Robert Underhay (presumed deceased), Rosaleen's first husband
  • Enoch Arden, a blackmailer
  • Major Porter

Locale: Warmsley Vale, England

Synopsis: Wealthy, childless widower Gordon Cloade had always ensured his two brothers, one sister, and nephew they would be well taken care of when he died. Then he married a much younger woman, Rosaleen Hunter Underhay, widow of Robert Underhay, believed dead in Africa. Not long after the marriage, Gordon is killed in the London blitz bombing.

Now the Cloades: doctor Lionel Cloade, lawyer Jeremy Cloade, farmer Rowley Cloade, and Adela Marchmont are in an awkward position. All struggling financially, they had placed their hopes in a large inheritance. But now Rosaleen is his only heir; and she is burning through the fortune with her wild and crazy brother David Hunter. 

Enoch Arden shows up with a blackmail offer: How much is it worth to the Cloades for proof Robert Underhay is still alive? If he is, Rosaleen's subsequent marriage to Gordon is invalid, and the Cloade brothers are again heirs. This is worth quite a bit. On the other hand, how much is it worth to Rosaleen's scheming brother David Hunter not to reveal the information, since it would cut off his source of money? Place your bids. A dangerous game - Enoch Arden is found dead in his hotel room with no leads as to Robert Underhay at all. Suspicions are aroused that Enoch Arden is not his real name, as it is really the name of a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which has a similar plot. But who is he?

Hercule Poirot visits to investigate a murder in which everyone has a motive.

Review: A very tight Rubik's Cube of a novel. Each person has a motive for murder and they all interlock. One interesting plot element is the path of inheritence depending who dies in what order. Several twists and turns occur with a big surprise at the end. I had a bit of trouble figuring the family relationships out, with one enigma remaining: If Rowley is Gordon's nephew, who are his parents? Not Jeremy and Frances, it is stated they had only one child (Anthony) who was killed in the war. Not Lionel and Kathie, since he refers to her as his aunt. Not widowed Adela, since he is engaged to her daughter (who would then be his sister). Not essential to the plot, but still a naggy loose end.



Tuesday, July 23, 2019

El Rancho Rio by Mignon Eberhart (1970)

sceneofthecrimebook.com

About the author: (from Goodreads): Mignon Good (1899-1996) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1929 her first crime novel was published featuring 'Sarah Keate', a nurse and 'Lance O'Leary', a police detective. This couple appeared in another four novels. Over the next forty years she wrote a novel nearly every year. In 1971 she won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. 


Major characters:
  • Craig Wilson
  • Indian Joe, Craig's confidante and our primary investigator.
  • Rhoda Wilson, Craig's first wife
  • Guy Casso, who had affair with Rhoda
  • Susan Wilson, Craig and Rhoda's teenage daughter
  • Mady Wilson, Craig's current (second) wife
  • Boyce and Edith Wilson, Craig's brother and his wife
  • Mirabel, Craig's aunt
  • Jim Marsh - Mady's previous lover
  • Walter Banner - a lost tourist, or is he?


Locale: the Nevada desert

Synopsis: Craig and Mady Wilson, wealthy from mining discoveries, have a ranch, El Rancho Rio, in the Nevada desert. During his previous marriage to Rhoda Wilson, Craig and she had a daughter, now 12-year old Susan. Their marriage fell apart after Rhoda had an affair with Guy Casso. Craig had remarried, to our protagonist Mady Wilson.  One night Guy enters their home and assaults Mady, then runs away. The next day Mady is out riding and finds Casso's body in the desert, dead from being struck with a piece of souvenir railroad rail from their home. Indian Joe, Craig's assistant and confidante, is pressed into service as the de facto investigator.

Rhoda arrives with a deal for Mady - essentially to swap their men. Mady can have her former lover, Jim Marsh, back if she gives up Craig to Rhoda to remarry, so she (Rhoda) can again have custody of her daughter. Meanwhile a snowstorm comes in to trap the Wilsons along with Rhoda, Jim Marsh, Boyce and Edith Wilson, and lost stranger Walter Banner all in the same house - knowing one of them is a killer. And of course, the power goes out, and a gun is missing. (This is essentially the same plot setup as in Deep Lay the Dead by Frederick C. Davis.)

Edith Wilson mentions knowledge of Casso's killer, and she too is killed by someone on the ranch.

Review: Eberhart's stories are always enjoyable with the female protagonist who is always getting in trouble - as we follow her thoughts as she tries to get out of it. Eberhart excels in her place descriptions - this time the desert of Nevada (being from New England, this is a place I would not normally associate with snowstorms!). The desert locale is described almost as well as Erle Stanley Gardner. The character of Susan as a precocious 12-year old is well done and serves to move the plot along. Written in 1970, we see how far treatment of minorities in fiction had come (albeit with a long way still to go). Indian Joe (never dignified with a last name) is cast as Craig's confidante and our primary investigator. While some stereotypical language and mannerisms remain, it is also noted Joe has a Master's degree in Philosophy.


Friday, July 19, 2019

And So To Murder by Carter Dickson (1940)

dustjackets.com

About the author: Carter Dickson is a pseudonym of John Dickson Carr.

Major characters:

  • Monica Stanton, author and now script writer
  • Thomas Hackett, producer
  • Howard Fisk, director
  • Bill Cartwright, script writer and investigator
  • Frances Fleur, actress
  • Kurt Gagern, Frances Fleur's husband, assistant director, a.k.a. Joe Collins
  • Tilly Parsons, script writer
  • H.M., Sir Henry Merrivale

Locale: outside London

Synopsis: Monica Stanton, daughter of a parson, has written a spicy book, Desire, which has become a best seller, and is now being made into a movie. She is hired by producer Thomas Hackett, assuming it is to work on the movie version. To her surprise, she is not assigned to write her own script, but instead a detective story by Bill Cartwright; who will, in turn, write her script. 

She meets her idol Frances Fleur who will star in Desire. Everyone is on edge following a theft of acid, and its accidental spillage on a set. Then Monica is summoned to a deserted set where an attempt is made on her life using more acid; thwarted at the last moment by Bill Cartwright. Monica receives threatening letters as the pressure mounts. Who wants to kill her, and why?

Review: This is what you would get if Manning Coles wrote Sunset Boulevard. It is a slam-bang thriller (not a murder mystery, despite the title) featuring H.M., Sir Henry Merrivale. It begins with the young girl-next-door getting a job as a script writer at an exciting film studio and falling in love with another writer, our leading man. Then the mayhem begins: poisons, shootings, windows breaking, people thrown into the lake. Most of the legwork is done by our leading man Bill Cartwright, and he manages to pull H.M. in, unwillingly, toward the end. Unlike most of Carr/Dicksons, this one has no locked rooms; just a string of unsuccessful murder attempts. The descriptions of the studio workings are well done. An enjoyable page turner.



Saturday, July 13, 2019

Episode of the Wandering Knife by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1949)


This is a collection of two novellas and a short story:
Episode of the Wandering Knife (novella - 1943)
The Man Who Hid His Breakfast (short story - 1949)
The Secret (novella -1950)

My edition is Rinehart & Co., 1949, hardcover. I could not find an image of the dustjacket so have shown the paperback cover above.




Episode of the Wandering Knife (1943)

Major characters:
  • Judith Shepard, our narrator
  • Mother Shepard, her mother
  • Larry Shepard, her brother
  • Isabel [née Leland] Shepard, Larry's wife
  • Andrew and Emily Leland, Isabel's parents
  • Alma Spencer, friend of Mother
  • Jim Barnes, a policeman
  • Captain Tony King, investigator
  • Don Scott, old flame of Isabel Shepard
Locale: unspecified

Synopsis: Judith Shepard's high society mother, only named as Mother, is hosting a party for the local Mayor at her mansion. Judith's brother Larry Shephard and sister-in-law Isabel [née Leland] Shepard live in another house on the grounds. After it is over, Isabel is found stabbed in her house. Mother sees the knife on the floor, knows it belongs to her son Larry, and sits down on it so the police won't see it. She gets away with it, and she and Judith begin moving it to a series of hiding places; and it disappears and reappears a couple of times. Policeman Jim Barnes who was on duty during the party, acts suspicious himself and won't reveal his knowledge of the crime. Three other murders follow Captain Tony King tries to unravel the motive behind it all.

Review: An enjoyable novella with our narrator walking the tightrope between assisting in the investigation, yet being an accessory by hiding the weapon. The wandering knife earns its name, and is a key element in introducing the players. I was surprised that four murders could occur with such a small cast and short book. Captain Tony King's role is unclear, he is not with the police yet he is quite cozy with them. The final solution reminds of a Perry Mason novel, with hidden family secrets revealed as the motive.


The Man Who Hid His Breakfast (1949)

Major characters:
  • Mrs. Ingalls
  • Joy Ingalls, her daughter
  • Ken Townsend, her fiancée
  • Harry Ingalls, her cousin
  • Maud Ingalls, Harry's wife
  • Inspector Tom Brent
  • Hotel detective Carver

Locale: unspecified

Synopsis: Mrs. Ingalls has been found strangled (with one of daughter Joy Ingall's nylon stockings) in her bed. She had strongly opposed Joy's upcoming marriage (giving Joy and fiancée Ken Townsend motives). She had also had left a substantial amount in her will to destitute nephew Harry Ingalls (giving him and his wife Maud Ingalls motives). All four have solid alibis. A chance remark by Inspector Tom Brent's friend, hotel detective Carver gives Brent a clue as to how it was done.

Review: A nice tight short story which introduces a puzzle and solves it in 30 pages. 


The Secret (1950)

Major characters:
  • Mrs. Nina Rowland, in bed with a slight arm ailment
  • Mr. Charles Rowland, her husband, serving in the Pacific
  • Antoinette "Tony" Rowland, a strange acting young lady with a secret
  • Miss Alice Rowland, Charles' sister, recovering from a fall down the stairs
  • Johnny Hayes, was to be married to Tony
  • Mrs. Arthur Hayes, Johnny's mother
  • Delia Johnson, Tony's former maid in Hawaii
  • Herbert Johnson, Delia's brother, hanging around ominously
  • Nurse Hilda Adams, nurse for Miss Alice
  • Aggie and Stella, two servants

Locale: maybe New York City

Synopsis: Something strange is going on in the Rowland household. Tony Rowland's upcoming marriage to Johnny Hayes is cancelled at the last minute. Then someone, apparently Tony, takes two shots at her mother, Nina Rowland - and missed both times. Then her aunt, Alice Rowland, falls down the stairs - or was she pushed? Nurse Hilda Adams is planted in the household to care for Alice, and try to prevent more unpleasantness.

Review: A good short story, revolving around a mysterious secret which is finally revealed at the end (but I didn't guess it). Lots of little aspects to this story which I thought would turn out to be red herrings, but everything fit into place neatly at the end. Hilda Adams is her usually crusty self with a bit of a pining for Inspector Fuller.


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

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Hollow by Agatha Christie (1946)

dustjackets.com

Published in the USA as Murder After Hours.

Major characters:
  • John Christow, a doctor
  • Gerda Christow, his wife
  • Sir Henry Angkatell, master of The Hollow
  • Lady Lucy Angkatell
  • David Angkatell, a student
  • Edward Angkatell, master of Ainswick
  • Midge Hardcastle, clerk in a dress shop
  • Henrietta Savernake, a sculptor/artist
  • Doris Sanders, model for Henrietta, partially(?) blind
  • Veronica Cray, actress, John Christow's long-ago fiancée
  • Hercule Poirot

Locale: The Hollow, home of the Angkatells

Synopsis: John Christow is a tired doctor, with too many women in his life - a love quadrangle: He is married to the simple, plain Gerda; having an affair with sexy artist Henrietta Savernake; but cannot get his old flame Veronica Cray out of his mind.

The Christows are invited to a weekend at The Hollow, home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Henrietta Savernake is one of the guests, and Veronica Cray and Hercule Poirot are staying at nearby cottages. One of the activities is target shooting. Hercule Poirot is also invited, and arrives just as John Christow is found dead by the swimming pool, with Gerda standing over him with a gun in hand.

Poirot finds a conspiracy of silence - the Angkatells all know more than they are saying.

Review: The characters are quite fascinating: Sir Henry Angkatell - quiet and a bit vacant - and his wife Lucy - manic and scattered. The Christows are the opposite - John, overworked and frantic; and his wife Gerda, simple and worrying. Toss in an ingenue - sculptress (is that a word?) Henrietta (having an intense affair with John) and Veronica (John's former fiancée), and what would be a fun activity for all? Target shooting, of course! Pass out the guns and let's have at it.

The plot revolves around an apparently staged murder scene into which Poirot walks arrives - with Gerda holding the "smoking gun" yet for a (reason withheld here) she cannot be the murderer. What is the truth? It takes several visits of the various persons to Poirot's cottage before he can tease out the truth. A very enjoyable read with an unexpected ending.


Saturday, June 29, 2019

The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson (1934)

dustjackets.com

About the author: Carter Dickson is a pseudonym of John Dickson Carr, known for his locked room mysteries. 

Major characters:
  • Marcia Tait, glamorous film star
  • Maurice Bohun, author of the current play, master of White Priory
  • John Bohun, his brother; in love with Marcia Tait
  • Tim Emery, Tait's Publicity Manager
  • Carl Rainger, Tait's Director
  • Lord Canifest, backer of the play
  • Louise Carewe, his daughter
  • Katherine Bohun, Maurice and John's niece
  • James Bennett, nephew of Sir Henry Merrivale
  • Jervis Willard, an actor
  • Sir Henry Merrivale
  • Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters

Locale: London

Synopsis: Actress Marcia Tate has up and walked off her Hollywood set to go to London, to star in a new play put on by brothers Maurice and John Bohun, and financed by Lord Canifest. Her director, Carl Rainger, and publicity manager, Tim Emery, have followed her to convince her to return to Hollywood.

All the principals are invited to White Priory, home of Maurice Bohun. White Priory has a "King Charles Room" which has a "secret staircase" built into the exterior wall which leads down to an exterior door. The estate also features a small cottage, "The Queen's Mirror",  surrounded by a shallow, ornamental lake (now frozen). 

Sir Henry Merrivale's nephew from the US, James Bennett, has been invited also. He arrives just after a snowfall, to find John Bohun just exiting The Queen's Mirror, shouting that he has just found Marcia Tate dead inside. There is only one set of footprints in the unbroken snow - John Bohun's from his entry to the cottage. It is then determined the murder occurred after the snowfall, so where are the killer's footprints?

There have been two previous attempts on Tate - first a box of poisoned chocolates had been sent to her, and then someone pushed her down the secret stairs of White Priory.

Review:

A nice locked-room puzzle where a woman in found dead in the cottage, yet the only footprints in the snow are those of John Bohun who discovered her! H.M. works on two possible explanations, but neither is just right. Sometimes I find Carr/Dickson a bit hard to follow, when long conversations occur without much clue as to who is speaking; but this one was OK. An enjoyable read, would be a good snowstorm read!


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Phantom Lady by William Irish (1942)

dustjackets.com

About the author: William Irish is a pseudonym of Cornell Woolrich.

Major characters:
  • Scott Henderson, convicted of murder
  • Marcella Henderson, his wife; deceased
  • Miss Carol Richman, Scott's girlfriend
  • The "Phantom Lady"
  • Burgess, a detective
  • John Lombard, Henderson's old friend
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: 

The book is divided into chapters counting down to the execution of Scott Henderson, for the murder of his wife Marcella.

As the story opens, their marriage is already on the rocks. Scott has been flirting with a Miss Carol Richman, who tries to convince him to forget their relationship and reconcile with Marcella. Scott tries by purchasing two tickets for a Broadway show as a surprise, but Marcella refuses to go.

Not wanting to waste the tickets, Scott goes to a local bar hoping to find a companion for the show. He meets the "Phantom Lady" who wears a conspicuous orange hat. He notes she wears a wedding band. They agree to an anonymous date for the evening: no names, no personal information, no expectations beyond dinner and a show.

Scott arrives home after the show to find police waiting. Marcella has been murdered, one of his ties around her neck. Scott's only alibi is the Phantom Lady, and he does not know her name.

Henderson is tried and convicted. Detective Burgess visits him in jail, and concedes he believes Henderson innocent; but there is no evidence to pursue the point. Burgess urges him to find someone to work on proving his alibi. Henderson contacts old friend John Lombard, who arrives to assist.

John Lombard, Carol Richman, and Burgess team up to try to track down persons who can prove Henderson's alibi - but one by one, as they are found, they meet up with mysterious deaths before they can provide the Phantom Lady's identity.

Review:

How can you track down a woman you only know by sight - in New York City? It seems hopeless but throw enough effort at it, and it can be done. This is sort of an inverted mystery - the chapter titles counting down to Scott Henderson's execution tells us right off he will be convicted of murder. 

The detective Burgess is an interesting character, as he slowly gains sympathy for Henderson, and suggests the plan of action which may exonerate him. 

As potential witnesses to sustain his alibi are located, their immediate subsequent deaths suggest a vast conspiracy - and as the book approaches the end, it seems unlikely that the killers(?) can be found in time; yet an unexpected turn of events flips everything upside down, leading to a satisfying conclusion; and the identity of the Phantom Lady finally revealed.




Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Under Dogs by Hulbert Footner (1925)


About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Madame Rosika Storey, a.k.a. Jessie Seipp
  • Bella Brickley, a.k.a. Canada Annie Watkin; her secretary
  • Melanie Soupert, jewel thief and prison escapee
  • George Mullen, her husband
  • Jim Shryock, her attorney
  • John McDaniel, private detective
  • Mother Simonds, a.k.a. Kate Pullen, Black Kate; emissary for the criminal organization
Locale: New York City

Synopsis:

Madame Rosika Storey is a beautiful, wealthy investigator, sort of a female version of Leslie Charteris' The Saint. Her secretary, Bella Brickley, is our narrator. Mme. Storey receives a plea for help from Melanie Soupert, imprisoned for a jewel theft while working as a domestic. A criminal organization helps her escape, then holds her prisoner for their own purposes - that is, committing crimes for their own benefit. Mme. Storey, with some nod-nod-wink-wink from the police, seeks to track down the organization by masquerading as a thief herself under the assumed identity of Jessie Seipp. She manages to get imprisoned in the same facility and awaits the organization to take an interest in her. She is approached by Mother Simonds who recruits her and assists her to escape; which allows her to infiltrate the gang.

Review:

An excellent thriller. A couple of deaths occur but they are not part of the plot. It is always refreshing to find a detective story from this era with a female narrator and protagonist, other than in the stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart. In fact, all the major characters are female. One must pay attention, as some characters take on other names. 





Face to Face by Ellery Queen (1967)


Major characters:
  • Glory Guild Armando, famous singer
  • Carlos Armando, her greasy husband
  • Selma Piltner, her manager
  • Jeanne Temple, her secretary
  • Lorette Spanier, her niece
  • Roberta West, aspiring actress
  • Curtis Perry Hathway, a.k.a "Mugger", a derelect and a vital witness
  • John Tumelty, a.k.a. "Spotty" a derelict
  • Harry Burke, private detective from Scotland
  • Ellery Queen

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Singer Glory Guild Armando wishes to find her only living relative, Lorette Spanier, a niece; in order to complete her will. She hires private detective Harry Burke who locates her. Glory has married Carlos Armando, a gold-digger who has left behind multiple wives as he depletes their resources. 

Lorette becomes roommates with Roberta West, actress. Roberta is approached by Carlos with an offer: If she will murder Glory (and provide him with an alibi), he will marry her next and share the proceeds of the estate. 

Glory is found shot, having left a dying message: "FACE". No one understands its meaning. 

Evidence points to Lorette (now her heir), and the gun is found in her possession. Then she is provided an alibi by derelicts John Tumelty, a.k.a. "Spotty" and  Curtis Perry Hathway, a.k.a "Mugger". Spotty is then found dead in his boarding house, apparently to keep the alibi from becoming known.

Review: A nice, tight Queen novel with a small cast of characters, and a puzzle to decode. It's a bit convoluted to believe a person would be shot and then have the presence of mind to create a coded dying message, but that is just what makes the novel. Carlos Armando is the character you love to hate, and would love to see the murder pinned upon. The turn of events at the end reveals the murderer, and creates an unpleasant (to the characters) scene at the same time.



Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Finishing Stroke by Ellery Queen (1958)

mysteryfile.com

Major characters:

(I have indicated the two John Sebastians, father and son, as Sr. and Jr. here for clarity, but they are not so named in the text - RM)

1905 episode:
  • John Sebastian Sr.
  • Claire Sebastian, his wife, dies at childbirth
  • John Sebastian Jr., their infant son
  • Arthur Craig, John's publishing business partner


1929 episode - the 12 dinner guests:
  1. Arthur Craig, (from above)
  2. Ellen -- Arthur's niece
  3. John Sebastian Jr., (from above); now Arthur Craig's ward
  4. Rusty Brown, John's fiancée
  5. Olivette Brown, Rusty's mother, a devotee of astrology
  6. Valentina Warren, a theatre actress
  7. Marius Carlo, a composer
  8. Dan Freeman, a publisher
  9. Roland Payn, an attorney
  10. Rev. Andrew Gardiner
  11. Dr. Sam Dark
  12. Ellery Queen
Locale: Alderwood, New York

Synopsis: In 1905, John Sebastian Sr. and his pregnant wife Claire are in a car accident, which brings on early labor. She gives birth to two sons: John, and one unnamed. John, angry at the death of his wife, blames the second child and refuses to acknowledge him, giving him away to the local doctor.

In 1929, Arthur Craig and John Jr. host a Christmas gathering. John Jr. plans to announce four big events at the conclusion of the stay:
  1. Being age 25, he comes into his inheritance
  2. His first book is to be published
  3. He and Rusty Brown are to be married
  4. The fourth event he is keeping secret for now.
The obligatory snowstorm occurs, so the unbroken snow will provide proof that no one enters or leaves the house. The party is surprised by the appearance of Santa Claus, bearing gifts; but he then disappears and cannot be found. 

A series of wrapped gifts arrives daily, along with tantalizing threats. Then a stranger is discovered murdered in the library, and the daily gifts/threats continue; until John Jr. - as predicted - is murdered himself. 

Ellery ponders the meanings of the written threats but is unable to find the solution, and the murders remain unsolved. 

In Book 3 (1957), the police are cleaning out some dead files and Ellery is asked if he would like the dusty evidence box from the case. He looks over the contents and the solution suddenly is evident.

Review:

This is another Ellery Queen shell game novel - involving doubles, substitution, etc., and he switches things around even better than Erle Stanley Gardner does with Perry Mason and guns. When twins are introduced at the beginning, you just know there is going to be some of the old switcheroo coming. The murderer leaves a series of obscure clues/threats (in advance of the murder, no less) which fails to prevent its occurrence. (Well, if the clues succeeded, we wouldn't have a murder mystery). 

However, the clues and related gifts have no obvious connection to anything and when their significance is finally revealed, it is so obscure that only a person with specific historical knowledge would recognize it. Most readers will not; and will just to accept Queen's word on this point.

The novel also provides a couple of rather blatant product placement promotions: The Roman Hat Mystery (Ellery Queen) and The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley) - both actual novels - receive frequent mention without being part of the plot.

Overall, a good page turner. Several red herring story lines had me fooled; I did expect a better explanation of the gifts/threats but we just have to accept them as they are. Writing logical threats are usually not high on a murderer's priority list anyway.



See also this review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Man Without Nerves by E. Phillips Oppenheim (1934)

(Also published in the UK as The Bank Manager)

image: Fadedpage

About the author:

Major characters:

  • James Huitt, the precise bank manager, "the man without nerves"
  • Timothy Sarson, wine merchant
  • Pauline Sarson, his daughter; becomes girlfriend of Christopher Tyssen
  • Anthony Sarson, his son
  • Andrew Cressit, corset manufacturer
  • Roland Martin
  • Sybil Cresset, girlfriend of Anthony Sarson
  • Sam Jesson, deceased at beginning of story
  • Sir Julian Bott, financier
  • Lord Milhaven
  • Madame de Sayal, a reclusive artist
  • Christopher Tyssen, the mysterious young writer, new in town




Locale: Sandywayes, England

Synopsis: Four men (banker James Huitt, Timothy Sarson, Andrew Cressit, and Roland Martin) from "The Oasis", a village within Sandywayes, share a train compartment every day as they commute to Waterloo. They hear of the suicide death of another Sandywayes resident, Sam Jesson. Jesson had left a note to his wife alluding to financial difficulties.

At the same time a young writer,  Christopher Tyssen, arrives in Sandywayes and begins to poke his nose into everything, including Jesson's death. Townspeople badger banker Huitt (who was Jesson's banker) for details about Jesson's finances, but Huitt remains quiet until the inquest, when he testifies Jesson had depleted his accounts and his opinion was he was a victim of blackmail.

Lord Milhaven hosts a dinner with James Huitt and Sir Julian Bott as guests. Later, as Anthony Sarson and Sybil Cresset are returning from a dance, they encounter a gruff chauffeur waiting with his car in a dark lane near the cottage of the enigmatic Madame de Sayal. Anthony returns to the scene later and is struck in the head. The next morning, Sir Julian's body is found in the spot. Suicide is suspected, but no weapon can be found. Suspicion then points at Anthony Sarson, but as it mounts, the police arrest Christopher Tyssen instead and spirit him away.

Review:

This was my first E. Phillips Oppenheim, and it won't be my last. It dances the edge between between a classic detective story (who done it?) and a thriller (you know who done it, but can he be stopped?)

About halfway through, the murderer of Jesson and Bott (previously believed suicides) is revealed in a surprising turn of events when a third murder occurs; although the murderer's motive is not yet clear. The story turns into a thriller of who-can-you-trust when even police are not above suspicion.

One enjoyable aspect of this book is the oh-so-proper village of The Oasis, a small settlement adjacent to Sandywayes; with careful description allowing the reader to see it all in the mind's eye. 

One disappointment came from a big loose end: It is found that Huitt is receiving coded radio messages from persons unknown, and much is made of this at the time; yet the purpose of this is never revealed and this story line is abandoned.


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Before Midnight by Rex Stout (1955)

dustjackets.com

About the author:

Major characters:

  • Rudolph Hansen, attorney
  • Vernon Assa, of LBA, an advertising agency
  • Patrick O'Garro, of LBA, an advertising agency
  • Oliver Buff, of LBA, an advertising agency
  • Louis Dahlmann - writer of contest questions, deceased
The contestants:
  • Susan Tescher, NYC
  • Carol Wheelock, Virginia
  • Philip Younger, Chicago
  • Harold Rollins, Iowa
  • Gertrude Frazee, Los Angeles, head of the Women's Nature League

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Ad agency LBA is running a contest for their client, Heery Products, makers of cosmetics. Contestants solve questions identifying women in history. The questions are written by Louis Dahlmann. The contest is down to the final five contestants, when Dahlmann is found dead shortly after mentioning to the contestants that he keeps a copy of the answers in his wallet - which is now missing.

LBA (consisting of Vernon Assa, Patrick O'Garro, and Oliver Buff ) and their attorney Rudolph Hanson, hire Wolfe - not to find the murderer, but to find who stole the answers. In a rare case of cooperation, Wolfe and Inspector Cramer find themselves running parallel investigations - Wolfe seeking the thief, Cramer seeking the murderer; but not knowing if they are the same person.

Review:

It is always amusing (and uncannily accurate) when Wolfe runs up against corporate in-fighting. The scenes of confusion in the boardroom are excellent. 

Of the five contestants, only Philip Younger and Gertrude Frazee are given much attention, and it would have been more interesting to see more of the others. 

Wolfe finds himself at an impasse with a looming deadline, and comes up with a ploy to get the murderer/thief to make himself known. A clever ruse which I did not see through until the denouement.

See also this review by Bev Hankins on her blog, My Reader's Block.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Juggernaut by Alice Campbell (1928)

Barnes & Noble

About the author: Alice Campbell (1887-?) was an American-born British writer of detective fiction. Originally she came from Atlanta. She moved to New York City at the age of nineteen and quickly became a socialist and women’s suffragist. Later she moved to Paris. After World War One, the family left France for England, where Campbell continued writing crime fiction until 1950. She published her first work (THE JUGGERNAUT) in 1929. She wrote at least nineteen detective novels during her career. (goodreads)

Major characters:

  • Esther Rowe, nurse
  • Gregory Santorius, M.D., a doctor more interested in research
  • Jacques, his cook and houseman
  • Sir Charles Clifford, wealthy mill owner
  • Lady Therese Clifford, his second, much-younger trophy wife
  • Roger Clifford, Charles' son by his previous marriage
  • Miss Mary "Dido" Clifford, Charles' spinster sister
  • Captain Arthur Holliday, Lady Therese's boyfriend

Locale: Cannes, France

Synopsis: Nurse Esther Rowe, a Canadian, is on holiday in Cannes. She decides to stay on, and seeks employment with Dr. Gregory Santorius; a cold character who spends most of his time in his research lab. His patients consist of wealthy Americans and English. One is elegant Lady Therese Clifford, who has both a husband (Sir Charles Clifford) and a boyfriend (Captain Arthur Holliday).

Sir Charles becomes ill with typhoid, and the Cliffords hire Dr. Santorius and Esther Rowe to live-in for the duration of the illness. Esther befriends Charles' sister, Miss Mary "Dido" Clifford. 

Roger Clifford, Sir Charles' son from his previous marriage, returns home from a sales trip to America. Previously, Lady Therese had pursued him (her own stepson!) to be her lover, but he had rebuffed her. Now Roger and Esther are hitting it off, but Roger is beginning to show signs of Typhoid as well.

Nurse Esther gets a bit suspicious and finds a clue which reveals the sinister plot. Once it is known, things happen quickly and the action ramps up to the climax.

Review:

This book gets off to a very slow start. For the first half of the book, there is no mystery, just the cold-and-clammy doctor and girl-next-door nurse caring for their patient, Sir Charles; and a budding romance between nurse Esther and Roger Clifford, just back from a trip to America. 

Charles is reviewing his will, so that suggests something may develop. The much-younger catty Lady Therese may be waiting for him to pass so she can get her claws on his fortune, and into a much younger man - she is already after two, one of them her own stepson. Much of Lady Therese's dialog and that of the household is rendered in French, so a passing knowledge of conversational French is helpful.

The book is similar to the Nurse Keate novels of Mary Roberts Rinehart, with a couple of exceptions... there is no worship of the handsome doctor who actually is rather creepy, and the nurse's love interest takes root and develops.

This book was made into a movie in 1936 with Boris Karloff (good choice) as Dr. Santorius! Here is the synopsis but it has spoilers!


Free eBook

Available as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/27824