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.