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.



Friday, October 4, 2019

Death in the Air by Agatha Christie (1935)

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Major characters:

Seat 2. Marie Morisot, a.k.a. Madame Giselle, moneylender to the society set
Seat 4. Mr. James Ryder, director of a cement company
Seat 5. M. Armand Dupont
Seat 6. M. Jean Dupont
Seat 8. Mr. Daniel Clancy, mystery writer
Seat 9. M. Hercule Poirot
Seat 10. Dr. Bryant
Seat 12. Norman Gale, a dentist
Seat 13. Countess Cecily Horbury, cocaine addict
Seat 14. Miss Jane Grey, hairdresser
Seat 17. The Hon. Venetia Kerr
Henry Mitchell, steward
Albert Davis, steward
Anne Morisot, daughter of Madame Giselle
Hercule Poirot
M. Fournier, of the Sûreté

Locale: aboard the airplane Prometheus, en route from France to England

Synopsis:
Hairdresser Jane Grey has won a small amount in a lottery and splurges on a vacation to Le Penit, where she meets dentist Norman Gale and strikes up a friendship. They both wind up on the same flight back to London.

Aboard the rear section of the airplane Prometheus, there are 11 passengers, 2 stewards, and one annoying wasp making the flight from Le Bourget in Paris to Croydon in England. The wasp buzzes around until it is killed by M. Jean Dupont. Madame Giselle seems to be sleeping in her seat, but upon inspection, is really dead. Hercule Poirot finds a poison dart on the floor, matching a puncture in Madame Giselle's neck. Upon landing, a search of the plane finds the matching blowpipe, stuffed down beside M. Poirot's seat. Poirot and his counterpart M. Fournier, of the Sûreté seek to find who the killer is.

Review: If nothing else, this demonstrates how air travel has deteriorated. Windows that open! Ordering a meal from the menu - on a flight of less than one hour! But as to the review, a mystery that has Poirot - and the reader - befuddled until the very end. Clues are set out for the reader, but their significance? A dead wasp and a spoon are vital to the solution. The mystery takes a turn and seeks answers in the past, and in faraway Québec; in order to be solved. Of course, the unexpected ending will tickle your little grey cells!

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