Monday, May 25, 2020

A Toast to Tomorrow by Manning Coles (1941)

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also published as Pray Silence.

About the author (wikipedia): Manning Coles is the pseudonym of two British writers, Adelaide Frances Oke Manning (1891–1959) and Cyril Henry Coles (1899–1965), who wrote many spy thrillers from the early 40s through the early 60s. The fictional protagonist in 26 of their books was Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon, who works for the Foreign Office.

Major characters:




Synopsis:

Review: This is the second Hambledon book, the sequel to Drink to Yesterday.

May 25: now reading  - please check back.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Drink to Yesterday by Manning Coles (1941)

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About the author (wikipedia): Manning Coles is the pseudonym of two British writers, Adelaide Frances Oke Manning (1891–1959) and Cyril Henry Coles (1899–1965), who wrote many spy thrillers from the early 40s through the early 60s. The fictional protagonist in 26 of their books was Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon, who works for the Foreign Office.

Major characters:


  • Michael Kingston, a.k.a. Bill Saunders, a.k.a Dirk Brandt
  • Diane, his wife
  • Tommy Hambledon, a.k.a. Hendrik Brandt
  • Dixon Ogilvie, Michael's school chum
  • Professor Amtenbrink, retired German scientist
  • Max von Bodenheim, German Intelligence
  • Denton, a.k.a. Ludwig Wolff
  • Kaspar Bluehm, a German
  • Marie Bluehm, his sister
Locale: France and Germany

Synopsis: Michael Kingston, underage, assumes the fake identity of Bill Saunders in order to join the British military. He is seen as a good prospect for intelligence work, and comes under the wing of Tommy Hambledon. 

They team up, assuming the identities of Hendrik Brandt and his nephew Dirk. As Dirk Brandt, he infiltrates German intelligence, cultivating a friendship with Max von Bodenheim.

First they investigate whether retired professor Amtenbrink is involved in a German plot to drop cholera germs into England's water supplies.

Dirk manages to be sent to Ahlhorn (by the Germans) as a civilian security agent, where Zeppelins are being constructed. Dirk sabotages the Zeppelins with a fire, and is discovered to be a British agent.

When suspicions fall on them, they arrange to be picked up at sea at night - Kingston makes it but Hambledon appears lost at sea.

Kingston (as Dirk) returns to Germany, this time with agent Denton, who assumes the identity Ludwig Wolff.

Kingston matures through his adventures, and begins to regret marrying Diane; waiting at home for him.

Review:

This is the first Tommy Hambledon novel, however, the focus is not on him - but his protegé Michael Kingston. This is a not a slick sexy James Bond spy novel, it is more like a police procedural showing the not-always-exciting steps in intelligence work. It is somber at times, especially as it nears the end. They make mistakes and feel regret for them.


The first chapter is really the end of the story - chapters two forward are told in flashback. 

Although I really enjoy the later Hambledons which are much lighter and funnier, it is good to see the genesis of the Hambledon story. 

The sequel to this book is A Toast to Tomorrow, a.p.a. Pray Silence. 


Sunday, May 17, 2020

The D.A. Takes a Chance by Erle Stanley Gardner (1948)


#8 of 9 in the Doug Selby series. The full series is:
  1. The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937) 
  2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
  3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
  4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
  5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
  6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
  7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
  8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
  9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)
Major characters:
  • Jim Melvin, inventor/salesman of a new parking meter
  • Paula Melvin, his wife
  • Doris Kane, Paula's mother
  • Eve Dawson, a.k.a. Eve Hollenberg, aspiring actress
  • Eleanor "Babe" Harlan, Eve's roommate
  • Milton Granby
  • Hudson Parlin, investment broker; owner of the parking meter patent
  • Alphonse Baker Carr, "Old A.B.C"
  • Doug Selby, District Attorney
  • Rex Brandon, Sheriff
  • Sylvia Martin, reporter for The Clarion
Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis: Doris Kane gets concerned after her just-married daughter, Paula Melvin, stops responding to her calls and letters. She sets out for Madison City to see what is going on, and finds Paul's house vacant, newspapers piling up on the step. She finds a key in the mailbox, and lets herself in to snoop. The house is dusty, with cigarette butts and empty glasses around, and in one bedroom she finds bloodstains on the bed and in the adjoining bathroom.

Doris appeals to Doug Selby. He and Sheriff Rex Brandon and Doris return to the house - without a warrant - and surprise - everything has been cleaned up. 

After a tip, Paula and her husband, Jim Melvin, are found occupying a house in neighboring La Salidas. They invite Doris to stay but don't say anything about why they are in the wrong house.The house comes with a guest - aspiring actress Eve Dawson. Doris enters Eve's room to find her dead, stabbed. Her body also has evidence of a prior gunshot wound.

Review: For once, Doug Selby stays a step ahead of old A.B. Carr. Every time Selby encounters a Carr setup, he immediately recognizes it for what it is. I am even starting to like A.B. a bit now, his presenting a duplicate knife to Selby seems to be with the best intentions; and he and I share several characteristics (doesn't like to go out at night, doesn't drive fast, has a nice home library, etc)!

I have found my best way of reading any ESG yarn is to read it start to finish in one or two sittings. Once the action begins, it has a certain momentum; and if I set it aside a few days the momentum fades.

Overall, this was a great Selby - perhaps the best thus far. I didn't miss Inez Stapleton a bit.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Girl From Scotland Yard by Edgar Wallace (1929)

also published as THE SQUARE EMERALD


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About the author:  (Goodreads): Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was a prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright, who wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, and countless articles in newspapers and journals.

Edgar Wallace

Major characters:
  • Lady Jane Raytham
  • Anthony Druze, the Raytham's butler
  • Mrs. Greta Gurden
  • Peter Dawlish, convicted forger
  • Margaret Dawlish, Peter's mother
  • Princess Anita Bellini, Peter's aunt
  • Mrs. Inglethorne, Peter's landlady
  • Leslie Maughan, The Girl From Scotland Yard
  • Chief Inspector Josiah Coldwell
  • Lucretia Brown, Leslie's servant

Locale: London

Synopsis: Peter Dawlish is just released from serving a forgery sentence. Down and out, he is assisted with a small loan from perky Leslie Maughan, assistant to Chief Inspector Josiah Coldwell. While officially an "assistant", she is a detective in her own right.

Leslie has been checking up on Lady Jane Raytham following her substantial bank withdrawals. Lady Jane is annoyed, and does not cooperate - she prefers to spend time with Princess Anita Bellini, who is Peter Dawlish's aunt.

Leslie takes Peter under her wing and encourages him to re-enter society. Peter had been convicted of forging a check under his former employer, maintained his innocence, and suspected butler Anthony Druze of having committed the forgery; and causing his imprisonment.

Peter find a room lodging with Mrs. Inglethorne, who has a collection of rag-tag children. One girl, Elizabeth, becomes fond of Peter.

Druze is found dead on the street - shot. Peter Dawlish had the obvious motive - suspecting Druze of being the forger for which he was convicted. Leslie is convinced of his innocence, and seeks out the real murderer. In doing so, she finds that pretty much everyone has a secret to conceal.

Review:

Leslie Maughan is a treat - a confident investigator who follows her own trail. It is refreshing to find a female protagonist in books of this era, bringing to mind the Madame Rosika Storey series (list) by Hulbert Footner (see The Under Dogs), and the stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Everyone in the story has a secret, and a couple of them are good ones. Druze's "handicap" is revealed, however, the reasoning behind it is not. This story has lots of threads and they are all tied up nicely at the end.



Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Silk Stocking Murders by Anthony Berkeley (1928)

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About the author: Anthony Berkeley Cox was an English crime writer. He wrote under several pen-names, including Francis Iles, Anthony Berkeley and A. Monmouth Platts. One of the founders of The Detection Club (from Goodreads)

Major characters:

  • Janet Manners a.k.a. Unity Ransome, chorus girl, victim #1
  • Moira Carruthers, Janet/Unity's roommate
  • Anne Manners, Janet/Unity's sister
  • Elsie Benham, prostitute, victim #2
  • Lady Ursula Graeme. victim #3
  • --- Playdell, Lady Ursula's fiancé
  • Dorothy Fielder, actress, victim #4
  • George Dunning, suspect #1
  • Hon. Arnold Beverley, suspect #2
  • Gerald Newsome, suspect #3
  • Roger Sheringham, novelist, newspaper contributor, amateur detective
  • Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard

Locale: London

Synopsis: Roger Sheringham, amateur detective/novelist/newspaper contributor, receives a letter from parson A. E. Manners, inquiring if he could look into the disappearance of his eldest daughter Janet Manners. Roger finds she had taken the name of Unity Ransome for a London theatre production, and was in the news for having committed suicide by hanging herself with one of her stockings.

Once Roger confirms that Unity is really Janet, he informs the parson; and strikes up a friendship with next-eldest daughter Anne Manners.

Two more identical deaths occur almost immediately: Prostitute Elsie Benham and socialite Lady Ursula Graeme. Both die in identical methods: hanging on a hook on a door, by one of their own stockings, just removed, leaving the mate in place.

Roger takes up a collaboration with Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, on the theory a newspaper man is better at getting people to talk than a Scotland Yard man.

A similar case has been reported in Monte Carlo. By comparison of lists of male friends of the victims, three names are found in common (George Dunning, Arnold Beverley, Gerald Newsome), and become the prime suspects.

A fourth death occurs: Dorothy Fielder, actress.

Roger, convinced on Gerald Newsome's innocence, teams up with him and ends his collaboration with Scotland Yard. Roger gathers the suspects for a re-staging of the crime and denouément.

Review:

I was able to pick out the murderer from his introduction to the story, which generally eludes me. However, I couldn't see the motive - the motive I had in mind from the first did not pan out.

A unique twist occurs when Roger seemingly abandons his Scotland Yard alliance and teams up with one of the suspects.

The reconstruction of the crime / denouément staged by Roger is very Nero Wolfe .. specific placement of chairs and seating for the show, and the police conveniently standing near the murderer. The murderer is revealed by not reacting to a certain event, as he knew what was coming. (This immediately brought to mind the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, in which one vital lead to the perpetrators was a security camera image of the crowd, all heads turned towards the sound of the explosion, except for two - the bombers - who did not react.)

Note: stereotypes of Jewish persons abound.

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


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers (1932)

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Major characters:
  • Harriet Vane, writer of detective stories
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Julian Perkins, a teacher
  • Paul Alexis, a gigolo (deceased)
  • Mrs. Flora Weldon, who believed herself engaged to Paul Alexis
  • Henry Weldon, her son, a farmer
  • Haviland Martin, who was in the vicinity
  • Mrs. Morecambe, driving a Bentley
  • Antoine, another gigolo
  • William Bright, owner of a razor
Locale: Wilvercombe, on the coast of England

Synopsis: Harriet Vane is hiking along the coast in a remote area and comes across a dead body - his throat cut - perched on a rock at the tide line. She retrieves a razor as being the likely weapon, and walks to the nearest town for help, encountering hiker Julian Perkins along the way.

After reporting the body, Harriet stays at the posh Hotel Resplendent. The hotel employs four "gigolos", or professional dance partners for the guests. They are Antoine, Paul Alexis, Doris, and Charis. The police believe the deceased to be Paul Alexis, but have yet to recover the body. Hotel guest Flora Weldon is distraught, she had believed she was to marry Paul Alexis, but the other gigolos suggest that ha ha, that was just his usual line to the middle-aged ladies; she should have known that.

Lord Peter Wimsey arrives and in between marriage proposals to Harriet takes on the tracing of the razor. He finds it was last in the possession of a William Bright. Perhaps Bright and Perkins are the same person? 

The situation is complicated when it is found that Alexis believed himself to be Russian royalty, awaiting a return to mother Russia. A series of coded messages between him and someone in Russia adds to the intrigue.

Narrowing down the suspects is pretty straightforward, there aren't too many - but it is quite a puzzle to place them in space and time to have done the murder. One by one, Wimsey's theories are found to be incorrect.

Review: This starts off in the vein of John Dickson Carr, with Harriet Vane finding a body perched on a rock surrounded by smooth sand, with two sets of footprints: hers and the deceased. The episode of the discovery of the body is quite amusing:

Harriet Vane, a writer of detective stories, is puzzled when confronted with a real body; which never happens to writers of fiction who are trying to pass off knowing what they are writing about. What should she do? Well, what would the heroic investigator of her detective stories, Robert Templeton, do? He would do thus-and-so; so that is what I shall do. So now we have fictional Harriet Vane looking to her fictional character Robert Templeton, as she encounters a real (to her, but ultimately fictional) body. But wait, the onion has another layer! We have real detective story writer Dorothy L. Sayers writing of fictional detective story writer Harriet Vane looking to her own fictional detective Robert Templeton. Oh, my head!

The plot includes a secret message encoded using the Playfair Cipher, and includes an excellent description of how to encrypt and decrypt messages using it. I compared it to a description I had in a textbook, and it is not only correct, but explained much better using everyday language. (The wikipedia article linked above also cites Have His Carcase as a reference).

The repeated testing of theories by placing the suspects in time and space wore on and got a bit tiring when breaking down events in small intervals. The murderer is indeed found at the end.

See also this 2011 review and this 2020 review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

The D.A. Breaks a Seal by Erle Stanley Gardner (1946)




#7 of 9 in the Doug Selby series. The full series is:
  1. The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937) 
  2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
  3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
  4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
  5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
  6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
  7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
  8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
  9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)
Major characters:
  • Frank Norwalk, hotel manager
  • Fred Roff, attorney, deceased
  • Henry Farley, waiter, the accused
  • Coleman Dexter, a land speculator
  • Major Doug Selby, former D. A.
  • Carl Gifford, current D.A.
  • Alphonse Baker Carr, "Old A.B.C"
  • Anita Eldon, a Hollywood blonde bombshell, A.B. Carr's client
  • Sylvia Martin, reporter for The Clarion
  • Inez Stapleton, attorney
  • Barbara Horncutt, Inez' client
Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis:  Major Doug Selby is arriving home on a furlough from the Army, prior to heading out to the Pacific in the waning days of WWII. He notices a man and woman on his train wearing gardenias. As they alight at the Madison City, attorney A. B. Carr is waiting for them on the platform - and Selby realizes the gardenias are a signal so they recognize each other.

Selby runs into old flame - now attorney - Inez Stapleton. She is working on a contested will case, against A. B. Carr.

Word comes of a dead body found in the Madison Hotel. Selby accompanies Sheriff Rex Brandon to the scene, where they find Fred Roff deceased from poison in his room. He has a gardenia also. A blonde bombshell, Anita Eldon, is in the adjacent room, also with a gardenia. It appears all the gardenia wearers may be parties to the contested will case.

While D.A. Carl Gifford tries to discover evidence to prosecute hotel waiter Henry Farley for the murder, the contested will case goes to trial; as Selby tries to sort out the various gardenia-wearers. The trial comes to an abrupt halt when of the witnesses is poisoned.

Review: The previous Selby novel, The D.A. Calls a Turn, was a low point in the series; but in this novel Gardner and Selby are both back in good form. The gardenia club is an interesting twist, and we have two simultaneous cases (poisoning, contested will) heading to trial; with some obscure link between them. Selby is no longer D.A., but gets involved by being associated with old flame Inez Stapleton; who again is portrayed as breaking down in tears when things go badly - not a good attribute for an attorney; and this distracts from the story. 

The writing is very well done, one of my favorite sentences describes the deceased as he lies on the floor:
His bifocal spectacles had been pushed into one-sided incongruity by his fall and in some strange way lent an oddly facetious note to the occasion, as though these man-made aids to vision were somehow jeering at the final destiny of the eyes they had served.
The revelation of the murderer was a surprise, as this person served a minor role; and their connection to the victim a stretch. Nonetheless, a strong Doug Selby yarn.

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


Monday, April 20, 2020

The Man Who Knew by Edgar Wallace (1918)

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About the author: (Goodreads): Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was a prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright, who wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, and countless articles in newspapers and journals.

Edgar Wallace

Major characters:
  • John Minute, wealthy mining magante
  • Jasper Cole, his secretary
  • Frank Merrill, his nephew
  • May Nuttall, Frank's girlfriend
  • Saul Arthur Mann, The Man Who Knew
  • Rex Holland, a mysterious person
  • Henry Crawley, a.k.a. Smith, a policeman
  • Constable Wiseman
Locale: England

Synopsis: Wealthy John Minute is home with his secretary, Jasper Cole; an amateur chemist. Jasper is interested in May Nuttall, a local mission worker; but so is Minute's nephew, Frank Merrill.

Meanwhile, a (unnamed) servant on his way to a job interview drops dead on the street. Constable Wiseman is standing over the body when Saul Arthur Mann appears, examines the dead man's pockets, and reels off a litany of facts about the person. Mann is "The Man Who Knows", who "collects facts as some men collect postage stamps". He runs an "information bureau", commonly known as a newspaper clipping service. He is the Google of his time. Similar to a newspaper morgue, news items are clipped and gathered and filed; and information sold to anyone who desires; usually Scotland Yard. Mann introduces a new twist - the news items are filed by number, not name; and only he has the index which reveals which number is used for each person.

After much discussion and positioning regarding wills, inheritances, and which suitor (Cole or Merrill) will get May Nuttall, John Minute is found shot in his home. Circumstantial evidence points to Merrill, who is tried and acquitted on a lack of direct evidence.

Additional intrigues occur. Another servant (Feltham) dies, from inhaling poison. Jasper Cole has been keeping a second house in a sketchy part of town known as Silvers Rents; which has a ladder but nothing to climb to. There is another man masquerading around as "Frank Merrill" who bears an amazing resemblance. There is a quiet mystery woman who is kept under wraps. There is a corrupt cop (Henry Crawley / Smith) who has some hold over her.

Review: An excellent read, with many parallel mysteries all at once. Mann's information bureau is a fascinating look at informational archival pre-internet. Who has the role of the detective? Not Saul Arthur Mann, as you may expect. He ran down facts, but is shocked at the revelation of the murderer. It takes some plodding work by Constable Wiseman and a group denouément to get at the truth, and the complex solutions are worthy of Agatha Christie. This is the best Wallace I have read thus far.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Alias His Wife by Stephen Ransome (1965)


About the author: Frederick Clyde Davis (1902-1977) was an American pulp writer. He was educated at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, and became a professional writer at the age of 22. Davis wrote several novels featuring his series detective, Professor Cy Hatch. He also wrote as Murdo Coombs, Stephen Ransome and Curtis Steele. (Fantastic fiction)

Major characters:

  • Ross Quarent, assistant prosecutor
  • Paula Quarent, née Spencer, his wife
  • Ken Spencer, Paula's cousin
  • Carol Wilson, Ross' ex-wife
  • Marie Greer, Carol's sister
  • Charles Ritchie, boyfriend of Marie
  • Lee Barcello, no-nonsense investigator
Locale: Florida

Synopsis: Ross Quarent is an assistant prosecutor. Paula is his second wife, after a brief first marriage to Carol Wilson. Paula begins receiving anonymous letters addressed to Paul Spencer (her maiden name). A letter states their marriage is invalid, as Ross was never divorced from his first wife Carol. This would make Ross a bigamist, and subject to prosecution; which would ruin his career.

A stranger, Charles Ritchie, appears on the scene and approaches Ross with questions about what it would take to influence a court case. It appears Ritchie may be blackmailing Ross by sending the anonymous letters.

Carol Wilson is back in town, staying at a hotel in the next room to Ritchie and his girlfriend (her sister). Marie Greer. Carol admits to Ross the divorce she pretended to have granted was never done. Ritchie is then found dead in his hotel room. Ross is faced with a murder investigation while trying to avoid becoming a suspect himself.

Review: This is a tight little mystery with a unique twist (the fake divorce). The 1960's setting has not aged well, though; as the wives first responsibility is making cocktails for the hard-working husbands as they arrive home, constant social alcohol use by everyone, and the fear that their daughter - now apparently born out of wedlock - will be branded "illegitimate". If you can overlook these cringeworthy elements, it does make a good story.




Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (1930)


Major characters:

  • Miss Harriet Vane, writer of detective stories
  • Philip Boyes, the deceased boyfriend
  • Norman Urquhaut, attorney, Philip's cousin
  • Ryland Vaughan, Philip's friend
  • Rosanna Wrayburn, Norman's aunt, an invalid
  • Nurse Caroline Booth, Rosanna's nurse, a spiritualism enthusiast
  • Inspector Charles Parker
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Sir Impey Biggs, Harriet Vane's attorney
  • Mervyn Bunter, Lord Peter's butler
  • Hon. Frederick Arbuthnot
  • Miss Katherine "Kitty" Climson, head of The Cattery
  • Miss Joan Murchison, a typist at The Cattery

Locale: England

Synopsis: The book opens with Miss Harriet Vane on trial for murder of her former live-in boyfriend, Philip Boyes. He had died of arsenic poisoning, and circumstantial evidence points to Vane. She had made regular purchases of arsenic which coincided with Boyes' periods of illness, eventually resulting in his death. Her explanation is that it was research for her new book on poisons, Death in the Pot.*

The trial ends with a hung jury. A second trial will be scheduled. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attended the trial, is convinced Vane is innocent, and vows to use the remaining time to prove it; as well as enable their marriage. Three big questions: Who had a motive? If Harriet didn't do it, who did? And how was the poison administered?

Wimsey seeks out help from his secret detective agency, The Cattery - ostensibly a typing agency but populated by women who have various detecting skills. 

* Biblical reference from a suspected poisoning incident recorded in 2 Kings 4:40

Review:

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. When reading Sayers, I am always torn between rushing through to find out what happens vs. lingering over the perfect expressive language. 

The episodes of the ladies from The Cattery doing their undercover work are hilarious - as Miss Joan Murchison endures a fervent evangelical religious service in order to learn lockpicking, and Miss Kitty Climson infiltrates the home of Rosanna Wrayburn and conducts a fake seance to discover the location of a missing will.

Harriet Vane has but brief appearances at beginning and end - setting the stage for a marriage to Wimsey? Not sure, I should be reading these in order!

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

PS> The paperback cover illustration above has no relation to the story.



Sunday, April 5, 2020

The D.A. Calls A Turn by Erle Stanley Gardner (1944)

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#6 of 9 in the Doug Selby series. The full series is:
  1. The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937) 
  2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
  3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
  4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
  5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
  6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
  7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
  8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
  9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)
Major characters:

  • Carleton Grines / Desmond Billmeyer - amnesia victim with two identities
  • Charles and Ma Freelman, and their four sons:
  •     Stephen, married to Bernice
  •     Gilbert, married to Carmen
  •     Edward, engaged to Corliss Ditmer
  •     Frank, in the navy
  • D.A. Doug Selby
  • Sheriff Rex Brandon
  • Attorney A. B. Carr
  • Attorney Inez Stapleton (Selby's old flame)
  • Reporter Sylvia Martin (Selby's current flame)


Synopsis: Sheriff Rex Brandon receives a phone call on Thanksgiving evening. A man identifies himself as Carleton Grines, and wishes to turn himself in for car theft. As Brandon and D.A. Doug Selby head out to pick him up, they encounter him coming the other way just as Grines’ vehicle crashes into another car and a truck. He is dead.

As they view Grines’ body later in the morgue, it is apparent his cheap clothes do not fit. His expensive, hand-made shoes lead to a tentative identification, not of Grines, but of wealthy grocery chain owner Desmond Billmeyer. Brandon brings in Carmen Freelman, who works for Billmeyer, and identifies the body as that of Billmeyer.

Brandon brings in relatives of Grines to view the body, they identify it as Grines.

The story is pieced together. Ten years ago, Grimes was sent to jail in Oregon (wearing the cheap clothes), and escaped during a fire - although it was believed he had died. He suffered a head injury during the fire, causing amnesia. He put together a new life as teetotaler Desmond Billmeyer and began a successful grocery chain. He had been drinking the night of the car accident, which brought back his memory as Grines. He apparently retrieved his ten-year-old clothing and put it on again. The mystery is: where was the clothing all this time? and what caused him to start drinking?

Review: Oh, this one was the most blah of the Doug Selby's thus far. No real drama. Selby and Brandon just cruise sleepily through this one. A. B. Carr is too polite and likable. Inez Stapleton has lost her jealousy and is just a pal. Sylvia Martin follows along from habit. 

The opening chapter fully describes everyone in the Freelman family, but they have little to do with the story. Time is spent chasing two "major" clues: the old set of clothes and an ownerless dog - but again, little to do with the plot. The ending has a flavor of picking someone off the street to be the murderer; and the murderer dictates his own denouement. 

Three more Selby's in the series, I am sure things will pick up after the war.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Secret House by Edgar Wallace (1919)

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About the author: (Goodreads): Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was a prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright, who wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, and countless articles in newspapers and journals.

Edgar Wallace

Major characters:
  • Montague Fallock, publisher and blackmailer
  • Count Ernesto Poltavo, his translator
  • Gregory Farrington, millionaire, uncle to Doris Gray
  • Lady Constance Dix, his girlfriend
  • Gorth, his servant
  • Frank Doughton, journalist
  • George Doughton, his late father
  • Doris Gray, Frank’s girlfriend
  • Lady Patricia Dinsmore, Doris Gray’s aunt
  • Jim Moole, invalid owner of The Secret House
  • Dr. Fall, Moole’s butler/physician
  • T. B. Smith, Scotland Yard



Locale: England

Synopsis: Recent immigrant Ernesto Poltavo obtains a position as translator for Montague Fallock. Fallock publishes a newsletter “The Gossip’s Corner” for the servant class. Many of the letters to the newsletter arrive in French and Italian, and Poltava translates them. Newsy items go in the newsletter, but scandalous items are reserved by Fallock for blackmail. Poltava uses his position to obtain access to society, posing as ‘Count’ Poltavo.

One blackmail victim is Lady Constance Dix. Her boyfriend, millionaire Gregory Farrington, opens his door one night to find two men shot dead. T. B. Smith of Scotland Yard investigates. Later, Farrington attends the theatre with journalist Frank Doughton, Frank's girlfriend Doris Gray, and her aunt Lady Patricia Dinsmore. An attempt is made to shoot Farrington. Farrington disappears, a suicide note is found, and a headless body with his I.D. found in the Thames. T. B. Smith suspects Farrington is still alive, and the body a substitute.

The action moves to The Secret House, a mansion built by an eccentric American, invalid Jim Moole; known friend of Farrington. Smith arrives to look for Farrington. Moole’s butler/physician, Dr. Fall, allows Smith to look around. The house has many electrical gadgets and trick rooms which can change places. Lady Constance Dix disappears and is held captive in the Secret House.

Review: The setup with the scandalous newsletter scheme is interesting, and the job offer made to Poltavo by Fallock (wearing a bag over his head) reminds me of Sherlock Holmes' Red Headed League. This book gets pretty much everything thrown at the reader: blackmailers, a woman (Doris Gray) forced into a marriage she doesn't want, a henchman (Poltavo) after her himself, and a dead body in the river with the head missing and a suicide note attached (figure that one out!) 

Once we get to the Secret House, it begins to look like a classic James Bond adventure: the beautiful woman held captive, the master criminal in his elaborate refuge full of booby traps, into which the hero (T. B. Smith) finds his way; capture by the master criminal who spends a lot of time and pages in taunting repartée before doing away with him. They never learn - all that added delay allows the hero to be rescued every time!

Overall, a good first half is diminished by the fantastic science-fiction of the second half.

If you are a fan of mansions with elaborate built-in electrical tricks, you may also enjoy Spider House by Van Wyck Mason (1932). 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Boudoir Murder by Milton M. Propper (1931)

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About the author: See Mystery Monday: Who was Milton Propper? by Linda Shenton Matchett


Major characters:
  • Tommy Rankin, police detective
  • Lester Gordon, Rankin's assistant
  • William Condon, P.A. announcer at Broad Street railroad station
  • George Stokes, who didn't answer a page
  • Mr. Lippincott, manager of the Quaker Hotel
  • Ann Craig, a.k.a. Lillian Kennedy, the deceased
  • Horace Montgomery, host of the hotel's dinner dance
  • Mrs. Horace Montgomery, confined to bed
  • Andrew Montgomery, his son
  • Grace Thayer, Andrew's fiancée
  • Hugo Evans, Montgomery's butler
  • Mrs. Gorman, Montgomery's cook


Locale: Philadelphia, PA

Synopsis: William Condon is at work at Broad Street railroad station, announcing the trains. He receives a frantic call from a woman, begging that he page George Stokes to the phone - a matter of life and death. Condon makes the page - but no George Stokes replies. Condon returns to the phone call to hear the unmistakable sounds of a struggle before the phone is hung up.

Condon reports the incident to police, and detective Tommy Rankin traces the call to room 822 of the Quaker Hotel. He and hotel manager Mr. Lippincott enter the room to find a woman, registered as Lillian Kennedy, strangled. They find calls had been placed from that room to Horace Montgomery, who at the time was hosting a dinner dance in the hotel's ballroom in honor of the engagement of his son, Andrew Montgomery to Grace Thayer.

It quickly becomes evident the Montgomery household is deeply involved. Horace goes to view the body, and is surprised to find it is his maid, Ann Craig, who had left employment just that morning. Rankin interviews the domestic staff to find:
  • George Stokes was Ann Craig's suitor and departed after an argument, 
  • butler Hugo Evans was apparently eloping with her, and 
  • son Andrew had been seen kissing her (a Montgomery kissing a servant? shocking!)
With three men all vying for Ann Craig, motives abound.

Review: I do like a mystery with starts right out with some action, and this early police procedural jumps right in. Our victim is dead by page five. Tommy Rankin is cast as the young up-and-coming detective who relies upon speedy, yet proper police procedures. The action continues without pause as Rankin zeroes in on the Montgomery household and the Thayer household in turn.

I like following Rankin's thought processes, all neatly detailed and recorded, as he decides which clues are important enough for him to follow, and which to delegate to others. 

I laughed out loud when reading Propper's backhand compliment of Rankin's assistant, Lester Gordon: "Gordon, while neither particularly clever nor able, was persistent. Once set on a trail which had been ferreted out for him by another, he could be counted on to follow it to its very end." It immediately brought to mind Knox's Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction (1929) which has as commandment #9: "The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson ... his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader." 

I was a bit disappointed that Rankin is such a sterile character - we learn nothing about him. Is he married? single? where does he live? Does ever eat? drink? smoke? All unknown, perhaps revealed in another book. He is a machine, on the job 24/7. I will keep an eye out for more Milton Propper titles.