Monday, October 19, 2020

Murder Up My Sleeve by Erle Stanley Gardner (1937)

This is a continuation of my reviews of Gardner's non-Perry Mason novels. This is the first of two Terry Clane novels (the other is The Case of the Backward Mule).

About the author:

Major characters:
  • Terry Clane, attorney, in tight with the Chinese community; a.k.a. First Born, and Owl
  • Yat T'oy, Terry's servannt
  • Alma Renton, a widow, Terry's love interest
  • Cynthia Renton, her sister, a.k.a. Painter Woman
  • Jacob Mandra, a bail broker and blackmailer; dead as the story opens
  • Juanita Mandra, Jacob's widow
  • George Levering, a polo player
  • Sou Ha, a.k.a. Embroidered Halo
  • Parker Dixon, D.A.
Locale: San Francisco

Synopsis: Attorney Terry Clane is back from spending time in China, has become fluent in Mandarin, and intimate with the Chinese culture of San Francisco. He had been approached by bail broker Jacob Mandra, a collector of obscure weapons. He was interested in having Terry obtain a sleeve gun for him - a spring-loaded dart pipe which can be hidden up one's sleeve. Terry has one of his own, but declined to give it to Mandra, as he was not sure of his intentions.

Terry's girlfriend is Alma Renton. It is believed Mandra is also blackmailing Alma for reasons unknown. While Terry is out with Alma Renton, Mandra is killed - with a sleeve gun. D. A. Parker Dixon calls Terry in and questions him. Neither he nor Alma have an alibi; but Alma has a motive: she was being blackmailed by Mandra.

A woman was seen leaving Mandra's apartment after the murder, carrying a large portrait which concealed her face. The police narrow the suspects to Alma, her sister Cynthia Renton, and a Chinese woman who they cannot identify. Terry is convinced of the innocence of all three, and enters the close-knit and closed-mouth Chinese community to solve the crime.

Review: This novel shows the familiarity and respect Gardner has for the Chinese community, most likely from his history serving as a real-life attorney for indigent Chinese. The descriptions reveal the inside of the community, never seen by outsiders. Attention is given to the Chinese practice of knowing when to speak, and when not to speak. This inside look is fascinating.

We never get to know the victim, he is dead as the story opens. There is the common Gardner technique of juggling the evidence around (in this case, the portrait) to point the way to the murderer when the police can't seem to figure it out on their own.

The story starts with Alma being Terry's love interest, yet he flips back and forth between her and sister Cynthia throughout. George Levering is a puzzle, his periodic role is not clearly defined (other than being a polo player) and he only serves as a link in the movements of evidence.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1936)


Oct 15: Reading now. Please check back again! RM

This review is of the Kindle edition.

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

Major characters:

Lord and Lady Aveling, the hosts
Anne Aveling, their daughter
Mrs. -- Morris, Lady Aveling's invalid mother
Thomas Newson, butler
Bessie Hill, maid

Detective-Inspector Kendall

The thirteen guests:
  1. Nadine Leveridge, a widow and ingenue
  2. John Foss, of the injured foot
  3. Harold Taverley, the cricketer
  4. Leicester Pratt, a painter
  5. Mr. -- Rowe, a sausage maker
  6. Mrs. -- Rowe, his wife
  7. Ruth Rowe, their daughter
  8. Edyth Fermoy-Jones, a mystery writer
  9. Sir James Earnshaw
  10. Zena Wilding, an aactress
  11. Lionel Bultin, gossip columnist
  12. Mr. Henry Chater
  13. Mrs. -- Chater
Locale: Bragley Court, a country house in Flensham, outside London

Synopsis: John Foss, depressed from having a marriage proposal rebuffed, wants to get away for a bit, so takes a train to Flensham on the spur of the moment. When getting off at the station, he catches his foot and turns his ankle. Nadine Leveridge assists him, and takes him along to Bragley Court, a country house of Lord and Lady Aveling, who are hosting a gathering she is attending.

John is placed on a sofa in the "ante-room" (I do hope the ante-room is equipped with anti-macassars) where can be observe the arrival of the twelve guests (he makes 13).

The first indication of an unpleasant gathering is the defacing of a portrait of Anne Aveling, daughter of the hosts, which Leicester Pratt had been painting. Then the Aveling's dog is killed. Next, the body of man - a stranger - is found at the bottom of a cliff.

Review: My first thought was: here we go, the isolated country house and a big guest list. Next we need a snowstorm and the guests knocked off one by one. The invalid mother upstairs is instantly suspicious, as is any alleged invalid in a murder mystery!

One aspect of this high-character count book I like is the methodical introduction of all the guests to John Foss, as we, the reader, observe and become acquainted with them.

However, John Foss was a disappointment. I expected he would be the observer-in-charge and find vital clues, but he is forgotten for most of the book, only returning at the end. Likewise with the invalid Mrs. Morris; whose exit at the end is ambiguous - is she alive or dead? Not sure. Edyth Fermoy-Jones, a mystery writer, is amusing as she shamelessly plugs her books at any opportunity, and snoops around for new plot ideas. Some of the guests are just cardboard and could be edited out without affecting the story, they only serve to enlarge the suspect pool.

You may also enjoy this review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Death on a Vineyard Beach by Philip R. Craig (1996)


About the author: Philip R. Craig (1933 –2007) was a writer known for his Martha's Vineyard mysteries. He was born in Santa Monica and raised on a cattle ranch near Durango, Colorado. In 1951 he attended Boston University intending to become a minister, and got a degree in 1957. He taught English and Journalism at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts from 1962 to 1965, and at Wheelock College in Boston until 1999, at which point he retired to become a full-time writer. (Wikipedia)

Major characters:

  • Luciano Marcus, mob boss and target
  • Angela Marcus, his wife
  • Vinnie Cecilio, their grandson
  • Thomas Decker, their assistant
  • Jonas, their cook
  • Priscilla, their housekeeper, wife of Jonas
  • Joe Begay, J. W.'s former sergeant, a Wampanoag
  • Toni (Vanderbeck) Begay, Joe's wife, a Wampanoag
  • Linda Vanderbeck, Toni's mother, a Wampanoag
  • Maggie Vanderbeck, Toni's sister, a Wampanoag
  • Bill Vanderbeck, a shaman
  • Benny White, UMass student
  • Roger the Dodger, UMass student
  • J. W. Jackson
  • Zeolinda "Zee" Jackson, his wife

Locale: Martha's Vineyard (island) off Cape Cod, MA

Synopsis: J. W. Jackson and Zee have just married. While in Boston attending the opera, J. W. interrupts a murder attempt on Luciano Marcus. Back on the Vineyard, J. W. is surprised by a dinner invitation from Marcus, not knowing he is also an island resident. J. W. is hired by Marcus to find out who attacked him.

Marcus is wealthy and has fingers in many businesses; looks like a mob boss. His palatial home is on a large piece of property. One part is a cranberry bog, whose ownership is contested by the local Wampanoag tribe. Tribal members want the land back, providing a possible motive.


This is a laid-back book, and the most enjoyable of the series I have read thus far. It does not even become a murder mystery until the end; remaining an attempted murder mystery throughout. I continued to wonder when someone - and who - would turn up dead, didn't happen until the end.

Luciano and Angela Marcus are way too refined, cultured, and pleasant to be mob bosses. In fact, they are not even identified as such; just hinted. They are enjoyable characters, although Luciano has a short fuse when people wander into his property.

The best character is Bill Vanderbeck, a shaman. He pops in and out and no one sees him come and go. He offers his philosophy and comments and does not get involved in tribal drama. He reminds me of Mister Rogers!

The only little drawback to this book is that the attempted-murderer character from the opera scene (which opens the book) is not introduced until the very end, which cheats the reader out of trying to identify him throughout.

By the way ... the cover fooled me. It took a while before I realized the cattails, boathouse, and ducks form a skull!

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Murder Runs in the Family by Hulbert Footner (1934)

You can read this book online here:

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Lance McCrea, our protagonist
  • Jim Beardmore, mill owner
  • Freda Rollin, Jim Beardmore's secretary, Lance's love interest
  • Tony Beardmore, Jim's son
  • Clinton Beardmore, Jim's half-brother
  • Rainer Stanley, Jim's son-in-law
  • Peter Bearemore, Jim's late father, a murder victim
  • Timothy Wilson, Jim's gardener
  • Professor Sempill, Lance's fellow boarder and friend
  • Bob Fassett, company gardener
Locale: Connecticut

Synopsis: Lance McCrea has fallen in love at first sight with Freda Rollin, who boards in the same house. Jim's overtures to Freda are rebuffed, as she says she is not free. She appears to have a relationship already with wealthy mill owner Jim Beardmore. Lance and Jim mix it up over Freda.

Lance follows Jim as he picks up a picnic-for-two and goes to his closed-up mansion, Fairfield. Jim enters the library to find Jim dead - but still warm. To his horror, he turns to see a hand reach around the door, grab the key, and shut the door - locking him in with the dead man.

Lance panics as the police approach and runs away, but encounters the murderer in the woods. Police pursue, there is a scuffle, and the murderer kills a policeman, Sgt. Doty. A long chase ensues as Lance evades the police. He is finally caught, but then escapes from the jail. He teams up with company gardener Bob Fassett to infiltrate the Beardmore Linen Mills. The rest of the Beardmore family are running the show with heavy hands; and Lance escapes a murder attempt of being thrown into a vat of acid.

Review: There are a couple of head-scratchers here which linger throughout the book. First, why does Lance run away from the authorities in the first place, as he is innocent? Second, why does he bother to break out of jail - which is, it itself, a crime? 

The murder mystery turns into a chase thriller for most of the book. The title hints at the killer, or at least narrows it down. There is a surprise at the end, unrelated to the murder; which gives a satisfying conclusion to the story. 

One drawback is the high character count. Everyone who pops into the story is named, thus (in my mind) becoming a suspect, and I had to keep a written list of who is who in case they reappeared later.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

A Knife for the Juggler by Manning Coles (1964)



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:
  • Lernhard Werner
  • Don Pedro, the juggler
  • The Grieving Widow
  • Pavel Dinnik, a kidnapped communist
  • Tommy Hambledon, British Secret Service
  • Inspector Antoine Letord, of the Sureté
  • Alexander Campbell, British model maker
  • William Forgan, his partner

Locale: France

Synopsis: Someone has been kidnapping communists around Paris, and they have disappeared without a trace. The latest was Pavel Dinnik. The British want him rescued - he was a most reasonable representative of Russia. Tommy Hambledon is sent to Paris to find him.

As soon as Tommy arrives, he witnesses a murder (of Lernhard Werner). While following the killer, he learns that he and another German (Goertz and Ernst Werner) are to attempt something during a juggling show by Don Pedro. Tommy attends, Don Pedro is killed by a thrown knife. 

In order to flush out the kidnappers, Tommy calls on his associates Alexander Campbell and William Forgan to speak at a fake communist meeting; hoping a kidnap attempt will be made. Being modelmakers, Campbell and Forgan know nothing about communism, and their inappropriate speeches start a riot.

Tommy finds the kidnapped communists are being held in a wing of a hotel, awaiting transport to a desert island. He assumes the identity of Karl Ardweg and procures a job as a warden. A mysterious grieving widow is a guest also a guest of the hotel and lurks about. Tommy confirms Pavel Dinnik is there, but how to get him out?

Review: An excellent Manning Coles adventure with all the necessary elements: explosions, fires, riots, kidnappings, and general mayhem; all improved by the modelmakers Campbell and Forgan who excel in jumping into trouble and stirring all the pots, never thinking of the consequences. A particularly amusing episode is when the modelmakers are in a cafe, attempting to converse in Spanish, while eavesdropping on a conversation in German; requiring simultaneous double translations.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Finger Man by Raymond Chandler (1950)



This novella is contained in 13 Short Detective Novels, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg.

About the author:

Major characters:
  • Philip Marlowe, private eye
  • Lou Harger, his dapper friend
  • Miss Glenn, Lou's tall, red-headed gal
  • -- Canales, manager of a casino
  • Frank Dorr, the 'big guy' casino owner
  • various thugs
Locale: Appears to be Los Angeles, from the street names

Synopsis: Lou Harger, effeminate friend of Philip Marlowe, shows up in Marlow's office. Harger had owned a crooked roulette wheel, which allowed the operator to influence the results. The sheriff had confiscated it. That was OK with him, but somehow the wheel then wound up in Canales' casino, and they had no idea it was rigged.

Lou has a bright idea. He will go gamble on the wheel and win big, since the casino is unaware of its secret. Lou is too well known, so his gal Miss Glenn will do the gambling, while Marlowe stays in the background as a bodyguard. The scheme works too well. Miss Glenn rakes in $20,000; much to the dismay of the casino. So far, so good.

Next day, Miss Glenn appears at Marlowe's office with the $20,000, and tells him Lou is dead in her apartment, killed by casino thugs looking for the money. Marlowe goes to look but ... no body. Marlowe goes looking for him, knowing the casino crowd has it in for him anyway, as he had 'fingered' one of their own: Manny Tinnen (thus the title). Marlowe is grabbed and brought to the 'big guy', Frank Dorr, the owner of the casino.

Review: This is a concise little hard-boiled story with tough guys and one glamorous girl, lots of shooting, and the requisite witty repartée between the big mob boss and the captured hero. Snappy language, such as "As a bluff, mine was thinner than the gold on a weekend wedding ring." The cover art (above) pretty much sums it up: two guys, a girl with lots of cash, and a roulette wheel.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Clue by Carolyn Wells (1909)


About the author: Carolyn Wells (1862-1942) was married to Hadwin Houghton, the heir of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing empire. Like Mary Roberts Rinehart, being in a publishing family created an easy pipeline for getting her works into print. She wrote a total of more than 170 books, including 61 Fleming Stone detective stories. See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:

  • Madeleine Van Norman, 22
  • Schulyer Carleton, her fiancé
  • Cecily Dupuy, her secretary
  • Marie, her French maid
  • James Harris, her butler
  • Tom Willard, her distant cousin
  • Mrs. Markham, housekeeper
  • Dorothy Burt. companion to Schuyler Carleton's mother
  • Miss Elizabeth Morton, a take-charge type
  • Robert Fessenden, best man, lawyer, amateur detective
  • Fleming Stone, last-minute detective

Locale: New Jersey


At age 22, Madeleine Van Norman has already inherited the vast Van Norman mansion, and is poised to marry very proper choice Schulyer Carleton. When she does, according to terms of  her late uncle Richard Van Norman's will, she will inherit his fortune - however, if she dies unmarried (just hours left!), the fortune instead goes to her distant cousin Tom Willard, who had been in love with her for years. So what does he love more - her or her money?

It is a moot question. She never makes it to her wedding, and is found stabbed to death the night before. Now Tom Willard inherits Richard's fortune. Next, the lawyer reads Madeleine's will! Surprise, she has left the mansion and grounds to Miss Elizabeth Morton; and she is not even related. 

The only person who seems to have had opportunity to do the crime is the groom, Schulyer Carleton; but he lacks a motive. The person with the big fat motive, Tom Willard, was not present and thus lacks opportunity. 


When a book starts out by describing the terms of a will (page 12), it becomes obvious a murder is in the making! The terms of the two wills are complex and worthy of a Perry Mason plot. 

The ladies make a habit of fainting when asked tough questions. Of course, if I were as tightly corseted as these 1909 ladies, I would also.

This follows a standard Wells pattern: the amateur detective (Robert Fessenden) flails around for most of the book exploring different motive theories, and near the end, Fleming Stone pops in (at page 313!), takes a look around, and quickly pulls off the denouément. This reminds me of my dentist visits where the hygenist does 99.9% of the work, then the dentist pops in for a quick little peek at the end (which adds an additional charge to the bill, of course!) 

The solution requires the reader to suspend disbelief on a couple of fronts. First, the murderer has a secret Santa Claus-type method of entering/exiting the house which is about as believable. Second, the murderer confesses, promptly stabs himself with the murder weapon, then casually dictates his will to his lawyer before popping off!

Overall, a nice period mystery until the strange solution is revealed.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (2016)


About the author: Ruth Ware is a pseudonym of Ruth Warburton.

Major Characters:

  • Laura “Lo” Blacklock, travel writer for Velocity (Cabin 9)
  • Judah Lewis, Lo’s boyfriend
  • Richard and Anne Bullmer, owners of The Aurora Borealis (Cabin 1)
  • Ben Howard, reporter, Lo’s old flame (Cabin 8)
  • Mystery woman (Cabin 10)
  • Lars and Chloe Jenssen
  • Cole Lederer, photographer
  • Tina West, editor of Vernean Times, a “stone cold bitch” (Cabin 5)
  • Archer Fenlan, travel writer (Cabin 7)
  • Alexander Belhomme, travel writer (Cabin 6)
  • Owen White, UK investor
  • Johann Nilsson, head of security

Locale: UK and the North Sea

Synopsis: A number of travel writers are invited on the promotional maiden voyage of luxury yacht Aurora Borealis. The yacht has ten staterooms and will be in service between Norway and the UK. Writer Laura “Lo” Blacklock is to fill in for her editor, who is out on maternity leave.

A few nights prior to sailing, a burglar breaks into Lo’s apartment and she is slightly injured in confronting him. Another source of anxiety: her boyfriend, Judah, is torn between leaving her for a job in the US or staying in the UK.

The yacht would be full, but a last minute cancellation leaves cabin 10 vacant. However, Lo, in adjacent cabin 9, observes a young woman in cabin 10. That night Lo hears a splash from cabin 10, and sees that someone has gone over the side and into the sea. She raises the alarm, but no one believes her, as cabin 10 is supposedly vacant and a check of all aboard shows no one is missing.

Lo finds a couple pieces of evidence to support her story: the woman’s mascara tube (which disappears) and a photo in which she appears (which gets destroyed). Lo becomes paranoid as the killer may be after her, and may be related to the earlier break-in at her home. She tries to find the killer as the crew becomes increasing suspect.

Review: As other reviewers have noted, this is an excellent page-turner which urges the reader to start and finish in one sitting. 

Suspense is built throughout by brief excerpts from the future prefacing each section, giving the reader hints of horrors to come.

The book gives good insight into the differences between the haves (the passengers) and the have-nots (the crew). It is an effective technique that the ship is filled not with the wealthy high-society future passengers, but middle class travel writers who are more relatable.

The theme of “I saw a murder, no one believes me, and now the killer is after me” reminds me of Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story "It Had to Be Murder" (and 1954 Hitchcock film based on it, titled Rear Window), 1959 Hitchcock film North by Northwest and even 1976 comedy/thriller Silver Streak. 

The arrangement of the staterooms is significant to the story. The layout is described in text, but the reader may also find my sketch helpful:

Cabins 2, 3, and 4 are occupied by Owen White, Cole Lederer, and the Jenssens; although it is not specified who has which one.

The book also contains suggested discussion questions for book groups, and a preview chapter from The Lying Game. 

I enjoyed the book and managed to break it into three readings.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Case of the Musical Cow by Erle Stanley Gardner (1950)

Major characters:

  • Rob Trenton, a dog trainer vacationing in Europe
  • Linda Carroll
  • Linda Mae Carroll, Linda's aunt
  • Frank & Marion Essex
  • Dr. Dixon, dog owner
  • Merton Ostrander, collector of cowbells
  • Harvey Richmond, undercover narcotics investigator 

Locale: Paris - Switzerland - New York

Synopsis: Vacationing Rob Trenton, Linda Carroll, and Frank and Marion Essex all sailed to Paris on the same ship. Rob has his eye on attractive Linda. Linda organizes a car tour (she had her car shipped with them) of Switzerland with Frank and Marion, and asks Rob to join them as a fourth to share expenses. Shortly into their tour, the Essex's are called home unexpectedly. Merton Ostrander, a fellow guest at an inn, fills in one of their spots. Ostrander is an avid collector of musical cow bells, and collects a number of them during the tour.

After the tour, things begin to go wrong. Rob falls ill with an intestinal complaint. He barely manages to make the ship and the four set sail back to the US. Rob's roommate is Harvey Richmond, who is very inquisitive about their movements. Merton Ostrander is seen dumping his precious cowbell collection over the side of the ship. Rob adopts a dog, Lobo, from fellow passenger Dr. Dixon.

After clearing customs in New York, Rob is driving Linda's car back for her. He discovers a cache of heroin hidden in the vehicle frame, and stashes it until he consults with Linda.

He goes to Linda's address to find a different woman who claims - and proves - that she is Linda Carroll, specifically Linda Mae Carroll; aunt to other Linda. A gang of drug smugglers steal the car in order to retrieve the drugs, find them gone, and then abduct Rob and demand to know what happened to the drugs. A shootout results in Rob being arrested and brought to trial.


This is one of the few non-series titles by Erle Stanley Gardner, and a nice treat from the usual California scenes. I was surprised by the number of story elements tossed in at the beginning, although a few of them are the requisite red herrings. For example, Frank and Marion Essex are prime characters right away, but then they are called home and never return to the story. Likewise, the two white capsule pills are a big deal at first, then they drop from the story but come back at the end with a brief innocent explanation. 

It ends up with the usual courtroom scene, with a twist - our protagonist Rob Trenton discharges his public-defender attorney (in front of the jury - how embarassing) and conducts his own defense. If you enjoy Erle Stanley Gardner and are looking for something different in his works, this is a good choice. By the way, there is no cow in the story.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Whip-Poor-Will Mystery by Hulbert Footner (1935)

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Weir Lambert, newspaper editor
  • Tasker Teeple, local busybody
  • Peter Birkett, state's attorney
  • Frank Baker, sheriff
  • Leila Cowdin, the girl on the hill
  • Lee Cowdin, her father, deceased
  • Saul Cowdin, the caretaker
  • Ralph Manners, a.k.a. The Whip-Poor-Will
Locale: Maryland

Synopsis: Weir Lambert publishes a small local newspaper in rural, coastal Kentville, Maryland. Kentville is inhabited by a few families, and also several slave-descendant families who live in shacks. Weir runs a personal ad from "The Girl on the Hill" which asks for her lover (the Whip-Poor-Will) to come to her quickly, as the "man" is gone away. This results in an uproar among the locals, for running such a obviously sinful ad from a shameless hussy in their paper. The locals try to find out who she is, but only Weir and sheriff Frank Baker figure it out with the use of some topographical maps.

Weir goes to the house to find it guarded by Saul Cowdin, a large Black caretaker. Weir sneaks around him to get to the main house, and finds a 17-year old girl, Leila Cowdin, living in squalor. Weir brings her some food and finds her putting a coffin together, with the dead body of her father, Lee Cowdin, in the house. She had found him outside, dead from a bullet wound. Weir urges her to contact the authories, but she refuses. Relucantly, Weir helps her bury Lee in a shallow grave.

The authorities discover this. Leila is arrested for murder, Weir arrested for being an accessory. They manage to break out of the town's simple jailhouse and flee together, with Weir confessing his love for Leila. Weir then searches for the murderer.

Review: At one-third of the way through I came to a screeching halt. The use of racist language pertaining to Black Americans is awful. The n-word is used, and various stereotypes are used against Black persons. I could not figure out if this comes from the author's prejudices, or if the author was trying to write realistically for characters in 1930's Maryland. In any event, it was unnecessary. I was disgusted and almost tossed it aside and crossed this author off my list, but I will give it a chance as the mystery is unusual and I am looking to see how it resolves.

Later: The racist talk was pretty much confined to one chapter. After that, we have a straight mystery story; which is pretty good given the earlier language. I can only rate this one star as the racist language sinks the entire book.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Master Criminal by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1924)


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

Major characters:

The criminal gang:
  • John Mordaunt, a.k.a. Mr. Dicks, the master criminal
  • Beatrice Fuller, moll
  • Edward Tapley, the tall man
  • Joe Flipp, the dwarf
  • Jack Baxter, a.k.a. A. P. Smith
  • Arthur Lancing, a.k.a. George Finch, a.k.a. Alf Smith
The others:
  • Geoffrey Mordaunt, John's brother, of Scotland Yard
  • Joan Heather, Geoffrey's fiancée
  • James Cardhew, owner of the ruby
  • Wilfred Hobson, of Scotland Yard; a.k.a. Mr. Killick

Locale: London and environs

Synopsis: John Mordaunt, alias Mr. Dicks, is the master criminal and leads a gang consisting of beautiful Beatrice Fuller and others. One of the gang - Baxter, alias A.P. Smith, was assigned to steal a valuble ruby from James Cardhew. The theft went bad. Cardhew was killed, then Baxter shot by the authorities, and the ruby lost somewhere.

John seeks out a fall guy to go search for and retrieve the ruby. The gang has a meeting and chooses an unkempt tramp who has been following John around. John and the tramp meet privately, and the tramp reveals himself to be John's brother, Geoffrey Mordaunt of Scotland Yard, in disguise. He had been following John in order to apprehend him. They wind up in a standoff, and John, seeing the inevitable, turns his gun on himself. Geoffrey quickly disguises himself as John, in order to infiltrate the gang and recover the ruby.

Review: Another good period mystery by J. Jefferson Farjeon. He employs his usual little tricks as people having multiple identities and disguises. As others have noted, he excelled in creating creepy, gloomy atmospheres. A couple of excerpts:

...added to these things was the strange atmosphere of the hosue itself, its haunting setting, and utter loneliness. Amid this wilderness of trees there should have been peace; and peace, in one sense, there was; but it was a brooding, malignant peace, throbbing with subconscious discord.

...he glanced out of the window. The velvet shadoes of the spires had by now licked their way right across the lawn below, and were pointing, like black arrows, into the bushes.

I enjoyed the part where Mordaunt escapes across a lake in a leaky boat, and walks through the dark forest in search of a woodcutter's hut for a shelter; bribing the woodcutter to not reveal his presence. 

A cringeworthy part was a restaurant scene where no one wants to share a table with a Black man.

This title is available for Kindle.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Murder at a Vineyard Mansion (#15) by Philip R. Craig (2004)


About the author: Philip R. Craig (1933 –2007) was a writer known for his Martha's Vineyard mysteries. He was born in Santa Monica and raised on a cattle ranch near Durango, Colorado. In 1951 he attended Boston University intending to become a minister, and got a degree in 1957. He taught English and Journalism at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts from 1962 to 1965, and at Wheelock College in Boston until 1999, at which point he retired to become a full-time writer. (Wikipedia)

Major characters:
  • Mickey Gomes, in jail but constantly escaping
  • Ron Pierson, builder of 'Pierson's Palace'
  • Maud Mayhew, the old aristocrat
  • Harold Hobbes, her son, admitted window-breaker
  • Ollie Mattes, short-lived night watchman
  • Sarah Bradford, an older softball player
  • Cheryl Bradford, her daughter
  • Ethan Bradford, her hermit son
  • J. W. Jackson
Locale: Martha's Vineyard (island), Massachusetts

Synopsis: The biggest news on Martha's Vineyard is a unknown vigilante, called 'The Silencer', who is on a crusade to destroy annoyingly-loud music speakers in cars and homes. Yes, it is illegal, but people secretly support his work.

Ron Pierson is building a giant showy residence, which locals sarcastically call 'Pierson's Palace'. Someone doesn't like it and has gone on a window-breaking spree. Pierson hires Ollie Mattes as a night watchman, but Mattes quickly falls (or was he pushed?) off the cliff to his death. Aristocratic matriarch Maud Mayhew approaches J.W. to establish that her son, Harold Hobbes, did not push him - because Harold admits to the window breaking which puts him high on the suspect list anyway. That doesn't last long, Hobbes is found dead in the driveway.

J. W. observes Cheryl Bradford hanging around the unfinished house, and has repeated interviews with her and her mother, Sarah Bradford. Both are horse lovers, and Sarah plays on a softball team for older women. Sarah's son is Ethan Bradford, a long-haired hermit, who meets visitors with a shotgun and threats; a strange retirement activity for a refined former electrical engineer who likes classical music.

Review: The murder mystery is very good. There are a small number of people in the story, and when the murderer - and the motive - is discovered, I realized the little clues that had been dropped here and there but it did come as a surprise. 

However, the Silencer story line is rather sci-fi and on the unbelievable side - someone has a mysterious ray gun and goes around zapping sound systems, but somehow all the other electronics in the cars and houses are not affected? Details about how the zapping was done are not revealed. I could just see a big fat violation of Knox Commandment #4 coming .. ."No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end." Sure enough, we get the appliance and a long scientific explanation at the end. Perhaps it is included on a technicality as it is not the murder weapon, but just a gadget that annoys readers. The identity of the Silencer was clearly indicated as soon as the character was introduced and was no surprise. 

The middle portion of the book deals with J.W. delving into the genealogy and relationships among the old-time local families. This does lay the groundwork for figuring out the killer at the end, so is essential, although I chose not to try to follow and comprehend the family trees presented.

Anita Pereira, a former lover of Hobbes, is a piece of work. She describes her open marriage  - oh, by the way, my husband has a new lover but I'm available at the moment - and comes on to J.W. repeatedly. When rebuffed, she just changes her pitch like any good salesperson: "Say, if you've not interested in sex with me, how about renting one of our horses and taking a couple of riding lessons?" Well, if you don't want the fish, how about the chicken?

Oh, another little annoyance is Craig's incorrect use of homophones. As in previous books, he uses "bridal path" instead of "bridle path", and "metal" instead of "mettle". Tsk, tsk. And he was a professor of English! 

Overall, a good story which kept me turning pages. No need to follow the family trees unless you really want to map things out and try to identify the killer that way - which would be possible. Don't worry too much about The Silencer. And don't get involved with Anita Pereira. She's probably found someone else by now anyway.

Some nice extras:
  • A map of Martha's Vineyard will all the places labelled
  • Recipes
  • Synopses/excerpts from books 1-14.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Not Negotiable by Manning Coles (1949)


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:
  • Yanni the Nephew
  • Louis Burenne
  • Alexandre Maurice, a counterfeiter; a.k.a. Pierre Guyon
  • Hilde, a.k.a. Leonie Vermaas, Maurice's wife
  • Colette Masurel, Maurice's fiancée
  • Jules Parisot, a naive young man
  • Tommy Hambledon, British Intelligence
  • Antoine Letord, of the Sureté

Locale: Brussels, Belgium; and Paris, France

Synopsis: During WWII the Germans made an effort to destablize other nation's economies by producing large quantities of counterfeit money. Tommy Hambledon of British Intelligence is in Brussels to look into counterfeit currency emanating from there. In a cafe, Tommy notices a man (Yanni the Nephew) looking at something written on the bottom of a beer coaster, and slipping it in his pocket. Yanni leaves the cafe, and is followed by a man (Louis Burenne) under a bridge, where Yanni is shot. Tommy was following Burenne, who runs away. Tommy retrieves the beer coaster, which has the message "Parcel at 208 Rue Olive. Ask for Raoul". Meanwhile, Tommy was followed by another man who accosts him for the coaster. This man turns out to be Antoine Letord of the French Sureté. Now that Tommy has encountered another good guy, they team up to see if the mysterious parcel is full of counterfeit money.

Tommy goes to 208 Rue Olive to find it inhabited by an old man (Papa) and two young girls, Giselle and Brigitte. The girls depart, and Tommy is unable to find the parcel. The girls had taken it away. Tommy and Letord locate the girls, and retrieve the parcel which is full of counterfeit. A man (Alexandre Maurice) is watching them, so Tommy replaces the money with some clothing and allows the man to steal it.

Tommy follows Maurice to his hideaway cottage in Belgium, where he encounters Maurice's wife (Leonie Vermaas) in residence, along with a large safe. After several adventures, including setting up a confrontation between wife Leonia and fiancée Colette Masurel, Tommy winds up imprisoned in an underground room beneath the cottage.

Review: An excellent Manning Coles adventure complete with the usual uproars. The fight in the cafe over the mysterious parcel is excellent, especially when it is found to contain only clothing. Tommy discovers the astounding fact that Maurice has not only a wife in Belgium, but a fiancée in Paris - and sets up a meet between them with a predictable cat fight among a pile of counterfeit money resulting. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Deaves Affair by Hulbert Footner (1922)

image: Roy Glashan's Library

You can read this book online here.  

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

 Major characters:

  • Evan Weir, a "gig economy" artist
  • Charley Straiker, his roommate
  • Carmen Sisson, their landlady
  • Corinna Playfair, haunting young lady pianist staying in the same house
  • Leonard Anway, Corinna's boyfriend
  • Simeon Deaves, rascally old man who enjoys arguing with the public
  • George Deaves, his son

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: New York artist Evan Weir is out and encounters an old, apparently destitute gentleman, Simeon Deaves, arguing with a vendor, and intervenes to save him from injury. Accompanying him to his home, he meets his son, George Deaves. George explains that his father enjoys going out for walks, but usually winds up having arguments with people and generally getting into mischief. George hires Evan to accompany Simeon on his walks, and generally look out for him.

Now, a complication. The Deaves begin receiving polite (and amusing) blackmail letters. The blackmailer offers to sell them little stories about Simeon's embarassing adventures - and if they do not buy, they will release them to The Clarion newspaper. Now the Deaves expand Evan's job description to include finding the blackmailers, known as The Ikunahkatsi.

Evan works at finding the blackmailers, even making one of the payoffs in the reading room of the New York Public Library. 

Evan, meanwhile, has become enchanted with a pianist, Corinna Playfair, lodging in the same building. Despite his approaches, she remains distant. She moves out suddenly. Evan traces her to an organization called The Ozone Association, which provides activities and meals for poor children aboard a boat The Ernestina as it cruises around New York harbor. Corinna and rival Leonard Anway work providing meals, and Evan steps in to assist by telling adventure stories to the children. Evan works on the boat but is unable to get Corinna to warm up to him.

Review:  The blackmailers are quite polite and amusing, even providing receipts (!) for the blackmail payments. The concept of paying to purchase an embarassing story is not unique - this is the same catch-and-kill routine used by Donald Trump and The National Enquirer to quash stories about his affair with playmate Karen McDougal). 

The first half of the book deals with the Deaves and the blackmailers. The second half takes a sudden turn, with Evan leaving the Deaves to focus on Corinna's activities aboard The Ernestina. I had doubts that the story line would return to the Deaves, as the two story lines had been completely separate; and there was no apparent connection. However, a connection does occur and Evan gets in trouble with the blackmailers at their hideout.

This 1922 story is notable for its lush descriptions of New York City of that era, and especially the ways of getting around the city. I wanted to get out a map and follow his adventures, that much detail is provided.

The blackmail payoff scene in the New York Public Library reading room is quite amusing - I have been in that room and it certainly has not changed in appearance or protocol since 1922.

This is a good read with considerate blackmailers, Manning Coles style humor, and a love story intertwined.

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Dark Eyes of London by Edgar Wallace (1929)

About the author: 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 (Goodreads). In terms of production, by cranking out one novel per month, he was the British equivalent of Erle Stanley Gardner. See this Wikipedia article.

Edgar Wallace

Major characters:
  • Inspector Larry Holt, Scotland Yard
  • Diana Ward, his secretary
  • Patrick Sunny, his valet
  • Gordon Stuart, a Canadian, drowned as the story opens
  • Clarissa Stuart, his daughter
  • Police Commissioner John Hason
  • Dr. Stephen Judd, director of Greenwich Insurance Co.
  • Strauss, a.k.a. #278, Judd's Butler, an ex-con
  • Flash Fred Grogan, a natty blackmailer
  • Rev. John Dearborn, playwright, runs a boarding house for the blind
  • Blind Jake Bradford, a.k.a. Big Jake Bradford
  • Fanny Weldon, an impersonator
  • Emma, a charwoman
Locale: London

Synopsis: Scotland Yard Inspector Larry Holt is called back from Paris to look into the suspicious death of Canadian Gordon Stuart. What's suspicious? He was found drowned on the Embankment, but above the waterline, as the tide was coming in. How can this be? Clearly, someone else was involved. Stuart had left a theatre at intermission, he had been attending a show with Dr. Stephen Judd.

Inspector Holt returns to find he has been assigned an efficient secretary, Diana Ward, whose analytical skills keep Holt in awe.

Dr. Judd has a visit from slick crook Flash Fred Grogan, who is blackmailing him over knowledge about the death of his brother, David Judd.

Suspicion turns to Todd's Home, a boarding house for the blind, run by Rev. John Dearborn. While investigating, Diana is kidnapped right from under Larry Holt's eyes. Dearborn himself raises some eyebrows, he is supposedly blind himself. He writes plays which are produced at a nearby theatre, and underwritten by Dr. Judd. There are mysterious connections between Dr. Judd, Blind Jake Bradford, and other underworld characters. Meanwhile, the search for Clarissa Stuart, heiress to Gordon, continues.

Review: This story has a lot of creepy things happening all at once, a great read for your dark and stormy night. Blind Jake is a character, large and menacing, with the disconcerting habit of entering a room and immediately squeezing the light bulb and popping it to put you in the dark; so you on equal footing with him. (Ouch! He would have appreciated LED lights!) The boiler room hideout (called The Tubular Room) is dark, claustrophobic, and nasty. Secret passages abound, and even an elevator with a fake paper floor waiting to drop you down the shaft when you step in. There is so much going on, this could have easily been split into two novels. There are also a few secret identities to be revealed, and a surprise happy ending.