Wednesday, July 29, 2020

This is Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner (1935)




About the author: Charles J. Kenny is a pseudonym of Erle Stanley Gardner. This is one of the few non-Perry Mason novels by Gardner.

Major characters:
  • Sam Moraine, advertising man, and the go-between
  • Natalie Rice, Sam's secretary with a secret
  • Alton G. Rice, Natalie's ex-con father
  • Doris Bender, 29, 'lots of class'
  • Tom Wickes, friend of Doris
  • Ann Hartwell, Doris' half-sister, kidnap victim
  • Dr. Richard Hartwell, dentist with a gun
  • Carl Thorne and Peter Dixon, policians and bitter enemies
  • Phil Duncan, District Attorney
  • Barney Morden, Investigator for the D.A.'s office
Locale: not specified

Synopsis: Advertising man Sam Moraine lives a Walter Mitty life (click the link if you don't know what that means!). He has a routine 9-5 in an office with a secretary (Natalie Rice), but he envisions himself doing something more exciting. At a poker game with his buddies, he jumps at a chance to accompany his card game friend, D.A. Phil Duncan, to check out a reported kidnapping. Sam's only credential is that he manages a advertising printing concern, so the cover story is that he a document expert to look over the ransom note.

Sam and Phil arrive at the apartment of Doris Bender. Her half-sister, Ann Hartwell, has been missing for two weeks. Now Doris has received a ransom note demanding $10,000 for Ann's return. Doris thinks that Ann's husband, dentist Richard Hartwell, is behind it. Why didn't Ann's husband get the note, anyway?

Doris and her friend Tom Wickes want to quietly pay the money and get her back. D.A. Phil washes his hands of it, since she won't cooperate with the authorities. The kidnappers see mild-mannered Sam Moraine and pick him as the go-between to deliver the cash, since he has the necessary qualifications - a boat - and they want to do the exchange on the water. Sam is up for it and does the swap. No sooner does he get Ann get to shore when they are arrested for not notifying authories on a kidnap case.

Sam gets out of that, and begins investigating in all directions at once. The whole kidnapping setup looks fake. He goes to look up Peter Dixon, but finds him dead. Now the authorities are looking at Sam as the #1 suspect. They take him to the morgue to look at a body but surprise - it's not Peter Dixon - it's Ann Hartwell.

Review: This is the most fun Gardner I have read. Our protagonist/detective is neither a lawyer nor a D.A., but a rank amateur whose only experience is reading detective novels. As Sam puts it, "I always like to read mysteries, and now I'm in one!". What he lacks in experience he makes up in enthusiasm. He absconds with a suitcase full of evidence documents and pulls a Perry Mason switcheroo that is perfect, making fools of the stuck-up "real" investigators. He even manages to work a deal where he is allowed to question witnesses at the Grand Jury session - even though he is the one being charged with murder! ESG always manages to squeeze in a courtroom scene, and here the Grand Jury suffices, and is played fast and loose. Great fun!




Saturday, July 25, 2020

Vineyard Enigma by Philip R. Craig (2002)


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:
  • Abraham Mahsimba, of Zizbabwe, seeking two carved eagles
  • Matthew Duarte, art dealer
  • Connie Duarte, his estranged wife
  • Rose Abrams, his girlfriend
  • Same Hopewell, his accountant
  • David Brownington, the 'Headless Horseman'
  • Charles Mauch, art collector
  • Miguel Periera, food deliverer
  • J. W. Jackson, ex-cop
  • Zeolinda "Zee" Jackson, his wife
Locale: Martha's Vineyard, island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Synopsis: Abraham Mahsimba, of Zimbabwe, comes to Martha's Vineyard (MV) in his search to find two historic carved eagles and return them to the government of Zimbabwe. He hire J. W. Jackson as his local guide and investigator. Together, they make the rounds of the art galleries seeking anyone with any knowledge of them. J.W. is also concerned about the attraction building between his wife, Zee Jackson, and Mahsimba.

The eagles are rumored to be on MV as local Matthew Duarte was the agent for their sale. J.W. and Mahsimba so to see him, but find him dead. 

Investigation reveals a tie to David Brownington, who was seeking the eagles at one point. He has not been seen for years, and J.W. wonders if he could be the 'Headless Horseman', a name given to a still-unidentified headless body found years ago. Brownington knew Matthew's father, Daniel Duarte, who died in a car accident.

Review:

This is #13 in the series of 20 and now I find it is is best they be read in order, as the characters and incidents seem to build, with references to incidents in previous books.  The series was published 1989-2008 so finding other copies in the series may be a challenge, although they are frequently available on paperbackswap.com

A good missing-artifact mystery, although the holder of the missing-artifact is a bit obvious. The character of Abraham Mahsimba is well done. I suspected he was not as he seemed, but he turned out sincere for the most part.

J.W. has become a good father but as a husband is a bit too laid-back for me, he doesn't seem to care about his wife getting involved with another man, hey, there's enough love to go around, right? The hinted-at affair never gets off the ground, but still... In his interviews of Rose Abrams (former girlfriend), J.W. comes off as a bully. 

The fishing episodes are recounted in too much length and detail, not of interest to non-fishermen, and do not add to the plot.

Surprise: Recipes in the back!

Peeves:
1. We don't find out who killed David Brownington.
2. We don't find out who killed Daniel Duarte. Or was it an accident? 
3. We don't find out any more about the possibly related dead woman on the cape, that story line is dropped.
4. Repeated misuse of "bridal trail" for"bridle trail"! It is for horses, not for brides! 


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

HIgh Red for Dead by William L. Rohde (1951)


also published as Murder on the Line

About the author: Very little is known about author William L. Rohde (1918-2000). Born in Dallas, the author wrote a handful of early Nick Carter: Killmaster installments as well as crime-fiction novels like Help Wanted for Murder (1950), Uneasy Lies the Head (1957) and V.I.P. (1957). He also wrote a number of western short stories as well as one full-length paperback, The Gun-Crasher (1957). The 1951 novel High Red for Dead was published by Fawcett Gold Medal. It was re-printed by Fawcett in 1957 as Murder on the Line with new cover art. (from paperback warrior)

Major characters:
  • Mohawk "Mo" Daniels, railroad detective
  • Tug Jillson, railroad detective
  • Patricia Gordon, operates the Robin Valley Lodge
  • Charles Polestra, owns the Robin Valley Lodge
  • Lucretia "Luke" Polestra, his daughter, owns The Daisy Hotel
  • Frank Triggs, railroad lawyer and promoter
  • Nelson Wimberly, railroad trustee (financial controller)
  • Paul Carding, drunk railroad employee
  • Amos Carding, Paul's father; railroad agent
  • Johnny Johnson, a porter
  • Orville Schmidt, owns a nudist camp
  • Shinny McCarthy, a telegrapher
  • Talkin' Joe Zelinksy
Locale: Not stated, but appears to be upstate New York

Synopsis: 

Sample: He pressed Patricia down in the weeds between the rails. The first bullet went over their heads. "Scared?" "A little." They lay with their heads close together. He did not have to move far to kiss her. It tasted good.

Railroad detective Mo Daniels has a fistfight with a drunk railroad employee, Paul Carding. Daniels meets the wealthy Polestras - Charles Polestra is the new owner of the swanky Robin Valley Lodge, his daughter Lucretia Polestra is the new owner of the more modest Daisy Hotel. Daniels has been dating Patricia Gordon, who is the manager at the Robin Valley Lodge, but is distracted the redhead/green-eyed Lucretia.

The A&N Railroad is in trouble financially, and has been suffering from thefts. Daniels and his assistant Tug Jillson are tasked with finding the thieves. Daniels finds railroad promoter Frank Triggs shot in a parlor car on a siding, initially suspecting Paul Carding of revenge. He seeks out Lucretia to check Carding's alibi, finds her at Orville Schmidt's nudist colony where, after doffing his clothes (it's the rules) he chases her around and into the woods where they have, shall we say, a pleasant interlude.

Paul Carding's father, Amos Carding, is shot at his desk. Action moves to Nick's Maple Grove, which is adjacent to a trucking terminal. Tug sets up a stakeout in the woods to watch the happenings. Mo and Patricia go to a remote siding to check up on a tip, and walk into an ambush which leaves telegrapher Shinny McCarthy dead. Mo and Patricia escape over the nearby Appalachian Trail before returning to chase down the guilty parties.

Review:

Oh, what fun! We are back in hard-boiled, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, double-entendre'd 1950 when Men were Men and Dames were Things to be Ogled as they crossed their nylon-stockinged legs at the bar and looked around for Someone to Please Light their Cigarette. The fisticuffs begin rightaway on page one!

It is interesting to read of the ritzy upstate New York resorts - the Robin Valley Lodge reminds me of Kellerman's Mountain Resort (which was based on the real Grollinger's Catskill Resort) from Dirty DancingNick's Maple Grove roadhouse night club has valet parking - over 100, yes over 100, tables occupied (how many empty ones?!) - an orchestra for dancing - hostesses (rent-a-girls) for dancing if you came stag - hat check girls - rest room attendants with cloth towels -  and of course, a casino. The hostesses contribute to the bottom line by allowing the men to buy them lots of drinks - but they never get drunk. Why? They know the secret* which is revealed in this book. Where have these places gone? Take me back!

The railroad scenes and story line are believable - it was somewhat amusing when a derailment places a locomotive, combine, and coach off the rails and into a building - and the reaction was to just couple another locomotive onto the remaining passenger cars and send the train on its way after a brief delay. Just another day on the railroad. Today everything would be preserved in place for exhaustive investigations as helicopters hover overhead.

The nudist camp incident doesn't contribute anything to the plot, but makes a nice blurb on the cover to get more sales.

The escape of Mo and Patricia over the Appalachian Trail is a surprise, and quite accurate and well done.

The term "high red" refers to the position of the railroad semaphore signal - if the semaphore arm is high (for daytime viewing) and the light is red (for nighttime viewing), a stop is indicated.

*How to drink shots and not get drunk (according to this book): Hold the shot in your mouth but don't swallow it. Pick up the chaser glass (ginger ale or tea), pretend to sip from it as you allow the liquor to dribble back into the chaser glass. You heard it here. Your results may vary.


No. 17 by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1926)


This review is of the 2016 paperback edition of this 1926 novel, which was first produced as a play.
Major characters:
  • Ben the Tramp
  • Gilbert Fordyce
  • Eddie Scott, Fordyce’s friend
  • Rose Ackroyd, the girl next door
  • Smith, the man with the crooked shoulder
  • (the elder) Brant, a house-hunter
  • Henry Brant, his nephew
  • Nora Brant, his niece
Locale: London

Synopsis: Ben, out of work Merchant seaman, is destitute. Groping his way through the London fog, he finds a house - No. 17 - with the door ajar. Finding no one apparently inside, he takes shelter in an upstairs room for the night. Next, a man with a crooked shoulder enters the house. Ben, frightened, runs out to the sidewalk and into Gilbert Fordyce, who takes interest in the house and goes inside with Ben. In the upstairs room they find a corpse - the man with the crooked shoulder - and a long cupboard. Someone then enters through the skylight, and they grab the intruder to find it is a girl - Rose Ackroyd - who lives next door, and was searching for her father who went out and did not return. 

Ben retrieves a gun from the corpse. The next visitors to the house are elder Mr. Brant, his nephew Henry, and niece Nora. They pose as house-hunters while Fordyce poses as a sales agent, and tries to get rid of them unsuccessfully. Ben and Fordyce and afraid Rose and the Brants will find the corpse, but when they look again, it is gone.

Review: This is the first of the Ben the Tramp novels, and employs the Farjeon formula: ‘man goes for a walk, finds a corpse and a girl’.

Creepiness abounds in the fog and dark house. The trips up and and down the stairs are excruciatingly drawn-out and slow. Ben’s words are sometimes hard to understand in print as his dialect is rendered phonetically, and sounding them out is needed to reveal them ... 'berlud' folled me a while until I caught on ... blood.

The story's genesis as a play is obvious - all the action takes place in one room or in the street, and as the plot progresses, the characters have many changes of identity in the usual "Now *I* have the gun and I will tie *YOU* up" sort of exchanges. The roles get hopelessly tangled and confused. Don't try to follow too attentively, just ride the roller coaster.

This story was also made into a 1932 film, Number Seventeen, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which follows the book closely and has had good reviews as well. It is a standard item on Hitchcock collection DVDs.

Death in Vineyard Waters by Philip R. Craig (1991)



originally published as The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea

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:
  • Dr. Marjorie Summerharp, who walked into the water
  • Dr. John Skye, professor at Weststock College
  • Jen and Jill Skye, John’s twin teen daughters
  • Dr. Ian McGregor, who ‘collects women as honey collects insects’. 
  • Dr. Helen Barstone
  • Dr. Bill Hooperman
  • Tristan Cooper, caretaker of mystical stones
  • Hans and Marie Van Dam, owners of Sanctuary
  • J. W. Jackson, ex-Boston cop
  • Zeolinda "Zee" Madieras, J.W.’s girlfriend
Locale: Martha’s Vineyard, island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Synopsis: Ex-cop J. W. Jackson, retired after an injury, is now a year-round resident of Martha’s Vineyard. He meets up with a collection of academics, centered around aging Marjorie Summerharp and her protégé, young Ian McGregor. They are collaborating on an article about a purported new work of Shakespeare which has been found; which they posit is genuine. Summerharp goes for her usual early morning swim and does not return, until her body is caught up in a fishing net. Ian McGregor seeks J.W.’s help in finding if there was foul play, perhaps from someone in the tight-knit Shakespearean academic community, who could be threatened by their work. This alliance proves to be troublesome, as J.W.’s girlfriend, Zee, now takes up with Ian.

Besides the academics, others include the Van Dams, who operate a semi-religious retreat called Sanctuary, on land leased from Tristan Cooper. There are rumors of illicit happenings at Sanctuary. Cooper serves as caretaker of ancient stones on his property, which he maintains have sacred/astrological significance. 

Review:

Craig obviously knows Martha's Vineyard. His character of J.W. strikes me as a male version of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone: both are ex-cop private eyes, living a simple and solitary life. I will be seeking out the other titles of the series. I was saddened to find Craig has passed away. The writing is warm and real. The repartee with the twins is amusing and serves as a relief to the drama.

The ancient stones story line is interesting, and the stones described are similar to those found in Mystery Hill in New Hampshire.

A map of Martha’s Vineyard would have been helpful to the reader, perhaps it was included in the original hardcover version. I did find one in his Vineyard Enigma.

A couple of peeves: Craig uses the terms ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ interchangeably, which they are not: A thesis is generally written in  attaining a master’s degree, while a dissertation is a more complex form written in attaining a doctorate. Second, he repeatedly uses the term ‘final draft’, which is an oxymoron. A draft is, by definition, a preliminary version of a document and cannot be a final version.



Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Feathered Serpent by Edgar Wallace (1927)

dustjackets.com

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:
  • Peter Dewin, crime reporter
  • William Lane, is he dead or isn't he?
  • Ella Creed, self-absorbed actress
  • Joe Farmer, boxing promotor; estranged husband of Ella Creed
  • Leicester "Bobby" Crewe, stockbroker
  • Gregory Beale, archeologist/explorer
  • Daphne Olroyd, secretary first to Leicester Crewe, then to Gregory Beale
  • Harry Hugg, an ex-con
  • Paula Staines, an artist
  • Chief Inspector Clarke
Locale: London

Synopsis:  Reporter Peter Dewin is assigned to cover the story of actress Ella Creed, who has received a warning card, with a drawing of a Feathered Serpent on it. As soon as he contacts Ella, her estranged husband - boxing promoter Joe Farmer - receives one also, followed by stockbroker Leicester Crewe. Everyone is mystified.

Joe Farmer calls Dewin, saying he knows who the Feathered Serpent is, and on his way to reveal the identity is shot dead.

The warnings are thought to come from ex-con William Lane, however, his prison mate Harry Hugg insists Lane is dead; and produces the death certificate showing he was hit by a car and killed.

Review: 

Peter Dewin is a likable and believable reporter, he would have made a good series character. Love interest Daphne Olroyd is a good character also. Ella Creed is the girl-you-love-to-hate. 

The motley collection of ex-cons (Harry Hugg, Harry the Barman, and Harry the Lug are three different people) is amusing although a few less Harry's would have made this clearer. 

The victim, Joe Farmer, turns out to have died by an unusual weapon - skirting Knox's Commandment #4: (No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.) The Commandments weren't written until 1929 so I will give Wallace a pass on this one. 

An interesting dénouement: the last chapter is presented as a news story written by Dewin for his paper, and explains everything; which was quite involved with multiple identities. The murderer was a surprise, I had not seen that coming at all; nor did I see the truth about is-he-dead-or-not William Lane.

This was one of the better Wallaces I have read thus far.



Monday, July 6, 2020

The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1932)


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:
  • Richard Temperley, the train traveller
  • Winifred Mostyn, his sister
  • John Amble, the snoring man (victim #1)
  • Sylvia Wynne
  • Ledlow, Sylvia's grandfather
  • Martha, a gypsy (victim #2)
  • Albert Bowes, a taxi driver (victim #3)
  • The Countryman
  • The Man with No Arms
  • Detective-Inspector James
  • Policeman Dutton
Locale: England

Synopsis: Richard Temperley is travelling on a slow night train and is annoyed by a fellow passenger, John Amble, who snores constantly. They arrive at Euston Station at 5 AM, much too early for anything to be open. They are directed to the local hotel's public smoking room, where they can rest for a few hours. Temperley has a passing encounter with an enchanting woman, Sylvia Wynne. She leaves the smoking room. Temperley becomes concerned that Amble has ceased snoring - checks on him - to find he is dead; with a enamelled letter Z left behind. Detective-Inspector James arrives to determine Amble had been shot from the room's window, but unsure if the shot originated inside or outside.

Temperley finds Sylvia's purse. He does not report it, but decides to take matters into his own hands. He traces her back to her studio apartment. All the time, policeman Dutton is lurking, watching Temperley in order to find Sylvia.

A second death occurs - Martha, a gypsy woman, in a field in Charlton. Temperley believes Sylvia has gone there. A long chase ensues as Sylvia is chased by Temperley, who is in turn chased by Dutton as their path crosses England. Always lurking in the background is The Countryman, apparently a farmer.

Review:

This is a mystery and chase thriller rolled into one. An unknown murderer is on the loose, leaving enamelled "Z"s behind as a signature device. As we near the end of the chase, it is explained why the unconnected victims were chosen as far distant locations. The bizarre criminal with the fascination of "Z" reminds me of the early Ellery Queens with the country names in the titles (Greek Coffin, Chinese Orange, etc.)

Many of the particulars of the action are described in roundabout ways, leaving the reader to fill in the details. For example, the accounts of the deaths are vague and I was not really sure if a death had indeed occurred, until it was confirmed in later accounts. 

On the last leg of the chase, the killer is revealed to the reader, and the story turns thriller.*

Farjeon has a couple oddities: many people - even major characters - are given descriptive names instead of specific ones (The Countryman, The Man with the Monocle, The Man with No Arms, etc). The other aspect which grates a little is the plethora of Exclamation Points even to unimportant sentences! It gives the writing a Hardy Boys feel! ('It's a telegram!' He exclaimed!)

This is a good page-turner, and my third Farjeon. The first (Mystery in White) was excellent, the second (Seven Dead) was so-so, and this one almost as good as Mystery in White. I will seek out more Farjeons from the British Library Crime Classics series (Amazon), many also available for Kindle.

An aside: You have heard of the old stereotype of the detective standing on the street, leaning against a lamppost, holding a newspaper, and watching someone through a round hole cut in the paper - but this is the first time I have seen it as a serious part of a story (p.70)! Perhaps this is where the trope originated.

*I define a thriller as one where the killer is known to the reader, the mystery becoming will he get caught?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

They Tell No Tales by Manning Coles (1942)

dustjackets.com

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:
  • Donald Macgregor, shipyard worker, his information got him killed
  • Mrs. Elsie Roberts, a.k.a. "The Wax Doll", sister of Macgregor
  • Rodney Siddall, a hairdresser
  • Doris Baker, Siddall's girlfriend
  • Bettine Gascon, a governess
  • Stafford Wilkins, her boyfriend
  • Molly & Eileen Trotter, twins
  • Tommy Hambledon, British Intelligence
  • James Bellair, British Intelligence
  • Franz von Krug, Tommy's former manservant
  • Reck, Tommy's current manservant
Locale: England

Synopsis: Tommy Hambledon and James Bellair are assigned to find out how and why certain outbound ships from a certain naval yard are exploding as soon as they depart. Shipyard worker Donald Macgregor has some information for them. When Macgregor enters a local pub (Cafe d'Albertini) to meet Hambledon and Bellair, he is shot in the back from outside.

The other patrons of the pub become the focus of the investigation, as well as several people associated with the local theatre. An incident at the theatre wounds Bellair, and puts Hambledon on the trail of the unknown bomber.

Review: Manning Coles books are always good for spectacular explosions, and we have three right away, beginning on page five: a "swill lorry" (ewwww), a house holding poor Macgregor's coffin for services, and a ship exiting the shipyard.

Amusing incidents always creep in causing this reader to laugh out loud. Hambledon and Bellair are trying to enter Siddall's apartment which is above a high-ceilinged garage. There is a trap door in the floor of the apartment by which they can sneak in. They attempt to push the trap door open from below by use of a broom handle - unfortunately, unknown to them, the trap door is covered above by 1). a carpet, upon which is 2). a table, upon which is 3). a large vase full of water and cut flowers.

This is the 3rd Hambledon novel, and he is getting his stride now as the series continues.

Note: One occurrence of racist term for persons of Chinese ancestry.

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