Friday, April 16, 2021

The Tule Marsh Murder by Nancy Barr Mavity (1929)

About the author: Nann "Nancy" Barr Mavity (1890 - 1959) is the author of a series of mystery novels about crime reporter James Aloysius "Peter" PiperNancy Barr Mavity taught philosophy at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. She was a newspaper woman. She was a feature writer of the Oakland Tribune. In this capacity, she was the first woman to spend a night in Folsom State Prison, where she had gone to cover the pardon hearing of Warren K Billings. She lectured extensively and contributed to magazines. (from a Wikipedia article). You can read about her history here

This is Peter Piper #1 (of 6). The full series is:
  1. The Tule Marsh Murder (1929)
  2. The Body on the Floor (1929)
  3. The Other Bullet (1930)
  4. The Case of the Missing Sandals (1930)
  5. The Man Who Didn't Mind Hanging (1932)
  6. The Fate of Jane McKenzie (1933)

Major characters:

  • Sheila O'Shay - missing actress
  • Mrs. Nellie Kane - Sheila's stage mother and housekeeper
  • Don Ellsworth - Sheila's husband
  • Dr. Cavanaugh, psychiatrist
  • Barbara Cavanaugh, Dr. Cavanaugh's adopted daughter
  • David Orme, a wanderer ; a.k.a. Daniel Osgood
  • Captain Camberwell, police ID expert
  • James Aloysius "Peter" Piper, crime reporter for The Herald

Synopsis: Millionaire Don Ellsworth consults Dr. Cavanaugh - psychiatrist and amateur detective - to find his missing wife, actress Sheila O'Shay. Ellsworth had not even reported her missing to the police, that was done by her dresser (stage mother) Mrs. Nellie Kane. 

James Aloysius "Peter" Piper, crime reporter, is assigned to cover the story. Peter becomes enchanted by Dr. Cavanaugh's adopted daughter, Barbara Cavanaugh. He finds that Don Ellsworth had been engaged to Barbara, before dropping her to marry Sheila O'Shay.

A body is found in the hills above the tule marsh, burned beyond recognition following a grass fire. Dr. Cavanaugh examines an unburned bit of skin/hair and finds it a match to Sheila O'Shay. Peter finds that Ellsworth only married her to avoid a breach-of-contract suit; and suspicion is he murdered Sheila in order to get back together with Barbara.

Peter finds the Ellsworth maid, Ethyl, is a fan of detective stories. Peter assumes the clothing and mannerisms of Sherlock Holmes to impress and interview Ethyl. It pays off, he finds there was a visitor to Sheila before she disappeared. Peter and Dr. Cavanaugh search Sheila's room and find a threatening note signed by David Orme. 

Peter learns Orme is missing the tips of two fingers, and traces him to a nearby auto campground. He interviews Orme, who is using an assumed name of Daniel Osgood. He finds him rather simple and agreeable, and turns him in to the sheriff.

Review: This is the first of six Peter Piper stories. We are introduced to the controlled chaos of a daily newspaper, perfectly rendered as Mavity was a news reporter herself. 

An amusing episode is Piper's interview of the maid Ethyl. After learning she is a fan of detective stories, he assumes the dress and manner of Sherlock Holmes and sends her a mysterious note inviting her to meet. This leads to discovery of a vital clue.

The description of the auto campground and its inhabintants is a bleak reminder of depression days, and reminded me of the camping scenes in The Grapes of Wrath. 

This is an enjoyable, fast-paced story and has started me on the search for the remaining titles in the series. I have two, only four to go!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Case of the Ice Cold Hands by Erle Stanley Gardner (1962)

Major characters:
  • Nancy Banks, a.k.a. Audrey Bicknell
  • Rodney Banks, Nancy's brother, an embezzler
  • Lorraine Lawton, Nancy's neighbor
  • Marvin Fremont, Rodney's boss
  • Larsen E. Halstead, bookkeeper for Marvin Fremont
  • Perry Mason, attorney
  • Jarvis Nettle Gilmore, attorney
Locale: Los Angeles area

Synopsis: Rodney Banks has embezzled about $1000 from his employer, Marvin Fremont. Now Rodney needs to replace it before anyone notices - so he goes to the horse races and bets on a long shot horse. His horse wins, and now he has plenty of money ($14000) to pay it back. The problem is that the authorities may be waiting for him at the horse track cashier's window.

Rodney gives the winning tickets to his sister, Nancy Banks, to cash in. She is hesitant to walk out of the racetrack with that much cash, so she goes to see Perry Mason. Using the name of Audrey Bicknell, she hires Mason to go cash in the tickets. Mason goes and gets the cash, and is accosted by Fremont and a policeman, claiming that since the betting money was Fremont's property, the proceeds of its investment (the bet) are his also. Mason disagrees and gives the cash over to Nancy Banks.

Mason gets a frantic call from Nancy Banks, who is now staying in a motel so no one can find her and the cash. Her story is that she was help up and the money taken. Mason enters her motel room and finds Fremont shot to death in the bathroom. The police find evidence of dry ice having been placed around the body to cool it off quickly, to manipulate the apparent time of death.

Review:  This is the first time I have come across this scheme of speeding up the cooling off of the body in order to give yourself an alibi; although no mention is made of the heavy fog that would occur from loading the bathroom up with dry ice.

One surprising aspect of this book is the small count of characters. My list above is it. Perry Masons usually have a big cast to suspect, so this was a pleasant surprise not having to keep track of all the peripheral people.

The courtroom scene was quite amusing, especially when Hamilton Burger decides that only he can do it right, and takes over the questioning of a witness. He should have known that the first rule of questioning witnesses is to never ask a question if you do not know how the witness will answer! That comes back to bite him. 

An interesting companion story could be titled "The Case of the Ice Cold Feet", in which someone slides into bed to find it already occupied by ... a corpse!

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Hangman's Whip by Mignon G. Eberhart (1940)

About the author: (from Goodreads): Mignon Good (1899-1996) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1929 her first crime novel was published featuring 'Sarah Keate', a nurse and 'Lance O'Leary', a police detective. This couple appeared in another four novels. Over the next forty years she wrote a novel nearly every year. In 1971 she won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. 

Major characters:
  • Search Abbott, protagonist
  • Howland Stacy, a lawyer
  • Diana Abbott Peale, Search's cousin
  • Calvin Peale, Diana's husband
  • Aunt Ludmilla Abbott
  • Richard Bohan
  • Eve Bohan, Richard's wife
  • Jonas, the gardener
  • Bea Walthers, waitress
  • Carter, the maid

Locale: Kentigern Village, north of Chicago

Synopsis: Search Abbott, our protagonist, is leaving her Chicago apartment for the family mansion in Kentigern Village, north of Chicago; in response to a plea from Aunt Ludmilla Abbott - and partly to get away from pushy childhood friend Howland Stacy who wants her to consent to a marriage she doesn't want. She will join cousin Diana Abbott Peale and her husband Calvin Peale, and her Aunt Ludmilla.

She arrives to find, to her surprise, her former love, Richard Bohan. She had given up on him long ago when he married Eve Bohan, and now they are headed for divorce. Search and Richard confess their love for each other, when Eve arrives to say she has changed her mind about the divorce.

Aunt Ludmilla reveals someone has made several attempts to poison her with arsenic. 

Richard and Search plan a tryst at a guest cottage on the grounds. When Search arrives, she finds Eve hanging - dead. Richard claims innocence, and flees. During the search for Richard, attention also focuses on a mysterious stranger who came looking for Eve, but is also found dead on the grounds. Then it becomes apparent Search has knowledge which can finger the killer, who comes looking for her next.

Review: Right away the requisite love triangle (actually two overlapping triangles) is set up. Protagonist Search, her pursuer Howland Stacy (who is all wrong for her) and long-ago love Richard (who is all right for her). Then we get Search competing with Eve for Richard. Later on we get search competing with Diana for Richard. Everyone wants Richard.

Mignon Eberhart is always enjoyable for her scene-setting, and the innocent girl in peril story line. I enjoyed this book particularly because of the small number of characters, the lakeside vacation home setting, and the continuing drama between them. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

A Case of Vineyard Poison by Philip R. Craig (#6 - 1996)


This is Martha's Vineyard Mystery #6. 

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:
  • Katherine Ellis, NYU student, poisoning victim
  • Denise Vale, NYU student
  • Miles Vale, Denise's father, a medic with a short fuse
  • Glen Gordon, former NYU student, now a bank IT programmer
  • Beth Goodwin, Katherine's roommate
  • Peter Dennison, Katherine's friend
  • Quinn, reporter for The Boston Globe
  • David Greenstein, concert pianist
  • J. W. Jackson
  • Zeolinda "Zee" Madeiras
  • Maria Madeiras, Zee's mother
Locale: Martha's Vineyard, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Synopsis: Retired Boston cop, and now Martha's Vineyard resident, J. W. Jackson, is counting down the days to his wedding to Zeolinda "Zee" Madeiras. He hears from old buddy, reporter Quinn, that he is coming to visit and bringing a friend; who turns out to be concert pianist David Greenstein.

J. W. comes home one day to find a moped lying in his driveway, and a young woman dead beside the drive. She is Katherine Ellis, NYU student on vacation. She is found to have been poisoned by a local plant.

Some strange things are happening in the banks around the island. Zee has a deposit of $100K to her account, which gets removed a few days later. Poison victim Katherine had a deposit of $100K, to which she wrote a series of $9000 checks, which were then cashed - and now she is dead. Roommate Denise Vale also had a $100K transaction, and now she is missing. All transactions link back to bank IT programmer Glen Gordon, who was previously at NYU along with both Katherine and Denise.

Review: This one was a little odd, with very little focus on the two murders which occur. The first (the poisoning of Katherine Ellis) is not explained, it is just mentioned in passing - when it could have been expanded into how the killer got the obscure poison and administered it; but nothing along that line. The second (the shooting) is given a wrap-up mention in the final chapter.

Much of the book focuses on J.W.'s hosting of his friends Quinn and David Greenstein, fishing, looking into the banking transactions, and preparations for his upcoming marriage (which we did not get to, it occurs without being recorded, in between #6 and #7). The rocky relationship with his future mother-in-law is funny and enjoyable, although when it progresses to outright flirtation and more-than-platonic kissing it is a bit creepy.

This is #6 in the series, and some of the local anecdotes are getting a copy/paste flavor; leading to a "I've read this before" feeling. I am beginning to skim over the fishing play-by-plays, Sam Adams beer ads, and complaints about the parking situation.

Monday, April 5, 2021

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie (1953)

Major characters:

The Fortescues:
  • Rex Fortescue, the victim
  • Adele Fortescue, Rex's second wife; a young gold-digger
  • Percival "Val" Fortescue, Rex's brother; and his wife Jennifer
  • Lancelot Fortescue, Rex's brother in East Africa; and his wife Pat
  • Elaine Fortescue, Rex's daughter by first wife
  • "Aunt Effie" Ramsbottom, Rex's sister-in-law
  • Mary Dove, the ladder-climbing housekeeper
  • Gladys Martin, parlourmaid
  • Vivian Dubois, Adele's man-on-the-side
  • Miss Irene Grosvenor, Rex's elegant secretary
  • Miss Griffith, Rex's head typist
  • Detective Inspector Neele
  • Miss Jane Marple

Synopsis: Rex Fortescue is in his office at Consolidated Investments when elegant secretary Miss Irene Grosvenor brings him his tea. Shortly after, he collapses and dies from a poison. Preliminary signs point to Taxine as the poison, made from Yew tree berries. Detective Inspector Neele is called in right away.

D. I. Neele goes to the Fortescue home, Yewtree Lodge, where he not only finds plenty of yew trees on the property, but a young, attractive ladder-climbing housekeeper Mary Dove, who is more than ready to divulge all the family drama. It looks like Rex's sexy young trophy wife, Adele Fortescue, had it in for him for his money and her new flame, Vivian Dubois.

Rex's family consists of two brothers: Percival "Val" Fortescue (wife: Jennifer) who runs the day-to-day operations of Consolidated Investments, and Lancelot "Lance" (wife: Pat) - long estranged and living in Africa. Rex has a daughter, Elaine Fortescue, from his first marriage; and a sister-in-law, Aunt Effie Ramsbottom.

No sooner has the dust settled from Rex's death when Adele is found poisoned as well. Soon after that, parlourmaid Gladys Martin is found strangled in the yard.

Miss Jane Marple had previously employed Gladys, and hearing of her death, arrives to offer assistance. She discovers the three deaths are related by the old nursery rhyme about blackbirds in a pie.

Review: I was a good 100 pages in before I realized that Miss Marple had yet to be mentioned, and St. Mary Mead was not in the picture at all. I looked at the title of my anthology, Miss Marple Meets Murder, and figured she had to be in there somewhere.

The character I enjoyed most was housekeeper Mary Dove. She is so efficient in everything, that I would be pleased to have her running my own household. She would likely even meet with Nero Wolfe's approval if he would stoop to having a female on staff.

The tying of murders to lines in the nursery rhyme builds tension as you wonder who is going to get it next. Adele looks like the prime suspect but gets off the hook when she becomes a victim as well. We have Rex (victim 1), Adele (victim 2), and Gladys (victim 3). The whole thing unravels when Miss Marple figures out the sequence is wrong, and Gladys is really victim #2, which rules out the kill-in-sequence theory.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1909)

About the author: Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 – 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie, although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie's first novel in 1920. Rinehart is considered to have invented the "Had-I-But-Known" school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908). (from a Wikipedia article).

Major characters:
  • Lawrence "Lollie" Blakeley, attorney, our narrator
  • Richey McKnight, Blakeley's partner
  • Alison West, the love interest
  • Alice Curtis, Alison's companion
  • Simon Harrington, the murder victim
  • Henry Pinckney Sullivan, missing, is he the killer?
  • --- Sullivan, the woman with the copper colored hair
  • Bronson, the forger at trial
  • Mrs. Blanche Conway, Bronson's common-law wife, the tall woman
  • Wilson Budd Hotchkiss, the amateur detective
  • Johnson, a police detective
Locale: various location along the railway between Washington and Pittsburg

Synopsis: Lawrence Blakeley, attorney (and our narrator) is a partner in the law firm of Blakely & McKnight. He is en route to Pittsburgh to present evidence (forged documents) in a case against Bronson. 

Blakely books a sleeping berth on the Washington Flier. At the request of a tall woman in the station, he books an additional berth - getting Lower #10 and Lower #11. He gives her the ticket for #11. That night, he finds Lower 10 already occupied. He and the porter are unable to rouse the sleeper - Simon Harrington - and the porter puts him in Lower 9, apparantly the sleeper's berth. 

In the morning, he finds his clothes, and possessions - including the forged documents - gone, and other clothing in its place. Then he finds Harrington, in Lower 10, has been murdered in the night. It appears someone was after the documents and killed the wrong man - Blakeley being the intended target. It further appears the murderer swapped the berth signs around between 7 and 9, which caused Blakely to wind up in 7, thinking he was in 9. Making matters worse, the stiletto murder weapon is found under Blakeley's pillow in 7 - supposedly occupied by Henry Pinckney Sullivan - who is nowhere to be found.

The conductor is summoned, and in the midst of dealing with the body along with self-proclaimed amateur detective Wilson Budd Hotchkiss, the train is hit from behind by the following section, wrecked, and afire. Blakely, Hotchkiss, and two women - the tall woman and alluring Alison West - seem to be the only survivors from that car. 

Blakeley is assumed to be the killer and is followed by a police detective (Johnson). Blakely teams up with amateur detective Hotchkiss to track down the real killer, all the time falling in love with Alison West.

Review: I do enjoy railway mysteries, but they don't usually involve a train wreck messing up the works just when the first mystery is being sorted out, so that was a new twist! Blakeley is a good protagonist, and his alliance and flight with the amateur detective Hotchkiss reminds me of The Thirty-Nine Steps  -  (which I read carefully, but could never quite figure out where the 39 steps were*).  

Blakeley is gradually convinced that he must be the murderer (although the reader knows that is not so), even getting up the courage to eventually turn himself in to authorities. He has a friendly relationship with detective Johnson who is assigned to shadow him, even telling him where he is going, and taking him along as well.

Hotchkiss is the amateur detective, and I always suspect the amateur who shows up may be more than he seems. The authorities seem to be OK with him carrying around the murder weapon (so much for chain of evidence). 

There are a lot of people involved in this story. I did get confused on matching up the various nicknames (tall woman, copper-haired woman, etc.) with their real names (my partial list above may be not accurate) and family relationships. Some I could not untangle at all, they made my head spin, such as:

"Incidentally, he said that Alison was his wife's cousin, their respective grandmothers having, at proper intervals, married the same man..."

leaving me with the impression that everyone on the train was related to everyone else. 

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

* Wikipedia says:  John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was ill in bed with a duodenal ulcerthe name of the book originated when the author's daughter was counting the stairs at St Cuby, a private nursing home on Cliff Promenade in Broadstairs, where he was convalescing. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

About S. S. Van Dine and Philo Vance


S. S. Van Dine is a pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939).

The six Collier spiderweb design books (at right in above photo) sat on my parents' bookshelf for years. My mother was a great book club joiner, so perhaps that's where they came from. The spiderweb design always seemed creepy to me as a kid. In later years I found there were six additional S. S. Van Dine titles, and picked them up one by one until I had all twelve. Apparently Colllier only produced six reprints in the spiderweb design.

This blog will give you a post for each one - characters and synopses. (click to see all) Perhaps you will find them interesting as well!

Title List:
  1. The Benson Murder Case (1926)
  2. The Canary Murder Case (1927)
  3. The Greene Murder Case (1928)
  4. The Bishop Murder Case (1929)
  5. The Scarab Murder Case (1930)
  6. The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
  7. The Dragon Murder Case (1933)
  8. The Casino Murder Case (1934)
  9. The Garden Murder Case (1935)
  10. The Kidnap Murder Case (1936)
  11. The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
  12. The Winter Murder Case (1939)
Other resources:

You may find references online to a 13th novel, The Powwow Murder Case. Wright started outlining this story but died before it could be written. A publisher's dummy was made up as a salesman's sample (with the first four pages of the story inside), complete with a cover. Photos of this "13th Philo Vance" appear now and then. These photos were taken from an auction site which sold the item in October 2020.

The auction site described it thus:

S. S. Van Dine. The Powwow Murder Case. A Philo Vance Story. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937. First edition, the only known copy of any printed portion of this unfinished novel. Octavo. viii, 1-4 pages. In the publisher's unusual binding of full black cloth, boards, stamped in red (the spine is so thin, that there is no stamping on the spine), with the usual format of text on the front board, but the rear board is stamped in two vertical lines in blind, with the intended layout for the spine stamped in red between the blind stamping. In the publisher's mock-up dust jacket, which had the intended layout of the front and rear covers as well as the spine (there isn't any text or artwork for the jacket flaps, which are blank). 

Here's what we know about the story, taken from the file card image on the dust jacket:

Barrett Farmer, 99 East 66th Street. Murder: Stabbed and thrown over Fort George cliff. Body found near north end of Harlem River Speedway. Sergt. Heath (Homicide Bureau) and District Attorney's office.

Wright had begun dictating the story in 1937. It was "presumably to involve mysticism and ritual as the cabala is mentioned in the early pages."* He reportedly only finished two or three chapters before lapsing into a period of writer's block.

This artifact sold for $2500 in 1981*, so you can imagine what it brought in 2020!


*from Alias S. S. Van Dine by John Loughery