Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Penthouse Murders by Raymond Holden (1931)


About the author: Little is known (by me) about this author. Wikipedia has an article on author William P. Holden, but I am not convinced it is the same person; as the one in the article wrote books of poetry and music history, no fiction is mentioned.

Locale: New York City

Major characters:
  • Tappan Willett, wealthy New Yorker
  • Charles Corlear, his wealthy friend
  • George Harper, private investigator
  • Eliphalet Barnwell, found dead on the penthouse terrace
  • Julio, Barnwell's manservant, found dead inside the penthouse
  • Barbara Holger, last person to see to Barnwell alive
  • Rufus Polhemus, Barnwell's attorney

Synopsis: Two wealthy New York City buddies, Tappan Willett and Charles Corlear, live together summers in the city while their families head off to the luxurious suburban estates. One night they decide to go to a penthouse party of an acquaintance (Eliphalet Barnwell), and on the way pick up their P.I. friend George Harper. 

They arrive at Barnwell's penthouse. As they are going in, they meet a woman (Barbara Holger) on her way out. Once inside, they find Barnwell dead - stabbed - on the terrace. No one seems to be around. Harper heads out in pursuit of Holger, as she must have been the last one to see Barnwell alive. Willett and Corlear call the police, and while looking around, find Barnwell's manservant, Julio, alive and well, sleeping in his room. The police arrive. While they investigate, Julio is now found with a knife in him - dead. 

Barnwell's attorney, Rufus Polhemus, arrives for an appointment with Barnwell, unaware he is no longer living.

Harper follows Holger to her apartment. She attempts to escape but Harper finds her in the adjacent building. While in his custody, she sustains a minor gunshot wound also.


There are some issues with this book. 

  • Tappan Willett and Charles Corlear and two cardboard characters who are really not necessary to the plot, they only serve to introduce P.I. George Harper, who takes the plot forward. While Harper investigates, Willett and Corlear amuse themselves by instructing the police how to do their jobs. One of these characters could be easily cut, perhaps both.
  • There is only one female character to be found (but in her defense, she does have three identities!)
  • Some of the description is ... well ... you decide: "The unshaded kitchen globe, accustomed to casting its radiance upon flour-drifted meatballs, batter bowls, and dismembered vegetables, dropped a kind of shroud of pallor over the lovely face of Miss Barbara Holger, who was laid out like a large salmon on the linoleum."
  • Barbara, shot through the arm, calmly brushes it off and continue with life as usual.

This book had a great premise - a murder (Julio) occurring while the police are present, but no murderer to be found.

As the last few pages approached, I was skeptical all the loose ends could be wrapper up - there were too many outstanding: the coded message? who killed Barnwell? who killed Julio? how was it done with the police present? who shot Barbara? Why does she have three different identities?

The Barnwell murder is the primary puzzle, and the murderer is, indeed, revealed. We find the murderer used the old dodge (well, in 1931, it could have been a new dodge) of injuring himself following the murder, to make it appear he is an additional victim).

The big letdown is the Julio murder. At the end, this is brushed off with a speculation that someone came in the window and did it, then left. Sigh.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers (1933)


About the author:  See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:

Staff of Pym's Publicity:
  • Victor Dean, deceased from falling down the stairs
  • Death Bredon, the new copy writer
  • Other copy writers: Mr. Ingleby and Miss Meteyard
  • Copy Chiefs: Mr. Hankin and Mr. Armstrong
  • Mr. Pym, owner 
  • Mr. Willis
  • Mr. Tallboy, group manager for the Nutrax account
  • Assistants: Miss Rossiter and Miss Parton
  • Mr. Prout, photographer
  • Pamela Dean, the late Victor Dean's sister
  • Dian de Momerie, wealthy dilettante who runs with the party crowd
  • Major Tod Milligan, drug distributor
  • Inspector Charles Parker
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
Locale: England

Synopsis:  Pym's Publicity is a busy advertising agency with a chaotic staff. Between floors is an iron spiral staircase, which some have always considered unsafe. Copy writer Victor Dean has just fallen down these stairs and died as the story begins, and Death Bredon is coming in as his replacement. Bredon is curious about the incident, and finding a note from Dean suggesting something is fishy at Pym's, leads him to suspect murder. He seeks to learn about it, and strikes up a friendship with Dean's sister, Pamela. 

Through Pamela, Bredon is introducted to the drug party crowd of enchanting Dian de Momerie. Bredon attends a party in harlequin costume, and begins a teasing on-again, off-again relationship with de Momerie; always remaining in his costume to hide his identity. He becomes a legend, appearing without warning.

Bredon finds the connection between the party crowd and Pym's is the method of distributing drugs; which led to the murder of Dean, the man who knew too much.


A very nice page-turner, I did not mention Lord Peter in the synopsis as it would be a spoiler. 

The sudden revelation of the identity of Death Bredon came as a surprise to me, I should have seen it coming.

The chaotic activities at Pym's are sometimes hard to follow, with a parade of every employee challenging the reader to keep track of who's who. The descriptions show some of the true absurdities of corporate life. 

Much is made of the fact that Victor Dean did not relinquish his hold on a book during his fatal fall, yet this turned out to be a big red herring which never was brought up again.

The interplay of Bredon (as the harlequin) and Dian de Momerie is rather fairy-tale, especially the forest scene with him playing the pan pipes in a tree to Dian below. Dian becomes enchanted with this mysterious figure, reminding me of Luisa and the bandit El Gallo of The Fantasticks.

The chapter "Unexpected Conclusion of a Cricket Match" is a highly detailed play-by-play of the game, which didn't mean anything to me - not being familiar with the game - but the ending of the game did provide a plot element as a catalyst to wrap the story up.

The method the drug dealers use in dealing with security risks gets a bit repetitive, send them out on the sidewalk and a convenient truck jumps the sidewalk and runs over them (happens 3 times).

The denouement explains the involvement of Pym's and the drug trade, a clever little strategem involving the use of the advertisements themselves, a World War II -era espionage staple.

PS> If  you enjoy books set in advertising agencies, also try The Hand of Power by Edgar Wallace, which features Pawter's Publicity Services.

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The D.A. Draws a Circle by Erle Stanley Gardner (1939)


#3 of 9 in the Doug Selby series

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

Major characters:

  • Alphonse Baker Carr, "Old A.B.C.", shyster lawyer of choice for guilty parties
  • Rita Artrim, A.B.C.'s neighbor
  • James Artrim, Rita's husband; killed in car accident prior to story
  • Frank Artrim, Rita's disabled father-in-law
  • Abner Hendrix, Rita's father
  • Ellen Saxe, Frank's nurse
  • Peter Ribber; wanted by L.A. for larceny
  • Morton Taleman, the naked victim
  • Doug Selby, D.A.
  • Sheriff Rex Baldwin
  • Chief of Police Otto Larkin
  • Sylvia Martin, crime reporter for The Clarion

Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis: Madison City is alarmed when shyster L.A. lawyer Alphonse Baker Carr, "Old A.B.C.", buys a home in the Orange Heights section of town. His neighbor, Rita Artrim, asks D.A. Doug Selby what can be done about it. Nothing - he can buy a home here if he wants to, nothing illegal about it. 

The L.A. police contact Selby. They are looking for Peter Ribber, believed to be a client of Carr. He has a star tattoo on his arm. Shots are reported near Carr's house, police find a naked body in the barranca (ravine) between the Carr and Artrim homes, and the body has a star tattoo. It isn't Ribber, though, but one of his buddies Morton Taleman. He had been shot twice in the same spot, by different guns. The case becomes one of determining which shot killed him. Meanwhile, Frank Artrim, Rita's disabled father-in-law, goes missing - and blood is found in her basement.

Selby is convinced Carr is shielding Ribber, and Rita is hiding her father-in-law. Selby tracks odometer readings on their cars to find they are being driven similar miles - perhaps to a hideout. He draws circles on a map to try to find the hideout.

Review: Oh, the neighbors you find in the ritzy hill section: hard-drinking NIMBY Rita Artrim who detests her new lawyer neighbor, sleazy A.B. Carr. Carr actually comes across quite pleasant, just doing his job in the most courteous way he can. The sub-plot of the competition between county officials (Selby and Brandon) and city officials (Larkin) is nastier than the conflicts with Carr, and perhaps a peek into a true situation that exists out there. This type of conflict never shows in the Perry Mason series where law enforcement is one big happy family; and it adds to the tension and drama. 

Ribber is being held for trial and the jail visits by Selby to try to shake him up are quite funny. 

The gradual location of the hideout using circles on a map demonstrates the thoroughness of police work. There is a surprise at the end when the hideout is found.

Secretary Amorette Standish is back, popping in and out of the office - I am so used to the Della Street character I am always expecting something to develop with her, but no go. Selby would rather hang out with stylish Brenda Starr-like Sylvia Martin, who has no fear of chasing down bad guys in a tight skirt and high heels.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Terrace Suicide Mystery by Leonard Gribble (1929)

Babylon Revisited Rare Books

About the author: Leonard Gribble was not only a prolific crime writer, but also a prolific creator of pseudonyms ( Sterry BrowningLeo GrexLouis GreyPiers MarlowDexter MuirBruce Sanders; and Landon Grant ), all of which were definite improvements upon his birth name! See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Baronet Sir Giles Gillespie, dead as the story opens
  • Sir Royston "Roy" Gillespie, his son
  • Lionel Gillespie, Giles' brother, rumored to be dead
  • Miss Paula Dane, Gile's niece and ward, Lionel's fiancée
  • Richard Thorne, the butler
  • Anthony Slade, Dept. X-2, New Scotland Yard
  • Inspector Collins, county police
  • Albert Charles Worthy, a.k.a. "The Ferret"
  • Mick, a henchman 
  • The mysterious masked woman
Locale: Sudley Abbott, England

Synopsis: Baronet Sir Giles Gillespie had brought home a gruesome souvenir, an assembly of 100 sharp iron points, which he installed on the top of his library's terrace wall as a fun decoration. One morning he is found to have apparently fallen from the window onto the spikes and become impaled. Two, yes two, suicide notes are found, one of which was mailed to detective Anthony Slade of Scotland Yard. Giles' son, Sir Royston, arrives on the scene.

Anthony Slade arrives on the scene, and suspects murder. This is strengthened by the discovery of a perfumed (!) blackmail demand letter. He and county Inspector Collins compare notes but cannot agree on what happened. Slade finds ex-con "The Ferret" lurking about, and follows him to a vacant farmhouse where he observes a meeting between The Ferret, henchman Mick, and a mysterious woman in an evening gown and wearing a black velvet mask. The Ferret and Mick depart. Slade and Mystery Woman engage in a long repartee at mutual gunpoint. Royston's finacée, Paula Dane, is kidnapped.

Review: Anthony Slade is a hyper detective who alternates between long sessions of deep thought and jumping into various adventures without regarding the consequencesSlade has this surprising (and annoying) habit of producing evidence which has not been revealed to the reader, a bit disconcerting when these items suddenly pop into the story (a violation of Fair Play Rule #8: – “The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.”). For example, he is certain Gillespie was strangled to death prior to the impalement, but how does he know?

Some elements are quite outrageous but fun: a perfumed blackmail letter, and a Mystery Woman in full evening gown and black mask in a deserted farmhouse!

Overall, I was hot and cold on this story. Most of it is reminiscent of an old pulp thriller with lots of car chases, people tied up, lights going out, and random shooting. I was expecting Slade to come up with a gun in each hand. Towards the end, it improved, and the denouement revealed an unexpected solution, worthy of Agatha Christie.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers (1927)


Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. - Hebrews 12:1

About the author:  See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:

  • Inspector Charles Parker
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Gerald Wimsey, the Duke of Denver
  • Lady Mary Wimsey, their sister, engaged to...
  • Captain Denis Cathcart, the victim
  • Miss Lydia Cathcart, Denis' aunt
  • James Fleming, Cathcart's manservant
  • Mervyn Bunter, Lord Peter's butler
  • George Goyles
  • Hon. Frederick Arbuthnot
  • Col. & Mrs. Marchbanks
  • Mr. & Mrs. Pettigrew-Robinson
  • The Dowager Duchess of Denver, Lord Peter's mother
  • Farmer Grimethorpe, who will loose the dogs on you if you look at his wife


Synopsis: Lord Peter Wimsey is on holiday along with faithful butler, the Archie Goodwin-like Mervyn Bunter. They suddenly see news in the paper that his brother, Gerald Wimsey, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested on suspicion of murder. It seems he was found crouching over the dead body of Captain Denis Cathcart - who was engaged to Lady Mary Wimsey (Peter and Gerald's sister). Even worse, they had been seen in an argument earlier in the evening. No, wait, it gets even more worse - Gerald's gun is found beside the body. An expensive jeweled cat pin is found nearby.

There is a ray of hope - footprints are found leading away from the crime scene, to marks where a motorcycle/sidecar combo has departed. Lord Peter manages to track down the maker of the footprints in an underground socialist pub, and winds up with a bullet in his shoulder for his efforts. Then he and Bunter follow clues across a soupy moor - at night - in the fog - and fall into a pit of quicksand. They are rescued, and brought to a nearby hut of Farmer Grimethorpe, who has previously loosed the dogs on Wimsey. It seems Grimethorpe is intensly jealous of anyone who looks at, or speaks to, his stunning wife.

Gerald comes up to trial with all the pomp required of a peer trial. Things quickly start going downhill in the courtroom, for as every lawyer learns of day one of law school: Never ask a witness a question if you do not already know how they will answer!

Review: A very enjoyable and humorous Wimsey. Much ado is spent sorting out different versions of who-did-what-when in the house. The quick fact finding trip to Paris is fun. The adventure of falling into the bog on moor is very Sherlock Holmes-ish, and the rescue to the Grimethorpe farm turns the key in finding out what really happened. The buildup to the elaborate trial is fun with all its associated pageantry, and the trial itself falls apart quickly in Erle Stanley Gardner fashion as hapless lawyers attempt, unsuccessfully, to control unruly witnesses who blurt out all sorts of damaging details. The dangling loose end of the tragic Grimethorpe couple is resolved nicely at the very end. Unfortunately, the Dowager Duchess only makes one brief appearance in the story. 

Note: A floor plan of the house is provided for the reader to follow along, and the Gun Room is mislabelled as "Gin Room", which I admit would be a lot more fun.

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The D.A. Holds a Candle by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1938


#2 of 9 in the Doug Selby series

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

Major characters:

  • Emil Watkins, ill-fated hitchhiker
  • Ross Blaine, young man who forged one check and likes to gamble
  • George Stapleton, Ross' well-to-do friend
  • Inez Stapleton, his sister
  • Robert Gleason, cabin boy #1
  • Tom Cuttings,cabin boy #2
  • --- Needham, retired broker
  • Carlo Handley, professional gambler
  • Audrey Prestone, cabin girl #1
  • Monette Lambert, cabin girl #2
  • Oscar Triggs, owner of the Palm Thatch roadhouse
  • Madge Trent, the hostess at the Palm Thatch
  • Doug Selby, D.A.
  • Sheriff Rex Baldwin
  • Chief of Police Otto Larkin
  • Sylvia Martin, crime reporter for The Clarion

Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis: The book opens with D. A. Doug Selby and Sheriff Rex Brandon giving a young man, Ross Blaine, a friendly talking-to regarding a bad check he passed. Then Selby and Brandon head to The Palm Thatch roadhouse to warn the owner, Oscar Triggs, to cut out the backroom gambling there. On the way they stop and check on a hitchhiker, Emil Watkins. That night Selby is called to look at an unattended death at the Keystone Auto Camp. The deceased turns out to be Watkins, the cause apparently is carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective heater. Two girls in an adjacent cabin, Audrey Preston and Monette Lambert, tell them their dates - Robert Gleason and Tom Cuttings - who rented that cabin - are at the Palm Thatch. 

Selby and Brandon suspect there is more to the death than appears. They go to the Palm Thatch to find a game in progress, with Ross Blaine, George Stapleton, and others. The hostess, Madge Trent, has disappeared, and the focus turns to the search for her. Selby teams up with reporter Sylvia Martin to find Trent.

Review: Right away we are in familiar Erle Stanley Gardner territory: a roadhouse with gambling in the back room, a slinky blonde hostess, some fast cars, and a dead body in a cabin at a motor court. D.A. Selby and Rex Brandon throw their weight around without the niceties such as search warrants. This is a good page-turner, and like many Gardners, best to devour in one or two sittings before you start losing track of who's who. The episode of the L.A. police on a gambling raid is quite enjoyable, with a specialized team who have done it before making quick work of the gambling joint. A sledgehammer is put to good use.

Selby's secretary from the first book, appears briefly (unnamed) once in this book. However, Inez Stapleton now chums around with Selby, and the book ends on a confrontational note, with her entering law school and vowing to meet Selby again, this time as a defense attorney; foreshadowing a later title in the series. Selby remains cozy with Sylvia Martin.

(The candle of the title turns out to be just a metaphorical candle).

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Call the Yard! by Hugh Clevely, 1930

First Place books
About the author: Hugh Clevely (1898-1963), who wrote also under the pseudonym of Tod Claymore, was born in Bristol, England. He obtained a pilot's license, was active in the RAF and finished the war as wing-commander. Clevely was one of the dozens of authors who wrote for the story paper The Thriller in the 1930s. Clevely wrote more than thirty titles for this influential paper and in addition several novels with serial characters, among them John Martinson “the Gang-Smasher" and Inspector Williams of Scotland Yard. As Tod Claymore, he wrote another nine mysteries, all with a series character named Tod Claymore. After the war Clevely contributed about a dozen titles to the hugely popular Sexton Blake series. (Condensed from this bio at gadetection.com)

Major characters:
  • Philip Cavanagh, doctor and attorney; our protagonist
  • Corinna Lesley, artist, his love interest
  • Valerie Morris, a lodger of Corinna Lesley
  • Roland Piquar,  a lodger of Corinna Lesley
  • Ralph Montgomery Vincent, a flabby bohemian art collector
  • Stephen Tracey, friend of Philip Cavanagh
  • Jimmy McCrow, dancer and lounge lizard
  • Garbrielle Fleur (dead prior to the story)
  • Chief Inspector Williams
Locale: England

Synopsis: Philip Cavanagh is a medical doctor and attorney, practicing only law. He has a casual friendship with artist Corinna Lesley. Corinna lets a flat and takes in two lodgers: Valerie Morris (heroin addict and party girl) and Roland Piquar (checkered past).

No sooner has Piquar moved in when he makes a pass at Corinna. She rebuffs him and retreats to her room. When she comes out again, she finds him stabbed in the hallway. She tries to treat him and calls Philip Cavanagh for help, who determines he is dead. She claims she didn't kill him, but there was no one else in the apartment.

A photo found in his wallet of Garbrielle Fleur bears a family resemblance, she had died previously from a heroin overdose. Cavanagh takes matters into his own hands to solve the murder and prove Corinna's innocence. This leads him to the seedy Apollo Club and the world of drug dealers.

Review: This was a disappointment. It was almost a DNF (Did Not Finish), but halfway through I moved to skim mode to see how the almost-locked-room murder was done.

Cavanagh is a rough and tumble character, clearly borrowed from Clevely's writings for the 1930's pulp magazines; and is not believable. His solution to every issue is to beat someone up, kidnap them, toss them out of moving vehicles, and force information out of them - not in line with either of his alleged professions. 

The romantic sub-plot between him and Corinna shows what a cad he really is. He tricks her into accepting his marriage proposal. Then he invites her to his place - not for a romantic interlude - but so she can prepare his dinner.

Oh, yes, the murder ... the murderer is revealed at the end (no surprise there), but the specifics are not mentioned. How the murderer got in and did the deed remains a mystery.