Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Glass Village by Ellery Queen, 1954



About the author: Ellery Queen is a crime fiction pseudonym created in 1929 by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, and later used by other authors under Dannay and Lee's supervision. Dannay and Lee's main fictional character, whom they also named Ellery Queen, is a mystery writer in New York City who helps his police inspector father solve baffling murders. (from Wikipedia - full article). 

Major characters:
  • Judge Lewis Shinn
  • Johnny Shinn,  the Judge's distant cousin
  • Laban Hemus, a local farm hand, killed in a fight Joe Gonzoli
  • Joe Gonzoli, itinerant farm worker who killed Laban
  • "Aunt" Fanny Adams, elderly artist
  • Ferriss Adams, her grand-nephew
  • Josef Kowalczyk, itinerant 
  • Judge Andrew Webster
  • Roger Casavant, art expert
Locale: Shinn Corners, somewhere in rural New England

Synopsis: New Yorker Johnny Shinn comes to visit his distant cousin, Judge Lewis Shinn. The Judge is the local 'head' of rural Shinn Corner, a small village slowly fading away in the shadow of two larger nearby towns (Comfort and Cudbury). He is preparing to give his traditional Fourth of July oration on the town square.

The Judge tells Johnny of the long-standing animosity between the dwindling local 'Puritans' and outsiders. Years ago, the situation escalated when farm hand Laban Hemus found his girlfriend, Adaline Greave, lying with itinerant farm worker Joe Gonzoli in the hay loft. Enraged, Laban went for Joe with a pitchfork. Joe replied with a knife, killing Laban. The townsfolk wanted vengeance on Joe for killing their native son, but it went to trial and he was acquitted on self-defense.

Now an itinerant farm worker, Josef Kowalczyk, has visited artist "Aunt" Fanny Adams, spillting her firewood in exchange for a meal. When he leaves, she is found dead; and the outrage against outsiders grows. Kowalczyk is brought to a sham trial (intended to calm the locals). The underlying fear is that if he is innocent, one of their own imust be guilty.

Review: The opening is a poignant story of a fading small town, and Ellery Queen describes small town life like no other. My edition has a sketch map of the town and the writer takes us through each street and building introducing the characters.

There is no Ellery Queen, detective in the story. That role is played by Judge Shinn and Johnny Shinn. Their plan to calm the locals and find the killer is clever, although frought with danger. The process of elimination to find the killer is suspenseful, even though it ultimately fails to do so. The answer is found when an outside art expert arrives on the scene.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Case of the Baited Hook by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1940


Babylon Revisited Rare Books

About the author: Erle Stanley Gardner (1889 – 1970) was an American lawyer and author. He is best known for the Perry Mason series of detective storiesThe best-selling American author of the 20th century at the time of his death, Gardner also published under numerous pseudonyms, including A.A. Fair, Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Les Tillray and Robert Parr. (wikipedia)

Major characters:
  • Robert Peltham, architect and hospital trustee
  • Abigail E. Tump
  • Byrl Gailord, adoptee from Russia
  • Albert Tidings, hospital trustee
  • Nadine Holmes, Albert's estranged wife, actress
  • Parker C. Stell, hospital trustee
  • Adelle Hastings, who endowed Hastings Memorial Hospital
  • Carl Mattern, Tiding's secretary
Locale: Los Angeles

Synopsis: Act 1: Robert Peltham, architect, hires Perry Mason to protect the interests of a mystery woman, who comes to his office masked. He cannot explain why, only that he expects to be exposed in something scandalous. He pays a retainer and then cuts a $10,000 bill in half, giving Mason half and the woman half; so that she can prove her identity to Mason in the future if need be.

Act 2: Abigial Tump seeks to hire Mason. She had brought a refugee girl out of Russia, and through an agency the child (Byrl) was placed with Frank and Marjorie Gailord. Byrl took the Gailord name as her own. Frank and Marjorie have passed away, and Byrl, now of age, has income from a trust they established. The trustee is Albert Tidings. Abigail claims Tidings is a crook, and wants Mason to have the courts replace him with a different trustee.

Act 3: A financial scandal erupts at Hastings Memorial Hospital. An audit is ordered, and the three trustees appear to mixed up in the trouble. The trustees are Robert Peltham, Albert Tidings, and Parker C. Stell. The hospital is endowed by wealthy Adelle Hastings, who tells Mason that Stell is the only honest one of the trustees. Mason already knows Peltham. He goes to find Tidings, and walks into his estranged wife's house to find him dead.

Review: Being one of the early Mason titles, this is back when he was directly descended from the pulps - not hesitating to rough people up, perform illegal searches, and manufacture and manipulate 'evidence'. 

There is no Lt. Tragg, but Sgt. Holcomb provides a lot of conflict for Mason.

It was a bit involved following the Gailord family line. Here is the sequence:
  1. Frank and Marjorie Gailord were the original adoptive parents of Byrl Gailord
  2. Frank died.
  3. Marjorie remarried (her second) to Albert Tidings
  4. Marjorie died.
  5. Tidings remarried (his second) to Nadine Holmes
  6. They became separated.
  7. Tidings found dead in Nadine's home.
The big surprise of the book was the lack of a courtroom scene! The only thing remotely like it is a brief meeting in the D.A.'s office. 

If you like tough-guy Mason, this is him before he got more desk-bound and mellow.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Case Has Altered by Martha Grimes, 1997


About the author: This is #14 of 25 books featuring Richard Jury. See this Wikipedia article for biography and list of the 25 Richard Jury books. Click this Martha Grimes label to see all my reviews of this series.

Major characters:
  • Max Owen, master of Fengate
  • Grace Owen, his wife
  • Jack Price, their nephew; a sculptor
  • Verna Dunn, Max's first wife, an actress, victim #1
  • Dorcas Reese, the Owens' maid, victim #2
  • Lady Jennifer Kennington, Verna;'s cousin and the prime suspect in her death 
  • Annie Suggins, the Owens' cook
  • Burt Suggins, the Owen's handyman, husband of Annie
  • Major Linus Parker, the Owens' neighbor
  • Peter Emery, Parker's groundskeeper
  • Zel, Emery;s 10-year old niece
  • Inspector Arthur Bannen, Lincolnshire police
  • Superintendent Richard Jury, of Scotland Yard
  • Melrose Plant, his friend
Locale: the Lincolnshire Fens

Synopsis: Inspector Arthur Bannen of the Lincolnshire police has two murders on his hands. The first was Verna Dunn, actress, who was shot while visiting her ex-husband Max Owen. She was last seen alive arguing with her cousin, Lady Jennifer Kennington. The second was the Owen's maid and cook's assistant, young Dorcas Reese; found floating in the waters of the nearby visitor's center for the Lincolnshire fens. 

Superintendent Richard Jury is interested as widowed Lady Kennington is a friend of his (and possible love interest). Lady Kennington is the prime suspect in Verna's death. Jury gets friend Melrose Plant to visit the Owens in the guise of an antiques appraiser, of which Plant knows nothing - but is coached by antique dealer Marshall Trueblood. 

Melrose circulates among the locals, and his most promising lead is Zel, a 10-year old girl who seems to know more than she reveals. She is the niece of Peter Emery, the blind groundskeeper for the Owen's neighbor, Major Linus Parker.

Review: This is one of the best Jury novels thus far. The two deaths have occurred just prior to the story, and the tension builds throughout. The murderer was a complete mystery to me - although Grimes plays strictly fair with the reader. The actual reveal only occurs in the final pages which left me wondering how could I not have seen it?

The characters are quite believable, and as usual, there is a young girl (Zel) who has a starring role. The only dud character is Lady Jenny Kennington herself, who has minimal involvement and is usually offstage. She is a cardboard cutout propped up here and there when needed. 

There is a lot of comic relief in two subplots:

1. Aunt Agatha taking local Ada Crisp to court over a chamber pot incident. We get to see two parallel court cases progress in alternating chapters: Lady Kennington for murder (serious), and Ada Crisp for leaving a chamber pot on the sidewalk where Aunt Agatha would step in it (amusing). We get to see flamboyant Marshall Trueblood in a new role, as an amateur defense attorney.

2. Melrose Plant gets talked into pretending to be an antiques appraiser in order to infiltrate the Owen household. He gets a crash course in antiques from Marshall Trueblood, and the fun begins when he enters the house and finds his knowledge quite inadequate.

As usual, reading the series in order is recommended, as various past incidents, like victims, are always floating to the surface.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Best 'Thinking Machine' Detective Stories by Jacques Futrelle


About the author: Jacques Heath Futrelle (1875 – 1912) was an American journalist and mystery writer. He is best known for writing short detective stories featuring Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, also known as "The Thinking Machine" for his use of logic. Returning from Europe aboard the RMS Titanic, Futrelle, a first-class passenger, refused to board a lifeboat, insisting his wife Lily do so instead, to the point of forcing her in. She remembered the last she saw of him: he was smoking a cigarette on deck with John Jacob Astor IV. He perished in the Atlantic and his body was never found. (wikipedia

Series character: Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, The Thinking Machine; and sidekick newspaper reporter Hutchinson Hatch.

The Problem of Cell 13: The Thinking Machine claims he can escape from a prison cell in one week's time, and his friends put him up to it. He is locked in Cell 13 of death row and treated just as any other prisoner, and proceeds to "think" his way out.

The Crystal Gazer: Howard Varick is interested in the occult, and especially his friend,  Adhem Singh. Singh spends his time in a dark closet, gazing into his crystal ball. One day he sees a vision of Varick being murdered, and shows the vision to a terrified Varick. Varick consults The Thinking Machine to see if there is a way his murder can be prevented.

The Scarlet Thread: Weldon Henley has an apartment in Boston's Back Bay. He likes the old-fashioned gas lighting, but lately his night light has been going out while he is asleep, allowing unburned gas to permeate the apartment, a definite health risk. He is worried someone is trying to kill him this way, when another tenant dies from the same cause.

The Flaming Phantom: Ernest Weston starts to rehab the old family mansion, but he and others are scared away by an appartition of a "flaming phantom" that appears at night. Hutchinson Hatch and The Thinking Machine investigate.

The Problem of the Stolen Rubens: Art Collector Matthew Kale allows his friend Jules de Lesseps to paint a copy of his Whistler. In the process, Kale's priceless Rubens painting disappears. The authorities locate it, but cannot explain how it was done. The Thinking Machine provides the explanation.

The Missing Necklace: A known thief has made off with a precious necklace, but an exhaustive search cannot locate it. The Thinking Machine reasons how it was done, and where it went.

The Phantom Motor: A speeding car enters a stretch of road observed by a policeman at either end, yet never emerges. 

(Mar 11 2023 - reading now, please check back)


The good: Cell 13 is always a good read. I thought I figured how the Stolen Rubens switcheroo was done, but I was wrong. The solution was surprising, although it requires some specialized knowledge about art. The Phantom Motor is a fun episode and a quick read.

The not-so-good: The Scarlet Thread was lacking both in motive and execution. The Flaming Phantom was an obvious setup from the start, the description of the home's interior gave it away.

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Case of the Spurious Spinster by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1961


Major characters:
  • Amelia Corning, wheelchair-bound primary stockholder of Corning Mining
  • Endicott Campbell, manager of Corning Mining
  • Carleton Campbell, his 7-year old son
  • Elizabeth Dow, Carleton's governess
  • Sue Fisher, his secretary
  • Ken Lowry, manager of the Mojave Monarch mine
  • Sophia Elliott, Amelia's sister
  • Alfredo Gomez, South American agent for Corning Mining
  • Cindy Hastings, a nurse
Locale: Los Angeles and the nearby desert region

Synopsis: Secretary Sue Fisher is working on a Saturday to prepare for the visit of the Corning Mining's principal stockholder, Amelia Corning. She is typing reports for her boss, manager Endicott Campbell; some of which deal with the frenzied activities at their Mojave Monarch mine.  Endicott has a 7-year old son, Carleton Campbell, who drops in with his governess, Elizabeth Dow. Carleton is holding a tied-up shoebox he took from his father. Sue peeks inside to find it full of 100-dollar bills. Shocked at this discovery, she locks the box in the office safe for safekeeping.

Sue takes a ride out to look at the Mojave Monarch mine, and is shocked to find it abandoned with no sign of activity, just being cared for by local manager Ken Lowry.

Amelia Corning arrives from South America - in her wheelchair - sooner than expected. Endicott cannot be located, and she has Sue provide her records from the office which she removes to her hotel. Everything looks fishy, and Sue hires Perry Mason to protect her interests. 

Amelia Corning checks herself out of the hotel and disappears with the records. Then a second Amelia - apparently the real one - arrives. Endicott is enraged that Sue let a fake Amelia run off with the records, and now the box of cash is missing too.

Mason goes looking for Sue Fisher - to find her returning home, wearing men's clothing. She had been out in a rented car, and when Mason follows her trail, finds a dead body instead.

Review: This is, as usual, a fast moving Mason story. It was easy to follow, as the cast of characters is small. Gardner is writing of his favorite environment - mining activities in the desert. We don't spend a lot of time in the desert - just a quick look-see. The victim (there is only one) was a surprise to me. 

Gardner sets us up with a couple of easy suspects - but the joke is on the reader. They disappear as soon as they appear, and the real murderer doesn't appear in the book until near the end - unfair to the reader.

A discontinuity: Everyone thinks Amelia Corning has made off with the shoebox full of cash when no one was looking - but how could she? It was locked in the safe before she even arrived. 

Pro tip: Gardner never makes a woman in nylons and high heels the murderer - but a woman wearing flats? Danger!  

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Fourth Side of the Triangle by Ellery Queen, 1965


About the author: Avram Davidson ghost-wrote this title, from an outline by  
Frederic Dannay.
Major characters:
  • Dane McKell, aspiring writer
  • Ashton McKell, his father; a.k.a. Dr. Stone
  • Lutetia McKell, his mother
  • Judy Walsh, Ashton's secretary
  • Sheila Grey, the other woman
  • "Aunt" Sarah Vernier, Dane's godmother
  • Ramon Alvarez, chauffeur
Locale: New York City

Synopsis:  Wealthy Ashton and Lutetia McKell live in a palatial New York apartment. Their son, Dane McKell, is more interested in being a writer than following in his father's business footsteps, but has yet to be successful at it. 

There is a sudden upset when Lutetia, sensing Ashton is becoming distant, asks what is wrong; and Ashton reveals there is "another woman". Lutetia takes this in stride, and focuses on being the obedient wife and avoiding any sniff of scandal in society, and in their church.

Dane feels it is his duty to break up this illicit romance, but doesn't know the identity of the other woman. He follows his father to an assignation to learn the woman is fashion designer Sheila Grey, and she lives in the penthouse of the same apartment building. She is young - about the same age as Dane. Since Ashton does not want to be recognized visiting her, he assumes a disguise as "Dr. Stone", even to carrying a physician's bag.

Dane sees Sheila in the guise of researching her industry for his book. He gradually falls in love with her, and when she rejects his marriage proposal, he attempts to strangle her. He leaves, and in the interval before Ashton arrives, Sheila is shot by a person unknown.


Review: This book is written in four chapters, each named for a "side of the triangle".

Chapter 1, "Sheila", moves right along as we follow Dave discovering his father's elaborate disguise and the other woman's identity. It opens with some historical McKell family background which fleshes out the family characters nicely and helps the reader understand their Victorian background, and ends with Sheila's murder.

Chapter 2, "Ashton" covers the arrest of Ashton for the murder.

Chapter 3, "Lutetia" covers her arrest for the murder, following Ashton's acquital.

Chapter 4, "Dane" leads us to the murderer, with a nice red herring episode, following Lutetia's acquital. Not too many possibilities left!

This book follows a typical Queen methodical formula of chapters, and also includes a solution which involves solving a formula left behind by the deceased. I had the murderer all picked out but on the last pages I found I was wrong. 

A nice aspect of this story is the limited cast of characters. It is never difficult to keep track of who is who. Another unique aspect is that Ellery solves the case from his hospital bed (following breaking both legs skiing).

I was a bit skeptical that this ghost-written title could stand up to the Queen reputation, but it does easily. 

Thursday, February 9, 2023

The Camera Clue by George Harmon Coxe, 1937


This is Kent Murdock #3.

About the author: George Harmon Coxe (1902-1984) began writing in the nickel and dime pulps for pennies a word. He was a particularly prolific author, writing a total of 63 novels, his last published in 1975. The Mystery Writers of America named him a Grand Master in 1964. (condensed from fantastic fiction)

Major characters:
  • Kent Murdock, news photographer
  • Joyce Murdock, his wife
  • Nora Pendleton, Joyce's friend
  • Dana Pendleton, Nora's father
  • Jerry Carter, gossip columnist and blackmailer
  • Johnny Gowen, Kent's associate photographer
  • Lew Novak, cheating private detective
  • Gordon Thorndike, cheating socialite
  • Wilfred Witherbee, an embezzler
  • Robert Ostrum, a.k.a. George Brown
Locale: Boston

Synopsis: Newspaper photographer Kent Murdock comes home to find his wife's friend, Nora Pendleton. She is upset and reveals she has just shot a man, columnist Jerry Carter, who has been blackmailing her. Kent's wife, Joyce, urges Kent to help her out. Kent goes for a look-see. In front of Carter's office building, Kent first sees a man on stilts wearing an advertising sandwich board followed by a troop of kids. Sensing a human interest photo, Kent takes a photo of the scene, with several other passers-by in the background.

Kent enters the building and  finds the body as advertised, but Nora's gun is nowhere to be found. He takes photos of the body and scene. Nora finds the gun - in her father (Dana Pendleton)'s drawer, in his attempt to cover the murder up.

Kent returns to his office to have the photos developed. Soon a number of people show up wanting to get the photo of the sandwich-board man. It seems they were in the background of the photo and don't want it published. Things get pushy and someone slugs Kent's associate, Johnny Gowan, who dies.

Kent now has two goals: exonerate Nora, and avenge the death of Johnny Gowan.

Review: This one takes a great deal of suspension-of-disbelief. There is Kent's rush into a murder scene without notifying the police, there is the buddy-buddy relationship between them, and there is the crowd of cheaters, crooks, gamblers and embezzlers who just happen to wind up in the background of an innocuous photo. 

That said, this is a nonstop not-quite-hardboiled action book with lots of action, a cast straight out of Guys and Dolls, and provocative descriptions of the dames involved. Repeated recitations of the list of possible suspects should give the reader a clue that the murderer is "none of the above".

I enjoyed the specific descriptions of the streets of Boston (being familiar with them first-hand), and was surprised how little has changed from 1937 to today.

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