Friday, February 23, 2024

Murder at Bratton Grange by John Rhode, 1929

This title was also published as The Davidson Case. It is Dr. Priestley #6.

About the author: John Rhode is one of the pseudonyms used by Cecil John Charles Street. He also wrote as Miles Burton.

Major characters:
  • Guy Davidson
  • Sir Hector Davidson, his cousin
  • Olga Watkins, Sir Hector's secretary
  • Frederick Cannon, Sir Hector's butler/chauffeur
  • Philip Lowry, Chief Designer
  • Tom White, van driver
  • Dr. --- Priestley
  • Harold Merefield, Priestley's secretary
  • Chief Inspector Hanslet, Scotland Yard
Locale: London and Bratton Grange

Synopsis: Sir Hector Davidson is the president of Davidson's, a London manufacturer of laboratory equipment. His cousin, Guy Davidson, was drummed out of the business so Hector could milk all the profits to himself. Hector gives notice to his chief designer, Philip Lowry, because of a patent condition which gave him 30% of the profits while he is employed.

Hector also has a taste for the ladies, making weekend visits to his country house at Bratton Grange with various women. He also makes unwanted advances to his secretary, Olga Watkins, who is the girlfriend of Lowry.

Hector dismisses Lowry early one afternoon, and once he is out of the way, packs up a crate with the valuable patterns of their product. He takes the box on the train to Bratton Grange. He obtains a ride from the station with Tom White, riding in the back of the van, sitting on the box. When the van arrives at Bratton Grange, Hector is found dead inside of a stab wound.

Guy  Davidson enlists the help of Dr. Priestley and his assistant Harold Merefield to investigate. It is a puzzle, Hector was alive at the start of the ride, but dead at the end - inside a closed van. And the box of valuable patterns is missing.

Review: Oh, this book was a lot of fun! I couldn't put this one down. It has a locked-room type puzzle (the van being the locked room), and a small cast of characters. I had a hunch the box was the key to the puzzle, and what I thought happened wasn't quite it. There were several possible explanations considered throughout the book, of course not of these were the solution.

Dr. Priestley is not too enthusiastic about the issue, and mostly stays at home grumbling while his assistant Harold Merefield runs around and does the leg work - in much the same mold as Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. 

The identity of the killer came as a big surprise with a clever workaround in court at the end. This is an excellent, clever, fast-paced book.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Murder in the Mews by Helen Reilly, 1931

Please note there is another book with this title by Agatha Christie (1937), being a collection of four Hercule Poirot stories.

About the author: Helen Reilly (1891 – 1962), was an American mystery writer known for a series of novels featuring Inspector Christopher McKee, head of the fictitious Manhattan Homicide Squad. She wrote mostly under her own  name but also under the pseudonym Kieran Abbey. Two of her daughters, Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen, also became published mystery writers.  (Wikipedia)

Major characters:
  • Inspector Christopher McKee, "The Scotchman"
  • Pete Hogarth, crime writer
  • Joan Fergusson, Pete's girlfriend
  • Hamilton Knox, the deceased
  • George Benchley, Knox's valet
  • Laurence "Larry" Tower, business editor of The Star
  • Milly Tower, his wife
  • Albert "Bertie" Fanning, Milly's brother
  • Mrs. Reginald Tower, Larry's mother
  • Miss Laura Tower, Larry's sister
  • --- Hollister, Miss Laura's fiancĂ©
  • Roger Paget, wealthy salt mine owner
  • Estelle, Baroness Rumbeau; Roger's sister
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Inspector Christopher McKee is called to investigate the finding of a body in a Rolls-Royce, left running on the street. He invites his friend, crime writer Pete Hogarth, to come along. The body is that of Hamilton Knox, owner of the Rolls-Royce, dead from a bullet wound.

Knox had last been at the home of his lover, Milly Tower (wife of Laurence "Larry" Tower). McKee and Hogarth go to the home, a small house converted from a stable in a mews between two rows of houses. They find Knox had been shot there, his body placed in the car, and driven to where it was found.

The motive is found to be a box of precious jewels which is now missing.

Review:  This book starts off well with a murder which is quickly investigated. I enjoyed the seat-of-the-pants forensics McKee used (using Hogarth as a prop) to determine bullet trajectories and the finding of the two bullets. The middle portion of the book dragged quite a bit and I did skim along a bit. Towards the end the action picked up as Milly found herself kept a prisoner and being tortured by an evil doctor for information.

It was a bit annoying that the author keeps introducing new characters right up to the end, and even minor walk-ons are named, so keeping track of names is a chore. Some of them pop in without any introduction, just a name appearing in the action with no clue who the person is.

Paget and Baroness are, we know, brother and sister, and somehow related to the Towers, but this is never defined.

I have one other book by this author, Murder on Angler's Island (1945) which I enjoyed much more. It came 14 years later after this one, and it seems her technique had much improved by that time; although the character count was still excessive.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Bellamy Trial by Frances Noyes Hart, 1927

About the author: Frances Newbold Noyes Hart (1890 – 1943) was an American writer whose short stories were published in Scribner's magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Ladies' Home Journal. During World War I, she served as a translator with the Navy and as a canteen worker in France. Hart became famous for Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bellamy Trial, which was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, published in book form, and later dramatized. (wikipedia)

Major characters:
  • Madeleine Bellamy, the victim
  • Stephen Bellamy, her husband
  • Susan Thorne Ives, Stephen's lover
  • Patrick Ives, Susan's husband
  • Anthony Carver, judge
  • Daniel Farr, prosecutor
  • Dudley Lambert, defense attorney
Locale: near New York City

Synopsis: We are at the opening of the murder trial of Susan Ives and Stephen Bellamy, both accused in the murder of Stephen's wife Madeleine Bellamy. We see the action through the eyes of two unnamed reporters: a young, inexperienced woman and an older, veteran crime reporter.

Once the jury is seated, the prosecutor Daniel Farr makes a long opening statement. A parade of witnesses establishes the fact that Stephen's wife Madeleine had gone to the Thorne estate's garden cottage in the night for a tryst with Patrick Ives and wound up stabbed to death. Both of their spouses are the prime suspects.  

Review: I immediately liked two things about this book. First, at the front is a comprehensive schedule of the trial, with all the characters identified. I referred to this page constantly. Second, the story is told from the point of view of a young newspaper writer who is covering her first trial, and is seated next to a veteran reporter who is filling her in on the background of the crime and court procedure. Neither one is named, which helps keep the focus on the trial. The procedural explanations given by the veteran reporter serve to inform the reader of what is happening.

The story is rigidly structured, each chapter comprises one day of the trial. 

Everything proceeds in a somber, quiet manner until witness Luigi Orsini takes the stand, and provides a welcome comic relief in his Chico Marx-like response to questions. This serves as an "intermission" of sorts.

Finally we hear a verdict. But that is not the end, as a few surprises await, which are not listed in the "program".

You will enjoy this book, especially if:
  • you read the Perry Mason books of Erle Stanley Gardner, and can't wait until the courtroom scene, this book is for you - it is all courtroom scene.
  • you enjoy the hard-to-find books by Nancy Barr Mavity, which feature courtroom trials as seen by newspaper reporters. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

The Saint in Pursuit by Leslie Charteris, 1970

About the author: Leslie Charteris (1907 – 1993), was a British-Chinese author of adventure fiction, as well as a screenwriter. He was best known for his many books chronicling the adventures of his charming hero Simon Templar, alias "The Saint". Charteris spent 55 years – 1928 to 1983 – as either writer of or custodian of Simon Templar's literary adventures, one of the longest uninterrupted spans of a single author in the history of mystery fiction, equalling that of Agatha Christie (from Wikipedia). 

Major characters:
  • "Hamilton", The Saint's anonymous government contact
  • Colonel Wade, Lisbon embassy
  • Major Robert Kinian, who died in 1945
  • Vicky Kinian, his daughter
  • Curt Jaeger, Nazi posing as a watch salesman
  • Freda Oliveiros, stewardess
  • Pedro, a killer for hire
  • Mischa Ruspine, Russian MVD agent
  • Boris Uzanov, Russian MVD agent
  • Simon Templar, The Saint
Locale: Lisbon, Portugal and Geneva, Switzerland

Synopsis: The Saint, Simon Templar, gets a call from a US government contact, "Hamilton". He wants Simon to go to Portugal to follow Vicky Kinian, age 25, arriving from Iowa. Her father, Major Robert Kinian, had died in World War II, and to her suprise left a letter to be delivered to her on her 25th birthday.

The letter tells her to retrieve something valuable that he hid away in Lisbon. She meets and old school friend, Freda Oliveiros, on the flight and they room together in Lisbon. Vicky is the object of interest of several people, including pushy salesman Curt Jaeger. Simon arrives and tries to convince her to accept his help and protection. Vicky, being skeptical, rejects all offers of help and seeks the object by herself; taking her to a deserted cemetery in the middle of the night.

Review: This is a different Saint story that the ones from his prime, it is more a spy novel. There are no appearances by Patricia Holm, Hoppy Uniatz, or even the Hirondel.

The story is both written and set in 1970 when there are still plenty of WWII veterans around, and Vicky has just turned 25 (although at one point she is described as 21, a continuity error).  Simon is using airplanes and a rented Volkswagen beetle to get around, a definite step down from his famous Hirondel of the 1930's.

It starts off slowly with Vicky taking her first airplane trip and meeting stewardess friend Freda. As the two travel, it takes on a Nancy Drew-like adventure for a while.

We are not told too much of the origin of the valuable object (which I won't reveal here), but it is puzzling the Russians are after it - since they were allies in World War II, not enemies. 

The location of the hiding place of the valuable object is pretty clever and a good choice if you want to stash something securely for decades. Overall, an enjoyable spy thriller.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

The Case of the Blonde Bonanza by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1962


Major characters:

  • Dianne Alder, the Blonde Bonanza
  • George Alder, her father, believed dead 14 years ago
  • Harrison T. Boring, Dianne's employer
  • George D. Winlock, a millionaire
  • Mrs. Winlock
  • Marvin Harvey Palmer, Winlock's stepson
  • Perry Mason, attorney
  • Paul Drake, P.I.
  • Sid Nye, P.I.
  • Steven "Moose" Dillard, P.I.

Locale: Bolero Beach and Los Angeles, California

Synopsis: Secretary Della Street is vacationing in Bolero Beach with her aunt, Mae Kirby. She becomes acquainted with "Blonde Bonanze" Dianne Alder, an attractive woman on a binge to gain weight quickly. Attorney Perry Mason is curious, and finds Alder has a contract with Harrison T. Boring, in which she is to gain certain weight in order to model some larger fashions. The contract has a curious stipulation that during the term of the contract, Dianne must share her income from all sources 50/50 with Boring. Mason is suspicious of that clause, thinking some is looking for Dianne to come into some money, and that the fashion reason is just a ruse.

Mason suspects Boring has turned to blackmail and has him followed to a cottage in a motor court. Mason's operative, "Moose" Dillard, gets a nearby cottage to keep watch, and observes a string of visitors to the cottage, including Dianne Alder. Later, Boring is found dead there, and Dianne becomes the prime suspect.

Review: [spoilers ahead] The double-identity person (George Winlock/George Alder) was obvious right from the start.  All the legwork of investigation is done by another agency, that of Sid Nye and his operative "Moose" Dillard. The courtroom scenes are enjoyable, but it is  disappointing that the identity of the killer and means of the death are a bit unfair to the reader.  One of the "good guys" is the killer, even though the "murder" turns out to be accidental. This must be why a different P.I. agency is used, so the good name of the Paul Drake agency is not besmirched.

Friday, February 2, 2024

The Curse of the Bronze Lamp by Carter Dickson, 1945

About the author: Carter Dickson is a pseudonym of John Dickson Carr, known for his locked room mysteries. 

Major characters:
  • Professor Gilray, scorpion bite victim
  • John Loring (Lord Severn)
  • Lady Helen Loring, Lord Severn's daughter
  • Christopher "Kit" Farrell, a lawyer, Helen's boyfriend
  • Sandy Robertson
  • Audrey Vane, Sandy's girlfriend
  • Alim Bey, Egyptian fortune teller
  • Leo Beaumont, American fortune teller
  • Benson, the butler
  • Elizabeth Pomfret, housekeeper
  • Sir Henry Merrivale, "H.M."
Locale: Egypt (briefly), then England

Synopsis: Professor Gilray, John Loring (Lord Severn), his daughter Lady Helen Loring, and Sandy Robertson are on an archeological expedition to Egypt, and retrieve many artifacts from a tomb. The locals believe they are cursed for doing so, and Gilray is bitten by a scorpion and dies. Lady Helen is given a small bronze lamp as a gift by the Egyptian government, which she announces she is taking back to Severn Hall in England. While travelling, she meets up with Sir Henry Merrivale. As they depart, Egyptian fortune teller Alim Bey prophesies that if she takes the lamp there, she will never reach her room at the hall.

Severn Hall has been closed for years, but is put into shape quickly under the direction of butler Benson and housekeeper Elizabeth Pomfret. The travelers arrive and Lady Helen, carrying the lamp, is the first in the door. When the others follow, they find the lamp on the floor, and Lady Helen missing.

The house is searched and she is not found. Benson shows an architect's book which testifies the house has no hidden rooms or secret passages. The house was surrounded by various workers who swear she did not leave the house. Then Lord Severn disappears in the same manner, again leaving the bronze lamp in his place.

Review:  This starts out with some comedy as H.M. has an unruly encounter with a taxi driver, which.   is enjoyable and not so long it detracts from the story. H.M is in the action right from the start. The search of the manor is well done, with workers staged around the outside who testify no one left the building.

I liked how the  secret room/passage possibility is ruled out right away by the architect's book which so testifies. That was a clever way to dismiss that possibility right from the start.

I had my own idea where Helen was, but of course, I was wrong. There are some red herrings dangled for possible hiding places. Her actual location was quite a surprise.

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Red Aces by Edgar Wallace, 1929

This book consists of three short stories featuring detective J.G. Reeder:
The Red Aces
Kennedy, the Con Man
The Case of Joe Attymar

This review is only of the first, The Red Aces.

Major characters:
  • George McKay
  • Kenneth McKay, his son
  • Margot Lynn, Kenneth's girlfriend, niece/secretary to Walter "Benny" Wentford
  • Walter "Benny" Wentford, Margot's uncle
  • Rufus Machfield, Kenneth's friend
  • Walter Enward, lawyer
  • Henry Green, Enward's clerk
  • Eric Kingfether, bank manager
  • Ena Burslem, a Woman of the World
  • J.G. Reeder, private detective
  • Constanble James Verity
Locale: England

Synopsis: Kenneth McKay is out in the countryside and spots his girlfriend, Margot Lynn, out with another man. She refuses to  introduce them, and soon McKay gets a 'Dear John' letter breaking off their relationship. McKay tells this to his friend Rufus Machfield, who reveals that he is deep in gambling debt, and his bank is missing some funds.

Lawyer Walter Enward and his clerk Henry Green are called out on a snowy night to the cottage of Walter "Benny" Wentford. On the way, they are stopped by Constable James Verity, standing in the road alongside a dead body. Enward identifies the body as Wentford. Private Detective J.G. Reeder comes on the scene, and goes to Wentford's nearby cottage to find Margot inside, awaiting her uncle's return. He also finds two red ace cards pinned to the door. Contable Verity cannot be located, and is later found dead alongside the road.

Review: This was my first J.G, Reeder story and it was enjoyable. It is jam-packed to fit a full length novel's share of plot and characters into 100 pages, so it is quite condensed. There are a lot of characters and inter-relationships to keep track of. For example, Margot is not only Wentford's secretary, she is also his niece. J.G. just seems to be everywhere at once. I was a bit confused as to his position, he is called a private detective at first, then a member of the Public Prosecutor's Office. 

Once the action stops, there is one final chapter, which is quite different from what came before. J.G. himself writes the last chapter, calmly providing a detailed synopsis of the action and tying up all the loose ends. I found this valuable, since I had lost track of a lot of the details along the way. 

Overall, the story reminded me of the Rex Stout triple-volumes, consisting of three short Nero Wolfe adventures. The length is just right for a one-evening read.