Monday, May 25, 2020

A Toast to Tomorrow by Manning Coles (1941)

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also published as Pray Silence.

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:




Synopsis:

Review: This is the second Hambledon book, the sequel to Drink to Yesterday.

May 25: now reading  - please check back.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Drink to Yesterday by Manning Coles (1941)

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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:


  • Michael Kingston, a.k.a. Bill Saunders, a.k.a Dirk Brandt
  • Diane, his wife
  • Tommy Hambledon, a.k.a. Hendrik Brandt
  • Dixon Ogilvie, Michael's school chum
  • Professor Amtenbrink, retired German scientist
  • Max von Bodenheim, German Intelligence
  • Denton, a.k.a. Ludwig Wolff
  • Kaspar Bluehm, a German
  • Marie Bluehm, his sister
Locale: France and Germany

Synopsis: Michael Kingston, underage, assumes the fake identity of Bill Saunders in order to join the British military. He is seen as a good prospect for intelligence work, and comes under the wing of Tommy Hambledon. 

They team up, assuming the identities of Hendrik Brandt and his nephew Dirk. As Dirk Brandt, he infiltrates German intelligence, cultivating a friendship with Max von Bodenheim.

First they investigate whether retired professor Amtenbrink is involved in a German plot to drop cholera germs into England's water supplies.

Dirk manages to be sent to Ahlhorn (by the Germans) as a civilian security agent, where Zeppelins are being constructed. Dirk sabotages the Zeppelins with a fire, and is discovered to be a British agent.

When suspicions fall on them, they arrange to be picked up at sea at night - Kingston makes it but Hambledon appears lost at sea.

Kingston (as Dirk) returns to Germany, this time with agent Denton, who assumes the identity Ludwig Wolff.

Kingston matures through his adventures, and begins to regret marrying Diane; waiting at home for him.

Review:

This is the first Tommy Hambledon novel, however, the focus is not on him - but his protegé Michael Kingston. This is a not a slick sexy James Bond spy novel, it is more like a police procedural showing the not-always-exciting steps in intelligence work. It is somber at times, especially as it nears the end. They make mistakes and feel regret for them.


The first chapter is really the end of the story - chapters two forward are told in flashback. 

Although I really enjoy the later Hambledons which are much lighter and funnier, it is good to see the genesis of the Hambledon story. 

The sequel to this book is A Toast to Tomorrow, a.p.a. Pray Silence. 


Sunday, May 17, 2020

The D.A. Takes a Chance by Erle Stanley Gardner (1948)


#8 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:
  • Jim Melvin, inventor/salesman of a new parking meter
  • Paula Melvin, his wife
  • Doris Kane, Paula's mother
  • Eve Dawson, a.k.a. Eve Hollenberg, aspiring actress
  • Eleanor "Babe" Harlan, Eve's roommate
  • Milton Granby
  • Hudson Parlin, investment broker; owner of the parking meter patent
  • Alphonse Baker Carr, "Old A.B.C"
  • Doug Selby, District Attorney
  • Rex Brandon, Sheriff
  • Sylvia Martin, reporter for The Clarion
Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis: Doris Kane gets concerned after her just-married daughter, Paula Melvin, stops responding to her calls and letters. She sets out for Madison City to see what is going on, and finds Paul's house vacant, newspapers piling up on the step. She finds a key in the mailbox, and lets herself in to snoop. The house is dusty, with cigarette butts and empty glasses around, and in one bedroom she finds bloodstains on the bed and in the adjoining bathroom.

Doris appeals to Doug Selby. He and Sheriff Rex Brandon and Doris return to the house - without a warrant - and surprise - everything has been cleaned up. 

After a tip, Paula and her husband, Jim Melvin, are found occupying a house in neighboring La Salidas. They invite Doris to stay but don't say anything about why they are in the wrong house.The house comes with a guest - aspiring actress Eve Dawson. Doris enters Eve's room to find her dead, stabbed. Her body also has evidence of a prior gunshot wound.

Review: For once, Doug Selby stays a step ahead of old A.B. Carr. Every time Selby encounters a Carr setup, he immediately recognizes it for what it is. I am even starting to like A.B. a bit now, his presenting a duplicate knife to Selby seems to be with the best intentions; and he and I share several characteristics (doesn't like to go out at night, doesn't drive fast, has a nice home library, etc)!

I have found my best way of reading any ESG yarn is to read it start to finish in one or two sittings. Once the action begins, it has a certain momentum; and if I set it aside a few days the momentum fades.

Overall, this was a great Selby - perhaps the best thus far. I didn't miss Inez Stapleton a bit.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Girl From Scotland Yard by Edgar Wallace (1929)

also published as THE SQUARE EMERALD


dustjacket.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:
  • Lady Jane Raytham
  • Anthony Druze, the Raytham's butler
  • Mrs. Greta Gurden
  • Peter Dawlish, convicted forger
  • Margaret Dawlish, Peter's mother
  • Princess Anita Bellini, Peter's aunt
  • Mrs. Inglethorne, Peter's landlady
  • Leslie Maughan, The Girl From Scotland Yard
  • Chief Inspector Josiah Coldwell
  • Lucretia Brown, Leslie's servant

Locale: London

Synopsis: Peter Dawlish is just released from serving a forgery sentence. Down and out, he is assisted with a small loan from perky Leslie Maughan, assistant to Chief Inspector Josiah Coldwell. While officially an "assistant", she is a detective in her own right.

Leslie has been checking up on Lady Jane Raytham following her substantial bank withdrawals. Lady Jane is annoyed, and does not cooperate - she prefers to spend time with Princess Anita Bellini, who is Peter Dawlish's aunt.

Leslie takes Peter under her wing and encourages him to re-enter society. Peter had been convicted of forging a check under his former employer, maintained his innocence, and suspected butler Anthony Druze of having committed the forgery; and causing his imprisonment.

Peter find a room lodging with Mrs. Inglethorne, who has a collection of rag-tag children. One girl, Elizabeth, becomes fond of Peter.

Druze is found dead on the street - shot. Peter Dawlish had the obvious motive - suspecting Druze of being the forger for which he was convicted. Leslie is convinced of his innocence, and seeks out the real murderer. In doing so, she finds that pretty much everyone has a secret to conceal.

Review:

Leslie Maughan is a treat - a confident investigator who follows her own trail. It is refreshing to find a female protagonist in books of this era, bringing to mind the Madame Rosika Storey series (list) by Hulbert Footner (see The Under Dogs), and the stories of Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Everyone in the story has a secret, and a couple of them are good ones. Druze's "handicap" is revealed, however, the reasoning behind it is not. This story has lots of threads and they are all tied up nicely at the end.



Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Silk Stocking Murders by Anthony Berkeley (1928)

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About the author: Anthony Berkeley Cox was an English crime writer. He wrote under several pen-names, including Francis Iles, Anthony Berkeley and A. Monmouth Platts. One of the founders of The Detection Club (from Goodreads)

Major characters:

  • Janet Manners a.k.a. Unity Ransome, chorus girl, victim #1
  • Moira Carruthers, Janet/Unity's roommate
  • Anne Manners, Janet/Unity's sister
  • Elsie Benham, prostitute, victim #2
  • Lady Ursula Graeme. victim #3
  • --- Playdell, Lady Ursula's fiancé
  • Dorothy Fielder, actress, victim #4
  • George Dunning, suspect #1
  • Hon. Arnold Beverley, suspect #2
  • Gerald Newsome, suspect #3
  • Roger Sheringham, novelist, newspaper contributor, amateur detective
  • Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard

Locale: London

Synopsis: Roger Sheringham, amateur detective/novelist/newspaper contributor, receives a letter from parson A. E. Manners, inquiring if he could look into the disappearance of his eldest daughter Janet Manners. Roger finds she had taken the name of Unity Ransome for a London theatre production, and was in the news for having committed suicide by hanging herself with one of her stockings.

Once Roger confirms that Unity is really Janet, he informs the parson; and strikes up a friendship with next-eldest daughter Anne Manners.

Two more identical deaths occur almost immediately: Prostitute Elsie Benham and socialite Lady Ursula Graeme. Both die in identical methods: hanging on a hook on a door, by one of their own stockings, just removed, leaving the mate in place.

Roger takes up a collaboration with Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, on the theory a newspaper man is better at getting people to talk than a Scotland Yard man.

A similar case has been reported in Monte Carlo. By comparison of lists of male friends of the victims, three names are found in common (George Dunning, Arnold Beverley, Gerald Newsome), and become the prime suspects.

A fourth death occurs: Dorothy Fielder, actress.

Roger, convinced on Gerald Newsome's innocence, teams up with him and ends his collaboration with Scotland Yard. Roger gathers the suspects for a re-staging of the crime and denouément.

Review:

I was able to pick out the murderer from his introduction to the story, which generally eludes me. However, I couldn't see the motive - the motive I had in mind from the first did not pan out.

A unique twist occurs when Roger seemingly abandons his Scotland Yard alliance and teams up with one of the suspects.

The reconstruction of the crime / denouément staged by Roger is very Nero Wolfe .. specific placement of chairs and seating for the show, and the police conveniently standing near the murderer. The murderer is revealed by not reacting to a certain event, as he knew what was coming. (This immediately brought to mind the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, in which one vital lead to the perpetrators was a security camera image of the crowd, all heads turned towards the sound of the explosion, except for two - the bombers - who did not react.)

Note: stereotypes of Jewish persons abound.

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


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers (1932)

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Major characters:
  • Harriet Vane, writer of detective stories
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Julian Perkins, a teacher
  • Paul Alexis, a gigolo (deceased)
  • Mrs. Flora Weldon, who believed herself engaged to Paul Alexis
  • Henry Weldon, her son, a farmer
  • Haviland Martin, who was in the vicinity
  • Mrs. Morecambe, driving a Bentley
  • Antoine, another gigolo
  • William Bright, owner of a razor
Locale: Wilvercombe, on the coast of England

Synopsis: Harriet Vane is hiking along the coast in a remote area and comes across a dead body - his throat cut - perched on a rock at the tide line. She retrieves a razor as being the likely weapon, and walks to the nearest town for help, encountering hiker Julian Perkins along the way.

After reporting the body, Harriet stays at the posh Hotel Resplendent. The hotel employs four "gigolos", or professional dance partners for the guests. They are Antoine, Paul Alexis, Doris, and Charis. The police believe the deceased to be Paul Alexis, but have yet to recover the body. Hotel guest Flora Weldon is distraught, she had believed she was to marry Paul Alexis, but the other gigolos suggest that ha ha, that was just his usual line to the middle-aged ladies; she should have known that.

Lord Peter Wimsey arrives and in between marriage proposals to Harriet takes on the tracing of the razor. He finds it was last in the possession of a William Bright. Perhaps Bright and Perkins are the same person? 

The situation is complicated when it is found that Alexis believed himself to be Russian royalty, awaiting a return to mother Russia. A series of coded messages between him and someone in Russia adds to the intrigue.

Narrowing down the suspects is pretty straightforward, there aren't too many - but it is quite a puzzle to place them in space and time to have done the murder. One by one, Wimsey's theories are found to be incorrect.

Review: This starts off in the vein of John Dickson Carr, with Harriet Vane finding a body perched on a rock surrounded by smooth sand, with two sets of footprints: hers and the deceased. The episode of the discovery of the body is quite amusing:

Harriet Vane, a writer of detective stories, is puzzled when confronted with a real body; which never happens to writers of fiction who are trying to pass off knowing what they are writing about. What should she do? Well, what would the heroic investigator of her detective stories, Robert Templeton, do? He would do thus-and-so; so that is what I shall do. So now we have fictional Harriet Vane looking to her fictional character Robert Templeton, as she encounters a real (to her, but ultimately fictional) body. But wait, the onion has another layer! We have real detective story writer Dorothy L. Sayers writing of fictional detective story writer Harriet Vane looking to her own fictional detective Robert Templeton. Oh, my head!

The plot includes a secret message encoded using the Playfair Cipher, and includes an excellent description of how to encrypt and decrypt messages using it. I compared it to a description I had in a textbook, and it is not only correct, but explained much better using everyday language. (The wikipedia article linked above also cites Have His Carcase as a reference).

The repeated testing of theories by placing the suspects in time and space wore on and got a bit tiring when breaking down events in small intervals. The murderer is indeed found at the end.

See also this 2011 review and this 2020 review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

The D.A. Breaks a Seal by Erle Stanley Gardner (1946)




#7 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:
  • Frank Norwalk, hotel manager
  • Fred Roff, attorney, deceased
  • Henry Farley, waiter, the accused
  • Coleman Dexter, a land speculator
  • Major Doug Selby, former D. A.
  • Carl Gifford, current D.A.
  • Alphonse Baker Carr, "Old A.B.C"
  • Anita Eldon, a Hollywood blonde bombshell, A.B. Carr's client
  • Sylvia Martin, reporter for The Clarion
  • Inez Stapleton, attorney
  • Barbara Horncutt, Inez' client
Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis:  Major Doug Selby is arriving home on a furlough from the Army, prior to heading out to the Pacific in the waning days of WWII. He notices a man and woman on his train wearing gardenias. As they alight at the Madison City, attorney A. B. Carr is waiting for them on the platform - and Selby realizes the gardenias are a signal so they recognize each other.

Selby runs into old flame - now attorney - Inez Stapleton. She is working on a contested will case, against A. B. Carr.

Word comes of a dead body found in the Madison Hotel. Selby accompanies Sheriff Rex Brandon to the scene, where they find Fred Roff deceased from poison in his room. He has a gardenia also. A blonde bombshell, Anita Eldon, is in the adjacent room, also with a gardenia. It appears all the gardenia wearers may be parties to the contested will case.

While D.A. Carl Gifford tries to discover evidence to prosecute hotel waiter Henry Farley for the murder, the contested will case goes to trial; as Selby tries to sort out the various gardenia-wearers. The trial comes to an abrupt halt when of the witnesses is poisoned.

Review: The previous Selby novel, The D.A. Calls a Turn, was a low point in the series; but in this novel Gardner and Selby are both back in good form. The gardenia club is an interesting twist, and we have two simultaneous cases (poisoning, contested will) heading to trial; with some obscure link between them. Selby is no longer D.A., but gets involved by being associated with old flame Inez Stapleton; who again is portrayed as breaking down in tears when things go badly - not a good attribute for an attorney; and this distracts from the story. 

The writing is very well done, one of my favorite sentences describes the deceased as he lies on the floor:
His bifocal spectacles had been pushed into one-sided incongruity by his fall and in some strange way lent an oddly facetious note to the occasion, as though these man-made aids to vision were somehow jeering at the final destiny of the eyes they had served.
The revelation of the murderer was a surprise, as this person served a minor role; and their connection to the victim a stretch. Nonetheless, a strong Doug Selby yarn.

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