Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Vanity Case by Carolyn Wells (1925)

About the author: Carolyn Wells (1862-1942) was married to Hadwin Houghton, the heir of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing empire. Like Mary Roberts Rinehart, being in a publishing family created an easy pipeline for getting her works into print. She wrote a total of more than 170 books, including 61 Fleming Stone detective stories. See this Wikipedia article.

Carolyn Wells

Major characters:

  • Myra Heath, 29
  • Perry Heath, her husband
  • Herrick, their butler, head of the servants
  • Lawrence "Larry" Inman, her distant cousin
  • Berenice "Bunny" Moore, 21, the cute little blonde
  • Mrs. Emily Prentiss, the nosy, insomniac neighbor
  • Todhunter "Toddy" Buck, Emily's nephew, self-appointed detective
  • Alexander Cunningham, amateur detective appointed by the Country Club
  • Sam Anderson, Country Club member
  • Detective Mott, of the police
  • Steve Truitt, a private detective

Locale: Gaybrook Harbor, A seaside town on Long Island, NY


Myra Heath runs her Gaybrook Gardens bungalow home in precise and exacting manner. She and her husband, Perry Heath, an artist, have two house guests: Her distant cousin Larry Inman, and little ingenue Bunny Moore. Meanwhile, Larry Inman is in love with Myra; and Perry (knowing this), courts after Bunny - "All were of broad and tolerant views", indeed! Myra also collects old bottles.

One night the Heath marital problems come to a head when Perry catches Myra and Larry together. The next morning, Myra is found dead on the studio floor, struck down with one of her antique bottles. Perry is nowhere to be found. Adding to the mystery: Myra - a non-user of cosmetics - is found quite painted up and decorated, and the vanity box containing the cosmetics missing.

The neighbor, Emily Prentiss, couldn't sleep and while watching the Heath home out her window, had observed lights in the night when the murder occurred. Her nephew, Todhunter Buck, becomes quite taken with Bunny.

Buck decides to solve the crime for himself, and teams up with Alexander Cunningham, appointed by the nosy Country Club who wonder where their member Heath went. Police Detective Mott questions people without result, and Buck brings in his old pal, private detective Steve Truitt.


The first chapter describes the locale of Gaybrook Harbor, which is clearly divided in two sections: Harbor Park, where the posh uppity old-money live; and Harbor Gardens, a Bohemian artist community in their eclectic bungalow homes. The descriptions sound exactly like so many coastal communities in Maine, and the description of the bungalow home is completely familiar.

There are only three possible suspects: Bunny, Inman, and Heath; and suspicion flips to each many times. When it appears that only one remains viable, a surprise turn explains everything in a satisfying manner. 

The only drawback of the novel is the plethora of detectives (four!): Mott, of the police; Truitt, a P.I.; and the two amateurs Buck and Cunningham.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Bronze Hand by Carolyn Wells (1925)

About the author: Carolyn Wells (1862-1942) was married to Hadwin Houghton, the heir of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing empire. Like Mary Roberts Rinehart, being in a publishing family created an easy pipeline for getting her works into print. She wrote a total of more than 170 books, including 61 Fleming Stone detective stories. See this Wikipedia article.

Carolyn Wells

Major characters:

  • "Oily" Oscar Cox, oil magnate
  • Hudder, his odd butler
  • Max Trent, writer of detective stories, the reluctant investigator
  • "Polly" Pollard Nash, the reluctant Watson
  • Maisie Forman, the reclusive I-want-to-be-alone "princess"
  • Harold "Hal" Mallory
  • Sherman Mason, lawyer, reprobate, old friend of Maisie's father
  • Owen Camper
  • Amy Camper, hs wife
  • Lily Gibbs
  • Captain Van Winkle
  • Stanhope, the quiet one
  • Fleming Stone, detective

Locale: aboard the S.S. Pinnacle, en route from New York to Liverpool

Synopsis: A handful of well-to-do embark on the liner Pinnacle bound for England. The most remarkable man is "Oily" Oscar Cox, wealthy oil magnate; and Maisie Forman, a reclusive pretty little thing who just wants to be left alone. Cox shows off his prized possession, a life size bronze casting of a hand, which he regards as his lucky charm. The next morning of the voyage, Cox is found murdered on deck, bludgeoned by the bronze hand. The apparent motive is theft of jewelry for his new wife, whom no one can track down, not even knowing if the marriage has happened yet.

Captain Van Winkle is at a loss what to do next, and appoints Max Trent to investigate - being the most qualified by virtue of being a writer of detective stories. Trent enlists the aid of friend Pollard Nash and they proceed to investigate.

Meanwhile Sherman Mason is making moves on Maisie, who is disgusted and because she and Max Trent are now a thing.

Review: Oh, the virtues and complexity of 1920's etiquette! Say person A and person B wish to converse, they must not do so until they are Properly Introduced by a mutual acquaintance C; otherwise all they can do is raise their eyebrow and sniff "Are we acquainted?". If you have no mutual acquaintance, you are out of luck. Since all the passengers are unknown to each other at the beginning of the voyage, this raises an immediate Dilemma and many pages go by before they gradually become Properly Introduced and can Function as a Society by Speaking to Each Other.

Series detective Fleming Stone finally shows up for a cameo appearance on page 270. Where has he been? Didn't people buy this book to read about him and here we are only 50 pages from the end? It is revealed, but I won't spoil it. Good book to bring on your next sea cruise and enjoy in your deck chair.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Inspector Queen's Own Case by Ellery Queen (1956)

The full title of this book is Inspector Queen's Own Case: November Song. Technically, too late for the "Golden Age" (between WWI and WWII) but Ellery Queen's writing began in that period.

Major characters:

  • Inspector Richard Queen, New York Police (retired), widower
  • Abe Pearl, Chief of Police, Taugus CT
  • Beck Pearl, his wife
The Humffrey household:
  • A. Burt Finner, shyster attorney, seller of babies
  • Alton K. Humffrey, millionaire resident of Nair Island
  • Sarah Humffrey, his wife
  • Michael Humffrey, "adopted" (purchased) child of the Humffreys
  • Jessie Sherwood, RN, 49 year old nurse for Michael 
  • Mrs. Charbedeau, cook
  • Mrs. Lenihan, housekeeper
  • Rose Healy, upstairs maid
  • Marie Tompkins, downstairs maid
  • Stallings, gardener
  • Henry Cullum, chauffer
  • Sadie Smith, laundress
  • Ronald Frost, Alton's nephew, ne'er do well with big gambling debts
  • Charlie Peterson, guard at the island gatehouse

Locale: Nair Island, off the Connecticut coast; a part of the town of Taugus

Synopsis: The wealthy Humffrey family has a summer home on Nair Island, part of Taugus, CT. There are five other homes on the island, which connects to the mainland by a causeway. Alton and Sarah Humffrey are childless and aging, and arrange a shady purchase of a newborn from shyster attorney A. Burt Finner, whom they name Michael Humffrey. The child is cared for by nurse Jessie Sherwood, 49, single - having lost her fiance at Normandy.

Richard Queen (Ellery's father) has just been forced into retirement, having reached the age of 63. He is somewhat despondent at that, and takes a summer vacation at the home of his friend Abe Pearl, chief of Taugus police.

There is tension from Ronald Frost, Alton's nephew. Ronald runs up gambling debts to which Alton has bailed him out in the past, but no more since Michael has arrived. Ronald had planned to be Alton's only heir, but now that is no longer the case.

One night, someone enters the nursery and smothers Michael with a pillow. Investigation begins by Abe Pearl, along with Richard Queen. Queen and Jessie Sherwood hit it off and a romance blossoms. While searching for a motive, attorney Finner is murdered, and his adoption records stolen.


Besides the story line, there are two other big themes lurking here. First, the murder of a baby - and children in general - has long been off-limits for mystery writers - but in 1956 that was still happening, so we must overlook the revulsion factor. Second, the theme of persons being seen as outdated and useless to society as they age is ever present in Richard Queen's thoughts; as he considers being pushed out of his organization to make room for younger ones; and collects up his other retired buddies to operate a sub-rosa investigation.

This novel shows the turning point in writing away from the Golden Age style, and into the gritty too-much-detail 1960's style. The Golden Age never discusses things like the appearance of bullet holes, or menstruation! This is what attracts me to the writing of this era. 

The case progresses and is somewhat predictable, with the obvious suspect being eliminated at the last minute. The steady progression of the Queen/Sherwood relationship is handled well and leads to a satisfying conclusion.