Monday, January 28, 2019

The Origin of Evil by Ellery Queen (1951)

Major characters:
  • Leander Hill, jeweler, deceased
  • Laurel Hill, his daughter
  • Roger Priam, jeweler, paraplegic
  • Delia Priam, his femme fatale wife
  • Crowe "Mac" Macgowen, Delia's son, who lives in a treehouse
  • Alfred Wallace, assistant to Roger Priam, and Delia's lover
  • -- Collier, Delia's father
  • Lt. Keats of the police

Locale: Los Angeles, CA

Synopsis: Ellery Queen travels to Los Angeles to relax and write a book. Laurel Hill locates him and asks him to investigate the untimely death of her father, Leander Hill. Leander and Roger Priam are partners in a jewelry business. Hill had found a dead dog and a warning note on his doorstep, and the fright causes a heart attack and his death. Priam, a paraplegic with a femme fatale wife Delia, lives nearby and has a secretary/assistant Alfred Wallace who helps care for him. Priam receives a sealed box which also frightens him. 

Someone is on a revenge trip against them, and with the death of Leander, the threats now focus on Roger Priam. Additional warnings follow.

Ellery finds a blank - nothing can be found about Leander's or Roger's past, or even Alfred's. 

Delia makes come-ons to Ellery. The story comes out that Roger hired Alfred to not only assist him, also to service Delia in his 'absence'.

Leander's daughter Laurel takes the initiative to chase down clues, and enlists Delia's son Crowe Macgowen as well, even sleeping with him to obtain a key to Delia's.

Review: This was written in 1951, at the height of the mid-century modern movement, and this book reflects it. Chapter 1 starts out with a lot of abstraction, and run-on sentences that fill nearly a page each. The first sentence refers to Ellery Queen having a corpse at his feet, and it took a while to realize that the corpse is not a literal corpse, but a metaphor for the city of Los Angeles. I know, quite a stretch. I almost gave up before getting to Chapter 2. Things starting settling down at the end of Chapter 1, and we finally had some Facts: a death under suspicious circumstances.

There is a sexual undercurrent throughout the story, which is unnecessary to the plot and distracting. Delia makes overtures to any male she encounters, and Laurel does not hesitate to use sex to get what she wants from Macgowen. And why does Ellery question witnesses about their sex lives? None of this is relevant, or part of the plot. 

The reveal at the end is incredibly obscure and complex, but does the job but leaves me scratching my head at believability.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Where There's A Will by Rex Stout (1940)


About the author: Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was an American writer noted for his detective fiction. His best-known characters are the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, who were featured in 33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975. (wikipedia). (bibliography)

Major characters:

The four Hawthorne siblings:
  • Noel Hawthorne, an attorney, at Daniel Cullen & Co., deceased
  • April Hawthorne, actress
  • May Hawthorne, president of Varney College
  • June [Hawthorne] Dunn
Daisy Hawthorn,  the veiled woman, widow of Noel,

John Charles Dunn, June's husband, US Secretary of State
Andrew, 24, their son
Sara, 22, their daughter

Naomi Karn, Noel's other woman
Celia Fleet, April's secretary
Glenn Prescott, Noel's lawyer

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Wealthy attorney Noel Hawthorne has been found dead in a field, apparently from a hunting accident. His widow Daisy and three sisters April, May, and June approach Nero Wolfe to resolve an issue about his will. He had left his three sisters each a piece of fruit, some money to his widow Daisy, but the bulk of his estate to a Miss Naomi Karn. Daisy is enigmatic, as she wears a veil all the time to cover a disfigured face.

The sisters are OK with the fruit, since they are all wealthy in their own right. The issue is that Noel had verbally promised $1M to go to the Science Fund at Varney College, run by sister May. They hire Wolfe to contact Naomi Karn and try to get her to fulfill that promise by donating $1M from her portion. 

It seems an easy case. Karn is agreeable to the idea. Before it can proceed, police determine Noel's death was murder. Soon after, Karn meets the same fate.


This early Nero Wolfe is enjoyable, with, of course, a quirky family to deal with and hijinks with a will. The operatives working for him are more ready to get into fights than in later books.

A vital clue is found when a camera is stolen. Wolfe doesn't find the camera, but discovers the exposed film is no longer in the camera, but is out being processed (remember that routine?). He recovers the photos and one of them solves the case. My copy has a page of the 6 photographs in question bound between 220/221, one of which is a photo of Nero and Archie themselves! A primary source of what they really look like! Readers won't see the clue for what it is, only a Nero Wolfe would see the significance; but the 40's era photos are fun to peruse with a magnifying glass.

My copy has a bookworm hole where the worm drilled a tunnel into the pages. This is a common happening in books from the wartime 1940's when a high starch content paper was used, tasty for bookworms!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Deep Lay the Dead by Frederick C. Davis (1942)


About the author: Frederick Clyde Davis (1902-1977) was an American pulp writer. He was educated at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, and became a professional writer at the age of 22. Davis wrote several novels featuring his series detective, Professor Cy Hatch. He also wrote as Murdo CoombsStephen Ransome and Curtis Steele. (gadetection) ( more )

Major characters:
  • Rigby Webb, professor of mathematics
  • Dr. Duncan Chandler, our host
  • Claire Chandler, his wife
  • Jill Chandler, their daughter
  • Tom Stowell, lawyer
  • Nick Winston, having an affair with Claire Chandler?
  • Tony Raye - gambler and dancer
  • Erica Kerrington, Tony's girlfriend
  • Max Harwick, pianist until his unfortunate accident
  • Ross Harwick, his son, a lawyer
  • Arnold Barclay, host of The Midnight Tattler radio show
  • Mary Peacock, the nurse who disappeared
Locale: rural Pennsylvania

Synopsis: World War II is in progress, and mathematics professor Rigby Webb receives a mysterious call to take a job with a physician, Duncan Chandler, in rural Pennsylvania. He heads there as a major snowstorm sets in. 

Chandler, also an expert on codes and ciphers, has turned his home medical office into a secure room to work on a secret government project - creating an unbreakable cipher for war communications. Webb is also an expert on codes and ciphers, having written academic papers on them. Webb accepts the job offer as his assistant. His previous assistant met with an "accident" which no one talks about. 

One of the guests is bitter Max Harwick, a famous pianist, who has just lost two fingers after a hunting accident.* Chandler had to amputate them to save his life, but Harwick's career is ruined. Attorney Ross Harwick, his son, wants an out-of-court settlement, but Chandler insists on going to trial to prove his good intentions.

Word comes that an enemy spy is after the secret cipher. A courier is coming to the house with news of his identity. As he approaches, a shot is fired from an upstairs window, killing the courier and causing him to fall into an abandoned quarry.

With the house firmly snowed in, one of the occupants is likely the enemy spy - and a murderer.


This is an enjoyable book, and it is my tradition to take it off the shelf and read it once a year whenever we get a big snowstorm. It never gets old. Suspicion falls on each person in turn. Rigby Webb is an enjoyable character. There is additional drama with a couple of marital affairs, and Rigby always has his own eye on Jill.

This book really, really needs a sketch map of the home. Perhaps the original edition had one, but my Collier edition does not; so I made my own. This fits the text as best I could make it.

Try to get a copy for your next blizzard. The Collier uniform edition in blue/black binding is much more common than the original printing.

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

* For another mystery involving a concert pianist who has suffered a hand injury and is unable to play again, see Five Passengers From Lisbon by Mignon Eberhart.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Come Back by Carolyn Wells (1921)

Mike Gray / Ontos

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:

  • Peter Crane, a.k.a. Peter Boots
  • Julie Crane, his sister
  • Benjamin Crane, his father
  • Helen Crane, his mother
  • Carlotta "Carly" Harper, his girlfriend
  • Christopher "Kit" Shelby, his trip companion
  • Gilbert Blair, his trip companion, architectural student
  • Joshua, their guide
  • McClellan "Mac" Thorpe, architectural student, roommate of Gilbert Blair
  • Madame Parlato, a medium
  • Pennington Wise, detective
  • Zizi, his mysterious assistant

Locale: Labrador, Canada; and New York State

Synopsis: 27 year old Peter Crane, a.k.a. Peter Boots, decides on an adventure trip to Labrador, Canada; along with his friends Kit Shelby and Gilbert Blair. They hire a guide, Joshua, and set out. The trip out is uneventful, but on the return, Peter becomes separated from the group and is lost in a snowstorm, and believed dead. The parents reveal that long ago had a prediction from a gypsy that he would die on a trip, but would nevertheless return.

Kit and Gilbert return to New York state to break the news to his parents. His parents begin consulting a medium, Madame Parlato, who allows them to converse with Peter. During one séance, she produces Peter's tobacco pouch, last seen in Labrador.

Gilbert Blair and his roommate, McClellan "Mac" Thorpe, are architectural students, both in a competition which strains their relationship. One morning Thorpe finds Blair dead in his bed, having been poisoned; and he becomes immediately suspect.

The séances and materializations continue. Is Peter Boots really dead? Can Mac Thorpe be cleared of the murder, and free to marry Julie Crane? Detective Pennington Wise is called in, but he doesn't do much - assistant Zizi figures it all out.


The book is full of spiritism: Séances, mediums, Ouija boards; but unlike the Mary Roberts Rinehart books, they are presented in a matter-of-fact way and debunked one by one. The explanation of the workings of the Ouija board is quite revealing.

This Crane parents seem a bit too gullible, but this was the 1920's when this was all the rage. The reappearance of Peter Boots clears things up but the explanation was lacking. Overall, a nice tight little account of the hazards of the occult and everybody winds up happy at the end .. well, except the victim and the murderer.

Pennington Wise is a do-nothing, he lets Zizi do all the legwork, Archie Goodwin style. Wise could have been left out without affecting the story at all.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

And Be a Villain by Rex Stout (1948)


About the author: Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was an American writer noted for his detective fiction. His best-known characters are the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, who were featured in 33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975. (wikipedia). (bibliography)

Major characters:
  • Miss Madeline Fraser, radio talk show host
  • Miss Deborah Koppel, her manager
  • Bill Meadows, radio talk show co-host
  • Nathan Traub, advertising agency executive
  • Elinor Vance, script writer
  • Tully Strong, secretary of the Sponsors' Council
  • Nancylee Shepherd, teenager, of the Fraser Girls Club
  • F. O. Savarese, professor of mathematics
  • Cyril Orchard, publisher of Track Almanack, dead from cyanide as the story begins
  • Beula Poole, publisher of What to Expect, an investment newsletter
  • Fred Owen, public relations man for Starlite soda
  • Walter B. Anderson, president of Starlite soda
  • Beech, VP of Federal Broadcasting Company
  • Nero Wolfe, investigator
  • Archie Goodwin, his assistant
  • Arnold Zeck, master criminal and Wolfe's nemesis

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Nero Wolfe, short of funds, reads about the on-air murder of Cyril Orchard, as he was being interviewed by Madeline Fraser and her co-host Bill Meadows; during a radio program which included another guest F. O. Savarese, professor of mathematics. Wolfe offers to take on the unsolved murder on a contingency basis.

Starlite soda is a sponsor of the radio program, and during one segment the guests open, drink, and extol the product. Orchard died after drinking his bottle, which was found to contain cyanide.

None of those present claim to remember who gave that particular bottle to Orchard. Wolfe interviews fan/teenager Nancylee Shepherd, who assists at the program. She reveals the bottles used on the program are not all identical as claimed, and can positively identify the intended recipient of the cyanide; and it wasn't Orchard.

Is it coincidence that Cyril Orchard, publisher of a betting newsletter, is murdered; and another publisher (of an investment newsletter), Beula Poole, is also murdered at about the same time? Wolfe gets a call from nemesis Arnold Zeck warning him to lay off, then manager Deborah Koppel eats a snack from another sponsor, and dies from cyanide.


It is a common theme for Wolfe to encounter a group of people who conspire to keep quiet on each other, and it is routine for him to get them in a group to wear them down; but always enjoyable to be on the outside looking in. 

The star of this novel is teenager Nancylee Shepherd, who is the only one to come up with the one Fact that unravels the case. She is an enjoyable character.

I always enjoy an occasional Rex Stout novel. I find the description of the perfectly-run household to always be an incentive for me to clean my desk, pick up all the clutter, and put the household in order. Then I tune in my AM radio to a New York City radio station (I am in Maine, and the NY stations come in clearly at night), press a [pretend] button for beer, put the cap in my desk drawer, pour it in a glass, sit back, and look at my globe.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Deep Lake Mystery by Carolyn Wells (1928)

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:

At Variable Winds:
  • Gray Norris, our narrator
  • Keeley Moore, detective, renting Variable Winds for the season
  • Lora Moore, his wife
  • Maud Merrill, house guest
  • Mrs. Katherine Dallas, a widow, engaged to Sampson Tracy
  • Posy May
  • Dick Hardy
At The Pleasure Dome:
  • Sampson Tracy, millionaire owner
  • Harper Ames, house guest
  • Billy Dean, one of Sampson's secretaries, in love with Alma Remsen
  • Charles Everett, the other secretary, and Bill Dean's superior
  • Griscom, butler
  • Mrs. Fenn, cook-housekeeper
  • Sally Bray, chambermaid
  • Louis, chauffeur
At The Island of Whistling Reeds:
  • Miss Alma Remsen, Sampson Tracy's niece
  • Mrs. Merivale, her nurse/companion
  • John Merivale, her husband
  • Dora Merivale, their daughter, and Alma's personal maid
Police Detective March
Police Inspector Farrell

Locale: Wisconsin

Synopsis: Our narrator, Gray Norris, is invited by detective Keeley Moore to a fishing vacation at his rental house, "Variable Winds", on a Wisconsin lake. Next door is "The Pleasure Dome", a large home built my millionaire Sampson Tracy. (He is engaged to widowed Mrs. Katherine Dallas, a house guest at Variable Winds). Nearby is The Island of Whistling Reeds, home to Miss Alma Remson, Tracy's niece. She had lived with him following the death of her parents, but now with his upcoming marriage, she has been "put out" to the island. Looks like she and Mrs. Dallas don't get along.

Gray and Moore set out on their first fishing outing, only to be called back. Sampson Tracy has been found dead, with various objects arranged him as decorations. He was found in his bedroom, locked from the inside; with the windows overlooking a steep drop to a treacherous inlet called The Sunless SeaCause of death is found to be a nail driven into his head.*

All suspicion points at young Alma, who was seen (by Gray Norris) at the scene of the crime. He is reticent to reveal this, as he has fallen in love with her. However, evidence is mounting that she is not quite right.

* reminiscent of the obscure Biblical account of Jael and Sisera, in Judges 4:21


Here is a locked room mystery with plenty of odds and ends. The narrator jumps right in over his head to fall in love with the prime suspect. It is a puzzler, and as I approached the final few pages with no resolution, I began to get anxious that it could be explained at all. Yet, the twist at the end explained it. Being a 1920's book, it predates - and blithely violates - some rules of Fair Play, both in Knox's Ten Commandments and S. S. Van Dine's Twenty Rules; perhaps this sort of novel is what prompted the creation of the Fair Play rules in the first place.

The big mystery to me about 1920's mysteries is where do all these people get their money, to have luxurious waterfront homes, full staff of servants, and no jobs? 

There is, near our home, an empty 1930's estate which is owned by a land trust, and open to the public. It consists of a large oceanfront home, gardens, swimming pool, tennis court, etc; all in a state of preservation pretty much as they left it. It is a haunting, rather sad, place to see empty; and when I read mysteries set on such estates, this is what I see in my mind's eye. Maybe sometime I will go there with a lawn chair and some 1920's mysteries and really become immersed.

Also see Bev Hankin's review of this title on her blog, My Reader's Block.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Give 'Em the Ax by A. A. Fair (1944)

About the author: A. A. Fair is a pseudonym of Erle Stanley Gardner.

Major characters:

Bertha Cool, Private eye
Donald Lam, Private eye

Miss Georgia Rushe, their client
Ellery Crail, head of the Crail Venetian Blind Co.
Irma Begley (now Irma Crail), his wife
Pittman Rimley, owner of several night clubs
Rufus Stanberry, building owner
Archie Stanberry, his nephew
Philip Cullingdon, lost an accident settlement to Irma Begley
Billy Prue, cigarette girl at the Rimley Rendezvous club
Esther Witson, witness to car accident
Colgate & Glimson, attorneys

Locale: not stated

Synopsis: Private Eyes Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are hired by Miss Georgia Rushe. She had been having an affair with Ellery Crail, who was married. His (unnamed) wife died, and before Rushe could grab him, he married wife #2, Irma (Begley) Crail, whom he met following a minor car accident. Rushe hires Cool & Lam to try to break them up so she can get him.

Lam discovers Irma has a history of staging little car accidents to collect insurance money. While following her to a night club (Rimley's Rendezvous), he finds she is cozy with Rufus Stanberry, the building owner. Lam gets information from the cigarette girl, Billy Prue; who returns to her apartment to find Stanberry dead there.

Review: Erle Stanley Gardner's writings as A. A. Fair are fast paced, without the slow plodding courtroom scenes of the Perry Masons, and he has a lot more fun with Donald Lam. The long involvement and complex discussions of minor car accident details detracts from the action - but provides an opportunity for an almost-courtroom scene when a deposition is taken from Bertha Cool in her office, and we see her unusually flustered. 

The writing is certainly colorful, check these eyebrow-raising quotes:

  • [while approaching a rundown apartment building]: One look at the place and you could smell the psychic stench of dejected spirits, the physical odors of ancient cooking, the irritating fumes of defective gas heaters.
  • The second floor was silent as a deserted courtroom after the defendant has been sentenced to death and the judge has gathered his papers and gone out to play golf.
I always find the A. A. Fair books to be a good one-session read.