Monday, February 25, 2019

Might as Well Be Dead by Rex Stout (1956)

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:

  • James R. Herold, Wolfe's client, father of...
  • Paul Herold, missing in NYC; a.k.a....
  • Peter Hays, on trial for murder of...
  • Michael M. Molloy, a.k.a. Richard Randall, husband of...
  • Selma Molloy, the widow, having an affair? with Peter Hays
  • Albert Freyer, attorney for Peter Hays
  • Delia Brandt, Molloy's secretary
  • Patrick A. Degan, friend of Michael Molloy, head of Mechanics Alliance Welfare Association
  • Jerry & Rita Arkoff, friends of Selma Molloy
  • Tom & Fanny Irwin, friends of Selma Molloy
  • Nero Wolfe, investigator
  • Archie Goodwin, investigator
  • Saul Panzer, operative
  • Fred Durkin, operative
  • Orrie Cather, operative
  • Johnny Keems, operative
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: James R. Herold of Nebraska hires Nero Wolfe to locate his missing son, Paul Herold; believed to be in New York City. Wolfe and Archie Goodwin find him right away, going by the name of Peter Hays, and unfortunately on trial for Murder One; and quickly convicted.

The victim, Michael M. Molloy, was found shot in his apartment. His wife, Selma Molloy, was apparently having an affair with Hays. Wolfe teams up with Hays' attorney, Albert Freyer, to see if this was a frame-up.

The killer had opportunity when Selma went to the theatre with her friends Jerry and Rita Arkoff and Tom and Fanny Irwin. The question is who got her to go away and leave Molloy alone? While operative Johnny Keems go to ask them, he is run over and killed by a hit-and-run driver.

Selma is in need of an administrator to handle her husband's estate, and asks friend Patrick A. Degan

The police had closed the case with the conviction of Hays, but reopen it when bodies continue to turn up as Wolfe gets closer to the real killer.


Archie Goodwin again narrates a page turner, while resisting getting involved with the attractive widow. I did find it surprising the NYC police put such efforts into locating a missing person - who is an adult and wishes to remain missing. I don't think that would do that today.

There is no appearance by Lily Rowan, a usual pleasant side attraction.

The smoothly operating Wolfe household is always an incentive for me to clean up my office and dust my globe.

On a sad note, this is the book in which one of Wolfe's regular operatives gets written out of the series.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The House of Brass by Ellery Queen (1968)

About the author: Likely plotted by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. Different sources identify the author as either Theodore Sturgeon or Avraam Davidson.

Major characters:

Hendrik Brass, the host
Hugo Zarbus, his hulking, not-too-bright assistant
Vaughn J. Vaughn, his tough-guy lawyer/private detective

The six house guests:
  • Jessie Sherwood, now Jessie Queen; accompanied by Inspector Queen
  • Lynn O'Neill, the country woman from Wyoming
  • Keith Palmer, having a struggling marriage
  • Cornelia Openshaw, the "sex crazy old maid"
  • DeWitt Alistair, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, both hustlers
  • Dr. Hubert Thornton, a G.P.
Police Chief Victor Fleck

Locale: Phillipskill, in upstate New York

Synopsis: Six strangers each receive an invitation in the mail to visit Hendrik Brass in upstate New York. One of the strangers is Jessie Queen, née Sherwood; recently married to retired Inspector Queen (father of Ellery). Each invitation includes $100 in travel expense money, and half of a $1000 bill, to which they will receive the other half if they accept.

They arrive to find a large, decrepit mansion inhabited only by blind, elderly Hendrik and his assistant Hugo. 'Brass' is not only his name, but his business - he has built a fortune making brass appointments in the attached workshop. He reveals the six were chosen because the parents of each did a service to him years ago, and now he is choosing whom to include in his $6M will. His attorney/private eye Palmer Vaughn also sought three additional persons, but found two had died, and one - Harding Boyle - could not be found.

Brass' reason for choosing them is found to be false. Queen recruits his old cronies to chase down the past of each. Brass meets his expected end, and the six legatees are in line for $1M each - but where is it?

Review: This is the sequel to Inspector Queen's Own Case, and begins like a classic captive-audience mystery, with an odd assortment of people with no apparent connection summoned to a creepy country house. Unlike the usual mysteries of this type, the guests are free to come and go as they please. 

When old Brass announces his intention of leaving each of the six guests $1M each in his will, you know he is not long for this earth. The focus of the book is not so much finding his murderer, as it is finding the lost $6M treasure.

Plenty of surprises at the end (which reminded me of the end of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca).

Also see this review on Jon Mathewson's blog 

Monday, February 18, 2019

In The Onyx Lobby by Carolyn Wells (1920)

Kobo Rakuten

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:

Sir Herbert Binney, baker of 'Binney's Buns'
Miss Letitia Prall, "The Grenadier",
Richard "Rick" Bates, Letitia's nephew
Eliza Gurney*, Letitia's companion

Mrs. Adeline Everett, a widow
Dorcas Everett, Adeline's daughter, engaged to Richard Bates
Kate Holland, Adeline's maid

Julie Baxter, employee and drama queen

Crippen, of Crippen's Cakes, a rival baker
Vail, a rival baker

Gibbs, a detective
Corson, a detective
Bob Moore, elevator operator, fan of detective stories
Pennington "Penny" Wise, a consulting detective
Zizi, Pennington's assistant

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Sir Herbert Binney, successful baker in England, has come to the US to expand his business. He wants to enlist his distant relative Richard Bates, by offering to make him heir to his empire if he accepts.

Bates lives with his aunt, Miss Letitia Prall, who has a long-running undefined feud with Adeline Everett, who lives in another apartment in the luxurious Campanile. Adeline's daughter, Dorcas Everett, is secretly engaged to Bates.

Eliza Gurney*, companion to Letitia, catches on and spills it to Letitia, which escalates the feud.

While Bates is considering whether to 1) accept Binney's offer and 2) continue his engagement, Binney is found dead in the Onyx Lobby. He had just returned from a dinner out with his chorus girl friends.

The murder weapon is a knife from Letitia's apartment.

*Her last name is inconsistent - usually Gurney, but sometimes Grundy.

Review: I was only a few pages in when I realized I have heard a similar plot before. Two single parent figures, neighbors, having a long-running but unexplained feud - and their children secretly in love? This is the same plot as the 1960 off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks; but its heritage goes back much further. Wikipedia states: "The musical is based loosely on The Romancers by Edmond Rostand, which draws elements from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore."

It is hard to imagine all this jealousy around a bun recipe, but here it is. Sir Herbert Binney is a colorful character, enjoying his nights out with the ladies, but always 100% proper; putting them in a cab when the date is over, never accompanying them to their homes. He meets his end quite quickly.

The bulk of the book consists of arguments and name-calling between the two feuding ladies. They enjoy their unexplained feud so much that when one moves, the other follows; that it may continue. The sniping could be cut in half without affecting the plot one bit.

Penny Wise and Zizi arrive, and the discovery of the hidden recipe is an amusing episode. As usual, Penny doesn't do much except propose motives, with Zizi doing the legwork  - in the style of Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin.

When the killer is revealed we are hit in the head with a serious violation of the Rules of Fair Play (which, I concede, came later - in 1929). No spoiler, but beware of the plot element which claims the murderer is one with specific medical knowledge.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Speak No Evil by Mignon Eberhart (1940)

About the author: (from Goodreads): Mignon Good (1899-1996) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1929 her first crime novel was published featuring 'Sarah Keate', a nurse and 'Lance O'Leary', a police detective. This couple appeared in another four novels. Over the next forty years she wrote a novel nearly every year. In 1971 she won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. 

Major characters:

Elizabeth Coolman Dakin
Major Robert Dakin, her alcoholic husband
Dyke Sanderson, her boyfriend, and Robert's nephew
Ruth Reddington, Dakin's business associate
Charlie Hawes, Dakin's secretary
Leech, their butler
Marianna, their maid
Charmian Dakin, Dakin's first wife
Cyril Kirby, an English yachtsman
Inspector Paul Friker, of the police

Locale: Jamaica

Synopsis: In their Jamaican villa, Elizabeth Dakin is already regretting her empty marriage to unstable Robert Dakin, a successful businessman in war materiel. He is also a dipsomaniac (obsolete word for alcoholic). She is hoping to reunite with her old flame, Dyke Sanderson (also Dakin's nephew). 

Dyke arrives, along with Dakin's business partner, cool, elegant Ruth Reddington; who attaches herself to Dakin while Elizabeth tries to reunite with Dyke. 

Dakin gives Elizabeth some precious emerald jewelry, and has her wear it to a dinner along with Dakin's friend, Cyril Kirby; who also has his eye out for Elizabeth. At the dinner, she encounters Dakin's catty first wife, Charmian, who says the jewels rightfully belong to her. Awkward.

Back home after the dinner, Elizabeth tells Dakin she plans to leave him. Then Dakin is found in his study, shot dead. Very convenient. Ruth Reddington promptly blindsides Elizabeth by telling the police she the only one who could have done it. 

Review: I enjoy Mignon Eberhart for her descriptions of lush, warm scenes; and she never fails to set them up in my mind's eye. 

A common theme in many of her stories, the innocent protagonist (Elizabeth) is trapped in a worthless marriage, has her next husband all lined already, then winds up being the prime suspect in the murder of husband #1.

The gimmick of the three monkeys is ignored for most of the book, but explained in the end in a rather disappointing connection, with little significance.

The long and complicated explanation at the end was a bit tedious but a satisfactory conclusion.

Understanding the murder requires a visualization of the odd room arrangement, which is described but not illustrated; so here is my version for your enjoyment. Note that Elizabeth has to pass through the "little passage" and Robert's study (murder scene) in order to get to the rest of the house.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Window at the White Cat by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1910)

About the author: Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 – 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie, although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie's first novel in 1920. Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase "The butler did it" from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase. Rinehart is also considered to have invented the "Had-I-But-Known" school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908). (from a Wikipedia article).

Major characters:

At the Knox's:
  • Jack Knox, a lawyer, our narrator
  • Fred Knox, his brother
  • Edith Knox, Fred's wife
  • Ellen Butler, widow of Henry Butler
  • Hawes, a butler
At the Fleming's:
  • Allan Fleming, the missing man, the state treasurer
  • Margery Fleming, his daughter
  • Carter, the butler
  • Anna, a maid
  • Delia, a maid
At Bellwood:
  • Miss Letitia Maitland, Margery Fleming's maiden aunt
  • Miss Susan Jane Maitland (called Jane), Margery Fleming's maiden aunt
  • Harry Waldrop, engaged to Margery Fleming, secretary to Allan Fleming
  • Bella MacKenzie, maid
Al Hunter, a detective
Burton, a newspaper man
Henry Butler, a suicide at the White Cat a long time ago
Henry Schwartz, a party boss
Lightfoot, Allan Fleming's cashier
Robert Clarkson, a suicide
Mrs. Allen Fleming - surprise, a second wife

Locale: fictitious locale near Plattsburg (Missouri?)

Synopsis: Margery Fleming comes to attorney Jack Knox seeking help - her father, Allan Fleming, has disappeared. Knox reluctantly agrees, and calls in detective Al Hunter to investigate. Knox is not too concerned about Fleming, as he has been seen around town.

Margery's aunt, Miss Susan Jane Maitland, asks Knox to help her revise her will. Knox goes to her home at Bellwood, and discovers that Jane has disappeared without a trace. At the same time, ten of her 98 precious pearls have disappeared also, apparently a theft.

The two missing persons have left behind notes stating "1122".

Hunter locates Fleming, staying at a local political-drinking-smoking-gambling hideaway called The White Cat. He brings Knox over, they find Fleming has been shot dead just prior to their arrival. Again, an "1122" note is found.

Review:  Mary Roberts Rinehart can write a dark mystery with humor, a rare combination. As the disappearance and mysterious notes mount up, the character list gets longer and longer as new people, mostly relatives, slide into the story. It is obvious there is skullduggery originating with some banking scams, and centered around the sketchy White Cat, which ostensibly is a "political club" but seems more like a frat house. Jane disappears early on, but seems to be forgotten throughout most of the book.

It is satisfying to read a book over 100 years old which still remains a puzzler and a page-turner.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Kept Women Can't Quit by A. A. Fair (1960)


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

Major characters:

Hazel Downer, a.k.a. Hazel Clune - the femme fatale, Standley's "kept woman"
Standley Downer - her common-law husband
Evelyn Ellis, photo model; a.k.a. Beverly Kettle when in San Francisco
Dover C. Inman, owner of the Full Dinner Pail drive in; not to be confused with...
Carl Dover Christopher, president of Christopher, Crowder, and Doyle in Chicago
Jasper Diggs Calhoun, public relations man
Herbert Baxley, the red-headed two-time loser
Bernice Glenn, hotel telephone operator
Ernestine Hamilton, roommate of Bernice Glenn, a wannabee private eye
George Biggs Gridley, non-person, false name created by Donald Lam

Donald Lam, narrator/investigator
Bertha Cool, investigator
Elsie Brand, secretary
Sergeant Frank Sellers

Locale: Los Angeles / San Francisco

Synopsis: Sergeant Frank Sellers is telling investigator/narrator Donald Lam about an unsolved case: An armored car was relieved of $100,000 in $1000 bills while the guards are on coffee break at a drive-in joint. The police have recovered half the cash, but $50,000 is still missing. Herbert Baxley was seen lurking in the vicinity at the time of the theft, and the police suspect him and Hazel Downer (the "kept woman").

Hazel Downer subsequently shows up at the offices of Cool & Lam, asking for help in locating her "husband" (the legality of the marriage seems a bit sketchy), Standley Downer. She claims he has left with $60k of her money, of course in $1000 bills.

Lam goes to San Francisco in search of Downer. He locates an apartment just vacated by Evelyn Ellis, who is Downer's new squeeze. He installs his secretary Elsie Brand in the apartment to observe. He finds Ellis left a locked trunk in the garage. Lam purchases a similar trunk, performs a switch, and winds up with her trunk. He finds $52k in her trunk, which he sends back to his office. Standley is then found - dead - with Lam's trunk all taken apart.

Lam strikes up a friendship with Ernestine Hamilton, roommate of Bernice Glenn, telephone operator at the hotel where everything is happening. Ernestine is a wannabee private eye, so he puts her to work to pump Bernice for hotel dirt.

Review: As in all Cool/Lam stories, this one starts out at full speed and does not let up for a second; which I why I find them easiest to consume in one, maybe two at most, sittings.

By the time of the trunk swap episode, we are already losing track of the various stashes of $1000 bills floating around. Little attention is paid to the murder - everyone is after the money instead.

The episode of Lam enlisting Ernestine Hamilton as an amateur P.I. is different, and enjoyable to see him establish a platonic friendship with a woman.

Gardner's heritage as a pay-by-the-word pulp writer always shows through, with lots of incidental characters and conversations, and of course, characters getting unnecessary middle names, and businesses getting long complex partnership names; in order to get the word count up easily.

One caution: terms used for persons of Japanese ancestry reflect the bias of the times.