Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Juggernaut by Alice Campbell (1928)

Barnes & Noble

About the author: Alice Campbell (1887-?) was an American-born British writer of detective fiction. Originally she came from Atlanta. She moved to New York City at the age of nineteen and quickly became a socialist and women’s suffragist. Later she moved to Paris. After World War One, the family left France for England, where Campbell continued writing crime fiction until 1950. She published her first work (THE JUGGERNAUT) in 1929. She wrote at least nineteen detective novels during her career. (goodreads)

Major characters:

  • Esther Rowe, nurse
  • Gregory Santorius, M.D., a doctor more interested in research
  • Jacques, his cook and houseman
  • Sir Charles Clifford, wealthy mill owner
  • Lady Therese Clifford, his second, much-younger trophy wife
  • Roger Clifford, Charles' son by his previous marriage
  • Miss Mary "Dido" Clifford, Charles' spinster sister
  • Captain Arthur Holliday, Lady Therese's boyfriend

Locale: Cannes, France

Synopsis: Nurse Esther Rowe, a Canadian, is on holiday in Cannes. She decides to stay on, and seeks employment with Dr. Gregory Santorius; a cold character who spends most of his time in his research lab. His patients consist of wealthy Americans and English. One is elegant Lady Therese Clifford, who has both a husband (Sir Charles Clifford) and a boyfriend (Captain Arthur Holliday).

Sir Charles becomes ill with typhoid, and the Cliffords hire Dr. Santorius and Esther Rowe to live-in for the duration of the illness. Esther befriends Charles' sister, Miss Mary "Dido" Clifford. 

Roger Clifford, Sir Charles' son from his previous marriage, returns home from a sales trip to America. Previously, Lady Therese had pursued him (her own stepson!) to be her lover, but he had rebuffed her. Now Roger and Esther are hitting it off, but Roger is beginning to show signs of Typhoid as well.

Nurse Esther gets a bit suspicious and finds a clue which reveals the sinister plot. Once it is known, things happen quickly and the action ramps up to the climax.


This book gets off to a very slow start. For the first half of the book, there is no mystery, just the cold-and-clammy doctor and girl-next-door nurse caring for their patient, Sir Charles; and a budding romance between nurse Esther and Roger Clifford, just back from a trip to America. 

Charles is reviewing his will, so that suggests something may develop. The much-younger catty Lady Therese may be waiting for him to pass so she can get her claws on his fortune, and into a much younger man - she is already after two, one of them her own stepson. Much of Lady Therese's dialog and that of the household is rendered in French, so a passing knowledge of conversational French is helpful.

The book is similar to the Nurse Keate novels of Mary Roberts Rinehart, with a couple of exceptions... there is no worship of the handsome doctor who actually is rather creepy, and the nurse's love interest takes root and develops.

This book was made into a movie in 1936 with Boris Karloff (good choice) as Dr. Santorius! Here is the synopsis but it has spoilers!

Free eBook

Available as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg:

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Lost Gallows by John Dickson Carr (1931)

About the author:

Major characters:
  • M. Henri Bencolin, a French police official
  • Sir John Landervorne, retired from Scotland Yard
  • Jeff Marle, our narrator
  • Sharon Grey
  • Nezam el Moulk, an Egyptian
  • Richard Smail, his chauffeur
  • Lt. Graffin, his secretary
  • Teddy, a man of small stature
  • George Dallings
  • Detective-Inspector Talbot
  • --- Bronson, a policeman
  • Colette Laverne
  • Jack Ketch, an alias assumed by the unknown suspect
Locale: London

Synopsis: Old friends M. Henri Bencolin and Sir John Landervorne discover a small model of a gallows while in the lounge at the Hellfire Club, where they live along with our narrator, Jeff Marle. They meet another friend George Dallings, who was lost in the fog one night and was startled by a vision of a shadow of a gallows.

The model turns out to have been sent to Egyptian Nezam el Moulk, also a resident of the club. While outside, they see el Moulk's limosine careening through the city, stopping in front of the club, apparently driven by a dead chauffeur Richard Smail

El Moulk and his secretary, drunkard Lt. Graffin, are being harassed by someone using the name of Jack Ketch, the name of a former hangman. El Moulk disappears and is believed to be his victim.

Review: This is not the usual Carr locked-room mystery. I struggled through it. I find Carr a bit hard to follow, as his writing tends to follow the random, unrelated thoughts of the narrator and focus is lost. What is he talking about, anyway? It is unclear what relationship Jeff Marle, the narrator, has with the characters other than describing events; and he is not even identified by name until well into the book. The Jack Ketch character drops tidbits about hangings having occurred in Ruination Street, which confounds the investigators as there is no such street. An explanation is provided at the end but it is extremely obscure. Sharon Grey and Colette Laverne are one-dimensional characters perhaps brought in just to have some women in the cast. A rule of fair play is violated in the identity of the mysterious Jack Ketch, and the ending requires a bit of explanation to the reader. Most, but not all, of the loose ends are tied up at the end. Caution: Use of the n-word to describe persons of African-American ancestry.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Face Cards 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:
  • Stephen Clearman, "King of Clubs"
  • Carlotta Clearman, "Queen of Diamonds"
  • Miss Phoebe Clearman, Stephen's spinster sister
  • Lulie Clearman, Stephen's daughter, "Queen of Hearts"
  • Nan Loftis, Lulie's friend
  • Jack Raynor, architect, "Jack of Hearts"
  • Nicky Goring, Raynor's friend
  • Gallagher "Galley" West, butlet/valet
  • Violet, Carlotta's maid
  • Duk Duk, a fierce mask, holder of a curse
  • Tony Barron, detective
  • Madame Murray, a.k.a. Martigny, a mysterious woman
  • Tadousac, a.k.a. De Vries, a mysterious henchman
Locale: Connecticut

Synopsis: This story is about Stephen Clearman, whose hobby is collecting - and wearing - exotic masks. He has the nickname "King of Clubs" as he has formed/joined many social clubs. His wife, Carlotta Clearman has the nickname "Queen of Diamonds" because of her great love for ... well, you guessed it. Stephen has a daughter, Lulie Clearman, from a previous marriage - and a spinster sister Miss Phoebe Clearman.

The Clearmans have just completed renovations on their home, Clearman Court, with the assistance of architect friend Jack Raynor - a ladykiller who has the nickname "Jack of Hearts". This was done in defiance of a legendary curse by "Duk-Duk", a fierce mask which lives on their mantle. The curse is that anyone who renovates the ancestral home will meet death, which has happened two times previously; but Stephen claims he overcomes the curse with his habit of wearing other masks each day.

The curse, however, wins out. Stephen is found dead - in a locked room - wearing one of his masks. His daughter Lulie disappears at the same time, immediately attracting suspicion. Detective Tony Barron is brought in to investigate, while Jack Raynor concentrates on finding his love, Lulie.


"Face Cards" refers to the Clearman family's tradition of assigning names of playing cards to family members and friends, which has nothing to do with the plot. This is a locked-room mystery, with plenty of creepy supernatural events thrown in, relating to exotic masks. 

The primary mystery is the disappearance of Lulie and the search for her. Friend Jack Raynor deduces some clues which lead to her discovery. Lulie's escape from her captors is well done but leaves a big question mark - why, upon attaining freedom, does she reject a policeman's offer of assistance, and instead seek out a lawyer? A bit thin here. The reason for her disappearance only comes out at the end, and the reader realizes plenty of clues have been dropped along the way. The motive for her disappearance comes as a suprise with a few shocking twists at the end.

Detracting from the book is the stereotyped portrayal of Violet, the maid, with her speech rendered in phonetics. This practice, unacceptable today, was the norm in the 1920's.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939)

Major characters:

  • Justice Wargrave, the retired "hanging judge"
  • Vera Clayborne, an ex-governess
  • Captain Philip Lombard, soldier of fortune
  • Emily Brent, religious spinster
  • General Macarthur, a tired old veteran
  • Dr. Armstrong, physician
  • Anthony Marston, likes fast cars and fast women
  • Mr. Blore, a.k.a. Davis, ex-CID investigator
  • Rogers, the butler
  • Mrs. Rogers, the cook
  • Isaac Morris, an arranger

Locale: Indian Island, Devon, England

Synopsis: Ten strangers are invited - by trickery - to Indian Island; to discover they are alone on the island. Their "host", U. N. Owen (get it?) does not appear, but leaves a photograph record accusing each of them of a murder to which they avoided prosecution.

Each of their rooms has a framed copy of the "Ten Little Indians" poem (which describes the Indians perishing one by one), and the dining room table has ten china Indian figures as a centerpiece.

One by one the guests are killed in accordance with the poem, each time of the china figures is taken from the table.

The diminishing guests determine there is no one else on the island, so the killer must be one of them.

Review: This classic Christie is a page turner, and the reader is challenged to figure out who is the killer, and how it is done. The use of a written confession, found later, clears up the mystery. This book should be left at home during your island vacation.

Note: There is use of the n-word in the text.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Fox Prowls by Valentine Williams (1937)

About the author: Valentine Williams (1883–1946) was an English journalist and writer of popular fiction. Williams was awarded the Military Cross as a soldier and wrote two autobiographical books about his war-time experiences. In the aftermath of war, he travelled widely as a reporter.  It was during this period that he began writing thrillers and around 1926 he gave up his post at the Daily Mail to pursue a full-time career as an author. (Wikipedia)

Major characters:

  • Major Geoffrey Armitage, British Secret Service agent
  • Boulton, British Secret Service agent
  • Ferdinand Vermulven, British Secret Service contact in Bucharest
  • Amenescu, an informer
  • Stephen Selmar, automobile executive
  • Melissa Selmar, his daughter
  • "The Fox", Baron De Bahl
  • Guido Miklas, architect, trigger man for The Fox

Locale: Romania

Synopsis: The British Secret Service are keeping their eye on "The Fox", Baron De Bahl. Their Bucharest contact, Ferdinand Vermulven, spots him on the street and alerts them. Major Geoffrey Armitage is assigned to follow him, but turns up drowned in the river.

Automobile executive Stephen Selmar receives word he has inherited a castle in Romania. He and daughter Melissa Selmar look it over and arrange for some renovations with The Fox and his architect henchman Guido Miklas. 

Informer Amenescu has information about The Fox for the secret service, and on his way to meet with agent Boulton, is stabbed.

The Selmars take up residence in the castle but become prisoners of The Fox as he turns it into a headquarters for gun-running into the Ukraine. Agent Boulton is on site as a manager and tries to save the Selmars and keep his own identity secret.

Review: This is a thriller (not a murder mystery) - while murders occur, they are described in real time with the killer known. It includes a bit of everything needed for an action thriller: a castle, the heroine imprisoned in its tower, a buried treasure, a border crisis, and even a German with a monocle. 

I was taken with the parallels with the James Bond novels: the hero is a British Secret Service agent, and the book begins and ends with him in his office exchanging risqué repartee with the secretary (Moneypenny style); and the somewhat cheesy ending with the heroine.

William's real-life experience in foreign affairs provides insight into the looming border skirmish which builds throughout. An exciting read.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Feathers Left Around by Carolyn Wells (1922)

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:
  • Ned Knox, a writer of short stories
  • "Little Anna" Knox, his vixen wife
  • Valentine Loft, lawyer, architect, financier; host of the gathering
  • Pauline Fuller, Valentine's fiancée
  • "Angel" Bob Baldwin, rare book dealer
  • Hugh Curran, (real name Hugh Dwyer), author of detective stories
  • Hetty Dwyer, Curran's sister
  • Miss Fitzgerald, Curran's fiancée
  • Stella Lawrence, psychic
  • Jack Meredith
  • -- Meredith, his wife
  • Countess Galaski, a Russian
  • Roly Mears, the amateur detective
  • Binns, the butler
  • Detective Kinney, of the police
  • Fleming Stone, private detective
  • Terence McGuire ("Fibsy") his urchin assistant

Locale: Westchester County, New York; and Springfield, Massachusetts

Synopsis: Writer Ned Knox and Valentine Loft have a discussion on how to best write detective stories. As a result of this discussion, Loft hosts a dinner party with Hugh Curran, succesful writer of detective stories, as guest of honor; at which he will lead a discussion on the topic. The discussion focuses on methods, motives, and locked-room mysteries.

The next morning, Curran fails to show for breakfast. He is discovered - dead - locked in his bedroom. He has been poisoned.

Detective Kinney arrives to investigate. With his permission, Angel Bob Baldwin, Val Loft, Ned Knox, and Roly Mears look for clues on their own; yet spend much time accusing each other. The one significant clue is that Curran's pocket watch has been taken, and it is known to contain a woman's photo.

Review: When a group gets together to discuss the best method of performing an undetectable murder in a story, you just know what is going to happen.

This follows a standard Wells pattern: the amateur detective (Roly Mears) flails around for most of the book exploring different motive theories, and near the end, Fleming Stone arrives on the scene with an assistant ("Fibsy") who runs down the vital clues; allowing Stone to pull off the denouement.

The plot is well made, with the fiancée disappearing immediately to become suspect #1. The middle part of running down various theories gets a bit tedious, but the arrival of Stone and Fibsy perk it up again. Fibsy is a character, a bit rough around the edges; and creates some amusing repartee when he winds up seated next to a countess at dinner. Nevertheless, he figures out how to flush out the missing fiancée all by himself. Stone and Fisby remind me of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Note: Contains one use of pejorative slang term (d****) for persons of African-American ancestry; as well as their imagined dialog rendered in stereotyped phonetics. Distasteful to today's readers, but an indication of norms of the time.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Murder R.F.D. by Herman Petersen (1942)

About the author: Petersen was born in Utica, New York on September 9, 1893; he sold his first story, “ The seven gilded balls, ” to Black Mask in June 1922. Petersen's best times in the pulp business were between 1922-33; Petersen did not depend on the pulps for his livelihood, as he worked for Utica newspapers and in 1943 became a fourth-class postmaster for Poolville, New York; he sold his first full length mystery novel, Murder in the Making, in 1940; other novels include Murder R.F.D.Old Bones, and The D.A.'s Daughter; he also published a humorous autobiography titled, Country Chronicle (1945); his historical novel, The Covered Bridge (1950), was later adapted for television and aired in 1952; his final mystery novel was The House in the Wilderness (1957) Petersen died July 1973. Source: Online Archive of adds "Petersen’s only other mystery novel, “The House in the Wilderness,” was published serially in 1957 and did not see book publication." 

About this title: I have three books by Herman Petersen (my other two are The D.A.'s Daughter and Old Bones). The spelling of his name is Petersen on two, and Peterson on the other. 'Petersen' is correct. If you search for his books, try both spellings. He also wrote Murder in the Making which I have yet to locate (at an affordable price).

Correction: The blurb for this title on the inside cover states that Charlie Russell (killed by a bull) was also found to have a bullet in his head. This is incorrect, the character killed by a bullet is someone else - Tom Wykeham.

Major characters:
  • Ben Wayne, our narrator
  • Marian Wayne
  • Willie Wales, son of the Wayne's housekeeper; a simple man who enjoys tracking 
  • Louis Telford, a neighbor
  • Mrs. Hudson, Telford's housekeeper
  • Charlie Russell, killed by Deuel's bull
  • "Doc" Miller
  • Orville Deuel
  • Agatha Deuel, his wife
  • Cristine Nelson, Agatha Deuel's niece
  • Pat Gordon, Deuel's farm hand
  • Jimmy Kinney, Deuel's farm hand
  • Tom Wykeham, a loner
  • Paul Burns, D.A.

Locale: not specified, but likely rural upstate New York

Synopsis: Narrator Ben Wayne and his wife Marian live in Dark House. They hear Orville Deuel's bull has gored a man (Charlie Russell) to death and run off. Wayne and neighbor Louis Telford track down the bull with the help of Willie Wales; and return him to Deuel's farm. Suspicion mounts against farm hand Jimmy Kinney, who had been heard threatening to turn the bull on Russell earlier.

No sooner had this happened, when Tom Wykeham is found dead on his property. Rumors abound of a love affair between him and Agatha Deuel.

Jimmy Kinney and fellow farm hand Pat Gordon have disappeared. In the search for them, Agatha is also found murdered.

Review:  Herman Petersen is a pleasure to read, and I wish he had more titles. He captures the peaceful rural countryside perfectly. He is a master of language, as well. 

Our narrator, Ben Wayne, is cut from the same cloth as Hank Wilbur in The D.A.'s Daughter. We follow his thoughts in detail as he works his way through the mystery of Tom Wykeham's death. Many of the themes are similar to The D.A.'s Daughter.  There is the illicit December-May romance, and the climax of searching underwater for a murder weapon. Observations of nature lead to an important clue when Ben Wayne casually observes the activities of some ants. Simple Willie Wales is a fascinating character, with his Indian-like insights. 

Modern readers may need some help understanding the world of the 1940's with party-line telephones (a shared system where each subscriber has a unique ring signal, and the ability to eavesdrop on others' conversations) and the R.F.D. (Rural Free Delivery) mail system.