Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1926)

The play came first (1920), then the book was back-written from it (1926). Wikipedia states in its article The Bat that "the The Bat is a three-act play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood that was first produced by Lincoln Wagenhals and Collin Kemper in 1920." It was remade into film several times as well.

Major characters:

  • Courtleigh Fleming, bank president
  • Richard Fleming, nephew and heir to Courtleigh Fleming
  • Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, spinster
  • Sally Van Gorder Ogden, her sister
  • Dale Ogden, Sally's daughter
  • Jack Bailey, a.k.a. Brooks, the missing bank cashier
  • Lizzie Allen, the frenzied maid
  • Billy, the Japanese butler
  • Reginald Beresford, a young lawyer
  • Dr. Wells, family physician
  • "The Unknown", a mysterious amnesiac
  • Detective Anderson

Locale: a country place near New York City

Synopsis: A master criminal, "The Bat", is at large in New York; having committed countless burglaries and a few murders. Newspaper reporters are eager o chase down The Bat in order to get the exclusive story. Police Detective Wentworth had tried to do so earlier, and wound up shot for his trouble.

Meanwhile, Union Bank has gone belly up (this predates the FDIC), and president Courtleigh Fleming passed away, along with the knowledge of where the missing funds went. Jack Bailey, the cashier is missing too. 

Spinster Miss Cornelia Van Gorder wants to rent a summer place in the country to get away from New York City, and seizes the chance to rent the now-vacant home of Courtleigh Fleming; making arrangements with Fleming's nephew, Richard Fleming. No sooner does she settle in than an anonymous letter tells her the house is "unhealthy for strangers."

Suspicion about the missing funds turns to Courtleigh Fleming (although dead). Many people have an interest in getting into his house, and the blueprints show a secret room somewhere. Could the money be there? To complicate matters, Cornelia's niece, Dale Ogden, is engaged to missing cashier Jack Bailey. Detective Anderson is installed in the house to figure it all out.


This book was back-written from the stage play, and it shows (not a criticism), but it easy to see this presented on stage as is; since all the action takes place in one room. I have seen the stage version, a nice period mystery. 

The middle portion of the book gets a bit tedious as the characters explore motives at length, point fingers at each other, and generally flail around as the lights regularly go on and off - expected in a stage version but a bit repetitive in a novel. The amnesiac "Unknown" stumbles, bleeding, into the house and yet no one seems too concerned about him and he is left to wander around unsupervised. 

There are a few comic episodes. Miss Cornelia's tricky interview of Brooks for the gardener position is hilarious, as she outwits him in her knowledge of gardening. At this point, it looks like Cornelia will be the one sharp enough to solve the mystery; since Detective Anderson just seems to harass people needlessly. Hysterical maid Lizzie brings laughs on the stage, but her mania is a bit tiring in print. The obligatory (real) bat makes an appearance too.

One loose end: chapter one is about an unnamed newspaperman itching to have a go at catching The Bat, and being turned loose by his editor to do so. I expected him to show up later in the story, but this story line is dropped and we do not hear from the newspaper angle again. 

The fascinating part of this book is that there is a person named "The Bat" who cannot be found, and a real person sitting among them whom they call "The Unknown". Could he be The Bat? No, that would be too simple. How these two are reconciled is a clever twist, although flirting with the standards of fair play.

Several instances of a light beam shining with a bat stencil applied to it to make a shadow must have been the inspiration for Batman's bat-signal. Wikipedia states Batman was created in 1939, so perhaps!

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

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Man Next Door by Mignon Eberhart (1942) 

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:
  • Maida Lovell, our protagonist, secretary to Steve Blake
  • Steve Blake, head of a government wartime (WWII) project
  • Bill Skeffington, his assistant
  • Christine (née Favor) Blake, Steve's sister-in-law, a war widow
  • Angela Favor, Christine's high-maintenance younger sister
  • Walsh Rantoul, the effeminate boarder
  • Nollie Lister, a nosy neighbor
  • "Smith", a foreign agent
Locale: Washington DC

Synopsis: Pretty Maida Lovell, secretary to war department executive Steve Blake, stops by Christine Blake's house (his widowed sister-in-law) where he is living and has his home office. She is to pick up some notes for his radio speech later that evening. She is in love with him, and jealous that Blake has been spending time with Christine's elegant penthouse-lifestyle sister, Angela Favor. She encounters - and rebuffs - prissy Walsh Rantoul in the house, who is mixing drinks and coming on to her. She goes upstairs to retrieve the notes, and Blake stops in at the same time. After Blake departs for his meeting, Maida goes downstairs to find Blake gone and Rantoul dead in the kitchen. It looks like Blake has murdered him, since they had words earlier.

A stranger who calls himself "Smith" enters. In order to protect Blake from discovery, he offers to dispose of Rantoul's body and the evidence, if Maida will find information about airplane movements for him. The information he asks for is to be public knowledge anyway, so she complies. Now she is trapped. Smith is obviously an enemy spy and he has a hold on Maida to find out more and more intelligence on wartime materiel and personnel movements.

Review: A riveting murder/spy mystery and love story all rolled into one. As in many of Eberhart's books, the protagonist is the cute brunette girl-next-door caught up in intrigue as she also faces losing the man she loves to a high-maintenance blonde. The descriptions of Washington DC set the tone of the story, as well as emphasizes how much of the progress there occurs not in Congress, but behind closed doors at cocktail parties. The WWII restrictions add to the flavor. This is a tight novel, with a small cast of characters. She outwitted me as usual. Three or four times I predicted how this was going to work out, but I was wrong every time. Even the title misled me, I thought "the man next door" referred to a certain person, but again, wrong.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The House at Satan's Elbow by John Dickson Carr (1965)

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Pennington Barclay, master of Greengrove
  • Deidre Barclay, his young wife
  • Fay Wardour, a.k.a. Fay Sutton, his secretary
  • Estelle Barclay, his sister
  • Dr. Edward Fortescue, family doctor
  • Annie Tiffin, cook
  • Mr. Justice Wildfare, long dead, but returning as a ghost?
  • Nick Barclay, New York magazine publisher
  • Garret Anderson, historical writer
  • Andrew Dawlish, attorney

Locale: England

Synopsis: Old Clovis Barclay had left the Greengrove estate to eldest son Pennington. Then a second will is found, which left the estate to grandson Nick Barclay instead. Nick comes to the UK, and heads for the estate with his friend Garret Anderson. Nick doesn't want the estate, and plans to give it to Pennington anyway.

The estate comes with a legend that the ghost of former owner Mr. Justice Wildfare visits periodically. They arrive to find the ghost has just visited Pennington, and shot at him; but the gun was loaded with blanks. They also discover that Pennington's secretary, Fay Wardour, is Garret's old girlfriend. The ghost makes a second appearance in a locked room and tries again with real bullets, this time wounding Pennington.

Review: First off, it is not a murder mystery - no one gets murdered, despite the cover blurb. It is two consecutive locked-room puzzles (same room each time). The Greengrove mansion is a sprawling, massive place with lots of overly specific description in the text - one sketch map would have been preferred - and could have avoided absurd statements of the obvious such as:

"What had been the left-hand window of the library as you stood inside the room looking out had now become the right-hand window as you stood outside looking in."

The details of room layouts, window layouts, etc. led me to believe something would be up with that, perhaps mirrors or a secret passage, but no. The household itself is an amusing collection of characters - manic Estelle is always running around, and beyond the sedate library and music room (with ear-shattering Gilbert and Sullivan records playing) is - yes, a pinball room at which the family enjoys playing pinball. Toss in a couple of love interests, and amongst all this fun is Annie Tiffin, the cook; who proves to be an enjoyable character and provides one of the keys for Dr. Fell to unravel the two puzzles.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Miss Pinkerton by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1932)

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:
  • Herbert Wayne, deceased - but still warm - as story begins
  • Paula Brent, his girlfriend
  • Miss Juliet Mitchell, his elderly, deaf aunt
  • Arthur Glenn, attorney
  • Florence Lenz, Glenn's secretary
  • Hugo, the butler
  • Mary, the cook (Hugo's wife)
  • Nurse Hilda Adams, a.k.a. "Miss Pinkerton"
  • Inspector Patton
  • Dr. -- Stewart
  • Charlie Elliott, neighbor, Paula Brent's former boyfriend
Locale: unspecified

Synopsis: Herbert Wayne lives on the 3rd floor of his aunt's (Miss Julia Mitchell) run-down mansion. It has seen better days - the only servants remaining are Hugo (butler) and Mary (cook, and Hugo's wife). Herbert had been speculating on stocks and now he is found shot. No one can determine if it was murder, suicide, or accident (he had been cleaning his gun).

Miss Julia is feeling poorly so Inspector Patton plants Nurse Adams in the home as her nurse. Wayne's girlfriend, Paula Brent, is distraught. Then it comes to light that her former boyfriend, Charlie Elliott, has been hanging around and threatening to do away with Wayne in order to get Paula back. This puts him at the top of the suspect list.


Nurse Adams is a great sneak to be our investigator. When talking on the phone to Inspector Patton, she addresses him as "doctor" so the family won't suspect. A lot of the book is devoted to figuring out if waster Wayne is a murder, suicide, or accident - and there is a lot of hanky-panky going on with the crime scene evidence too. The use of a newspaper in a murder is a new one. 

I do like the amusing episodes - the funniest is when Nurse Adams is keeping watch over her patient, Miss Julia, at night; and each is waiting for the other to fall asleep (reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre- with alternating peeps over the bed's footboard. Another amusing happening is repeated incidents of people getting trapped on the mansion's roof!

I learned a few essential things from this book:
  • Risus Sardonicus - an involuntary grin caused by muscular action, "may be caused by tetanus, strychnine poisoning or Wilson's disease, and has been reported after judicial hanging." Do a Google Image search for some creepy pictures.
  • How to tell if a person in a faint is faking - you will have to read the book to find this little technique out!
  • Rolled Stockings - a rather rebellious action in the 1920's-1930's by ladies by unclasping their stockings from their garters and rolling the tops so they stay up all by themselves. Shocking! See this article.
  • How to shoot somebody at close range without leaving the telltale powder burns.