Thursday, December 31, 2020

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie (1968)

 


Major characters:
  • Aunt Ada, Tommy's Beresford's aunt
  • Mrs. Moody, a.k.a. Cocoa, resident of Sunny Ridge
  • Julia Lancaster, resident of Sunny Ridge
  • Miss Packard, administrator of Sunny Ridge
  • Amos and Alice Perry, residents of the riverside house
  • Emma Boscowan, widow of painter Boscowan
  • Nellie Bligh, church secretary
  • Mr. Eccles, attorney
  • Tommy & Tuppence Beresford
Locale: rural England

Synopsis: Aging Tommy and Tuppence Beresford go to visit his Aunt Ada, at Sunny Ridge nursing home. They meet resident Julia Lancaster, who makes veiled hints about a child who was killed and walled up behind a fireplace. Soon, Aunt Ada passes away, and Julia Lancaster is removed from the home by relatives.

Administrator Miss Packard has the Beresfords go through Aunt Ada's possessions. One item is a painting of a little house by a canal, which was given to Aunt Ada by Julia Lancaster. Tuppence recognizes the scene as one she has seen from the window of a train.

Tuppence wants to return the painting to Julia Lancaster, but is unable to track her down - every inquiry she makes is fruitless. She decides to track down the house in the painting, and finds it occupied by Amos and Alice Perry, who also have stories about children being killed in the vicinity years ago. While trying to track down Mrs. Lancaster, Tuppence is attacked.

Review: The first third of the book seemed quite somber to me, dealing with the inevitability of aging, not only of the Beresfords, but also residents in a nursing home. Agatha was in her late 70's at this writing, and it must have been on her mind as well. I thought about stopping at that point. Then Tuppence got on the trail of tracking down the painting, the narrative recovered and got more exciting. The happenings around the little house get revealed bit by bit, and near the end the story takes a rather suprising and startling turn with Tuppence getting into extreme danger. An excellent story, in which the scary people turn out to be quite pleasant, and the pleasant people turn out quite scary.


Sunday, December 27, 2020

Murder on the Bridge by Lynn Brock (1930)

 

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Original title: Q.E.D.

About the author: Lynn Brock (1877-1943) was the pseudonym of Alister McAllister, an Irish writer. McAllister was born in Dublin and educated at the National University of Ireland, where he became Chief Clerk. He served in British Intelligence and in the machine gun corps during WW1. (gadetection)

Major characters:

  • Dr. Sidney Melhuish, overworked doctor
  • Barbara "Pickles" Melhuish, his wife
  • Simon Wyckham Melhuish, their son
  • Harry Halliday, their chauffeur
  • Colonel Wyckham Gore, good friend of Pickles, godfather to Simon
  • Gretta Higgins, tried for murder and acquited
  • Woodbine and Bullock, two tramps
  • Dr. Dorch, a money lender
  • Ross, Dr. Dorch's secretary
  • Anderson, Dr. Dorch's chauffer
  • Inspector Lord

Locale: England

Synopsis: Dr. Sidney Melhuish, a G.P. (General Practitioner), is called out on a foggy night to see Sir William Larmour. The doctor's wife, "Pickles", is out of town visiting her friend (?) Colonel Wyckham Gore. Chauffeur Harry Halliday takes the doctor to see his patient, across "The Bridge", a high suspension bridge running 250 feet above a busy river. The Bridge has a manned toll booth at each end, and due to construction economy, not lighted in the middle. 

Halfway across The Bridge, they are flagged down by a pedestrian who says a man is in need of aid on the sidewalk. Melhuish exits to render assistance, and disappears in the fog. Halliday loses track of him and cannot locate him. Leaving the car in the middle, Halliday walks back to the toll booth for assistance, but Melhuish cannot be found.

Later that morning, a boat crew finds Melhuish's body on the riverbank. He had been struck and thrown off the bridge. A routine check with Sir William Larmour reveals the call for the doctor was a hoax, and it appears the doctor was lured to the bridge.

A homeless tramp, Woodbine, is found dead on the local golf course, poisoned from a drink. In his pocket is a metal badge with Q.E.D. engraved on it. Nearby lives Dr. Dorch, a moneylender, with his secretary Ross and chauffeur Anderson.

Colonel Wyckham Gore and Inspector Lord come to see Pickles and investigate. They find letters on his desk with references to "Q.E.D." Is there a connection to Woodbine? Did someone want him dead? 

Review: This book immediately draws the reader into the scary world of a high suspension bridge on a foggy night. Much of the initial action takes place on the bridge. It is a page turner, and no sooner had I started then I was halfway through. 

Then, suddenly, the story turns to Woodbine the dead tramp and his Q.E.D. badge, and his connection to moneylender Dr. Dorch who lives nearby. Dorch has not been seen for a while, and is rumored to be in the US. He left his house in care of his secretary, Ross, and chauffeur Anderson; who are packing up Dorch's house as fast as they can. The story quickly bogs down on this note, with interminable following of cars and people, and even following of dogs. Several dogs play a part in the story, I could not figure out their significance.

The first half was great and suspenseful, the second half plodding. Much effort was placed on connecting the two deaths, but really was unnecessary. It seemed as if two separate books had been spliced together.

Note: The word chauffeur is written as 'shover' throughout. This homophone trick took a bit to figure out.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Anybody But Anne by Carolyn Wells (1913)

 

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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. See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Raymond Sturgis, our narrator
  • Anne Mansfield Van Wyck
  • David Van Wyck, her husband
  • Morland Van Wyck, David's son by previous marriage
  • Barbara Van Wyck, David's daughter by previous marriage
  • Barclay Lasseter, David's secretary
  • Beth Fordyce, a mystic
  • Mrs. Stelton, a widow
  • Condon "Connie" Archer
  • Mrs. Carstairs, the creepy housekeeper
  • -- Carstairs, her son, a valet
  • The library committee: Millar, Brandt, and Garson
  • Markham, local detective
  • Fleming Stone, the master detective
Locale: The Berkshires (western Massachusetts)

Synopsis: Raymond Sturgis sets out to visit his school-days sweetheart, Anne Mansfield - now Anne Mansfield Van Wyck; married to brusk David Van Wyck. They live in a U-shaped mansion, a main house with two attached wings. One wing is David's study. Raymond finds that he is not the only one enchanted with Anne, she is also desired by Condon "Connie" Archer, and even her own stepson, Morland Van Wyck.

David goes in for sudden impulses, the latest is becoming a Philanthropist. He wants to give his entire fortune to the community to build a library. The family is aghast, it will leave them penniless. Against their wishes, David sets up a meeting to make the donation - in his study, with the library committee of Millar, Brandt, and Garson. The next morning, Van Wyck does not show for breakfast. Then he is found locked in his study, dead from an apparent stab wound. The room is locked tight, and there is no weapon in evidence. The family heirloom, the priceless Van Wyck pearls, are missing. The deed giving the fortune to the library is missing also.

Review: As soon as the book describes the house's unique architecture in detail, we can tell we are being set up for a locked-room mystery. The house has two wings, but they are only attached to the main house at narrow points, only wide enough for connecting doors:


My first thought was some hanky-panky would occur at one of the inside corners, where you could see out one window and into another, but no. The layout does play a part in the crime, and it is well described in advance, giving the reader broad hints to "watch here!"

It is a bit amusing to see various suitors lined up to be the next husband for Anne, even before the body cools off. Five men, by my count, are in love with Anne and waiting to be next.

Mystic Beth Fordyce and Housekeeper Mrs. Carstairs are both rather etherial. They never walk anywhere, but just "glide" through the house.

We have three detectives to deal with: The amateur (Raymond Sturgis), the local (Markham), and the prima donna (Fleming Stone). Stone makes a cameo appearance early in the book - unusual for a Carolyn Wells. 

Overall, a fine period locked-room mystery with lots of family drama.





Monday, December 21, 2020

The Dragon's Teeth by Ellery Queen (1939)

 

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Major characters:
  • Cadmus Cole, mult-millionaire
  • Margo Cole, a.k.a. Ann Strange, his niece
  • Kerrie Shawn, his niece
  • Edmund De Carlos, Cadmus' agent/assistant
  • Lloyd Goossens, Cadmus' attorney
  • Violet Day, Kerrie's roommate
  • Beau Rummel, private investigator
  • Ellery Queen, private investigator
Locale: New York City and Tarrytown, NY

Synopsis: Ellery Queen has gone into the P.I. business with Beau Rummel. Their first client is Cadmus Cole, multi-millionaire. Cadmus insists on hiring Ellery only. He provides a $15k retainer against future services, to be outlined in his will when he dies. His death occurs a few days later, on his yacht in the Caribbean, and he is quickly buried at sea.

The instructions he left are simple: Just locate his heirs for the estate. They are Margo Cole, the daughter of his brother Huntley (deceased); and Kerrie Shawn, the daughter of his sister Monica (also deceased).

Beau is going to run down the heirs, but as the contract was with Ellery only, he goes by Ellery's name to do so - a bit unethical.

The two nieces are found. Kerrie is looking for work in Hollywood, and Margo is living a life of opulent ease in Paris. They come to New York City. Now for the second stipulation in Cole's will: the girls will inherit his fortune, but only if they reside in his Tarrytown estate for a period of one year. They move in, but don't get along. If one of them dies, her share of the fortune reverts to the other. There are several attempts on Kerrie's life - are they accidents, or is Margo trying to cash in? Beau Rummel (as Ellery Queen) hatches a plan to protect Kerrie - by marrying her, which cuts her out of the estate. They wind up together in a cheap hotel room - then Margo is shot dead, with Kellie found holding the gun.

Review: This is a nice tight Queen mystery. There is a small cast of characters, and forcing the two heirs to live together adds to the tension. There are a number of odd clues and red herrings: false teeth, pens and pencils, wigs, etc. The will with odd conditions, and the fact that Cadmus Cole dies right away but is buried at sea (thus, no body) raises suspicion of hanky-panky. There's a lot of identity misdirection. A good solid Queen for the period.

One loose end: what happened to the injured horse?

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Man with a Load of Mischief by Martha Grimes (1981) Richard Jury #1

 


This is #1 of 25 books featuring Richard Jury. See this Wikipedia article for biography and list of the 25 Richard Jury books. Click this Martha Grimes label to see all my reviews of this series.


Major characters:

  • William Small, Esq., dead man #1
  • Rufus Ainsley, dead man #2
  • Jubal Creed, dead man #3
  • Simon Matchett, proprietor of the MLM pub, a widower
  • Inspector Richard Jury
  • Melrose Plant, a former lord
  • Lady Agatha Ardry, Melrose's aunt
  • Oliver Darrington, mystery writer
  • Sheila Hogg, his secretary/mistress
  • Denzil Smith, the vicar
  • Ruby Judd, the vicar's housemaid
  • Vivian Rivington, a plain poet
  • Isabel Rivington, her elegant stepsister
  • Marshall Trueblood, gay? antique dealer

Locale: England

Synopsis: The village of Long Piddleton endures two murders in as many days. The first is William Small, Esq., who is found garroted - and if that is not enough, he is stuffed headfirst into a beer keg at the Man with a Load of Mischief pub. The next day Rufus Ainsley is found dead, his body resting on the support bar for the sign over the Jack and Hammer pub. Both men are strangers in town.

Inspector Richard Jury of Scotland Yard is called in. With the help of local ex-lord Melrose Plant (and despite help from Plant's Aunt Agatha Ardry) Jury sets about to find the killer. In the meantime the vicar's housemaid, Ruby Judd, has disappeared as well. Most of the locals all have something to hide, but what is the motive to knock off three men at three pubs?

Review: This was my first read of a Richard Jury book, and it is a delight. I quickly found that the book could not possibly be read quickly - it is so full of wonderful language, dialogue, and even strange use of words (there was no customing going on in the pub ... because there were no customers). This book immerses the reader in the coziness of British pubs. The description of The Man with a Load of Mischief pub with the dark, low-ceilinged dining room and bar downstairs, and a number of guest rooms upstairs, closely matched my only experience with the like, being The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. I am now in the process of gathering more Richard Jurys!

and then nowwe have this little mystery...apparently no connection to the book, but could there be a musical?





Friday, December 11, 2020

Inspector Frost in the City by H. Maynard Smith (1930)

 

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About the author: GADetection states: H(erbert) Maynard Smith (1869-1949). Born in London; educated at Wellington College, Oxford, and Cuddesdon Theological College; Canon, Church of England; editor of Church Quarterly Review. His seven crime novels feature Inspector Austin Frost of Scotland Yard, "all of them negligable as detection and tedious as mere adventure" (Barzun / Taylor).

Major characters:

  • McKinley M. Macmillan, "Triple Mac", wealthy American #1
  • Edward van Storck, wealthy American #2
  • Robert Hugh Bolton, 35, art collector
  • Michael Stepanovich, 67, antique dealer
  • Alexander Stepanovich, his son, seller of Russian jewels
  • Ms. Ransom, boarding house owner
  • Lizzie Ransom, her daughter
  • -- Brown, ex-con, now valet to R. H. Bolton
  • Mrs -- Brown, ex-con, his wife, now housekeeper to A. Stepanovich
  • Friedrich Festonen, 45, a Finn
  • Karl Weil
  • Max Weil, his brother
  • Detective Billy Smith
  • Inspector Austin Frost, our narrator

Locale: London

Synopsis: A body is found in a dark alley, Bolter's Court. It appears to be McKinley M. Macmillan, "Triple Mac", and has been stabbed with an antique dagger. A man is found standing over the body, who identifies himself as Edward van Storck, a wealthy American.

Both identifications fall apart. Triple Mac is alive and well in the US. The bystander is found to be Robert Hugh Bolton, who immediately lights it out for Paris.

Inspector Austin Frost and Detective Billy Smith seek to identify the body, but make no immediate progress. The investigation centers on a number of people with connections to Russia and the sale of compromising documents. The dead man is identified, and found to be living in a boarding house run by Ms. Ransom and her daughter Lizzie Ransom. 


Review: Despite other reviews I have seen, I found this story fast moving and engaging. The skullduggery of the Russians and the amusing repartée between Frost and Smith and the fantastic characters remind me of the Manning Coles adventures of Tommy Hambledon. 

A nice aspect is that the story pauses twice while Inspector Frost reviews the case, naming each person and summarizing their involvement thus far. It makes following the story much easier for the reader.

A drawback is that some chapters contain long passages of alternating conversation, without periodic clues as to who is speaking - so it takes a bit of concentration to follow along. 





Monday, December 7, 2020

The Clue of the Forgotten Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner (1934)

 


This is one of the non-Perry Mason books. Originally written under the pseudonym of Carleton Kendrake (the only book written under this name).

Major characters:

  • Charles Morden, reporter for The Blade
  • Edward Shillingby, private detective, dead
  • Frank B. Cathay, bank director and general big-wig
  • Mary Briggs, a hitchhiker
  • Dan Bleeker, publisher of The Blade
  • Charles Fisher, a lawyer
  • Sidney Griff, a criminologist

Locale: not stated

Synopsis: (Story line 1) Charles Morden, reporter for The Blade, is following a story in which Edward Shillingby, private detective, is shot dead on the street. The shooter had stopped Thomas Decker just moments before, but inquiring and finding that he was not Shillingby, passed him up to find Shillingby further up the block, shooting him as Decker witnesses. Morden runs a story on the murder, and not longer after, Morden is hit on the head and killed.

(Story line 2) Meanwhile, police pick up a man, giving the name John Smith, for driving while intoxicated. He has a woman with him - Mary Briggs, a hitchhiker. At the station, they find he seems to be Frank B. Cathay, an investor and bank director. This is scandalous as big-wheel Cathay was out drinking with a woman not his wife. The Blade runs a story on it. Then the real Frank B. Cathay shows up, indignant that someone is impersonating him and that The Blade has libeled him by publishing the story that he was the drunk driver. The Blade admits the error and runs a retraction. Then Cathay is found dead - poisoned. Dan Bleeker, publisher of The Blade, hires criminologist Sidney Griff to find the killer.

Review: This was not my favorite Gardner, but I stuck with it to the end. It is too hard to follow. There are two separate story lines running in parallel, and each one has way too many characters. Any character that pops in for any reason is named, which causes the reader to try to note and remember that name. 

Further, many characters use aliases, sometimes three. Dan Bleeker himself gets exasperated in Chapter XVII: "My God, this case is full of women, and every woman has at least one alias.We started with the hitchhiker, who gave the name of Mary Briggs to the police. We now find her in a hotel registered under the name of Stella Mokley, and probably that's not her real name. Then, there's this Stanway woman, who apparently is Blanche Malone; and there's Alice Lorton, who built up a fictitious [identity of] Esther Ordway. I wouldn't doubt if it turns out that Mrs. Cathay really isn't Mrs. Cathay at all." Confused yet?

This story was written (1934) about the same time as the first Perry Mason (1933). Criminologist Sidney Griff is a takeoff on Perry Mason - the dominating brain behind the investigation who pushes the story forward - while publisher Dan Bleeker is a takeoff on P.I. Paul Drake who does all the legwork. This was the only book written under the pseudonym of Carleton Kendrake, so this was never developed into a series.

Friday, December 4, 2020

The House with the Blue Door by Hulbert Footner (1942)

 

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About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Sandra Cassells, wealthy social reformer
  • Agnes Delaplaine. her housekeeper
  • Sieg Ammon, ex-Sing Sing prison
  • Letty Ammon, his wife
  • Richard "Blondy" Farren, ex-Sing Sing prison
  • Queenie Deane, night club singer
  • "Handbag Hattie" Oliver, a thief 35
  • "Spanish Jack" D'Acosta, 44, croupier
  • Soup and Mary Kennedy, cooks
  • Amos Lee Mappin, investigator
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Wealthy social reformer Sandra Cassells always has to have a Project. Her latest is buying a shabby house in lower Manhattan, and renovating it into a hostel for just-released convicts. She is quite selective about her guests: they have to be on the younger side, and have potential for rehabiliation.

Sandra invites her friend, investigator Amos Lee Mappin, to dinner to meet her first three residents: Sieg and Letty Ammon, and Richard "Blondy" Farren. She names the place "Hope House" and looks to the Ammons to be the hosts at the home (which had its front door repainted blue as part of the spruce-up), along with Soup and Mary Kennedy as cooks/housekeepers. Mappin cautions her that this plan could lead to all sorts of trouble if she is not careful.

It becomes apparent that Blondy has his eyes on Letty, so she arranges for him to get a job in distant Cleveland instead. She recruits a third boarder, "Spanish Jack" D'Acosta, an out-of-work croupier. Letty sneaks out one night to meet someone - could it be Blondy? - and she winds up dead.

Review: Amos Lee Mappin is a great unofficial investigator - he is tight with the authorities, and he has the plodding, detail oriented work ethic of the detective. You can feel the tension build at the home as it becomes populated with the ex-cons. When Letty is killed, Mappin looks for the smallest details to build a version of what happened. Much of the chase is for a mystery man who has been seen but not identified. This is one of the better Footners I have read, and I am keeping my eye out for more.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (1937)

 

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Major characters aboard the S. S. Karnak:
  • Linnet Ridgeway, too rich and entitled
  • "Uncle" Andrew Pennington, Linnet's American trustee
  • Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet's friend
  • Simon Doyle, stolen away from Jacqueline
  • Tim Allerton, a mama's boy
  • Mrs. Allerton, Tim's mother
  • James Fanthorp
  • Marie Van Schuyler, missing her stole
  • Cornelia Robson, cousin to Marie Van Schuyler
  • Dr. Carl Besner
  • Mrs. Salome and Miss Rosalie Otterbourne
  • Lousie Bourget, Linnet's maid
  • Signor Richetti, archeologist
  • Miss Bowers, a nurse
  • Ferguson, a communist
  • Fleetwood, engineer on the crew
  • Hercule Poirot
  • Colonel Race
And...
  • Lord Charles Windlesham, who would have been a proper choice for a husband
  • Joanna Southwood, Tim's 2nd cousin
Locale: England (briefly), then Egypt

Synopsis: Wealthy Linnet Ridgeway has been renovating her newly-purchased country house, and stringing along stiff old Lord Charles Windlesham about marriage. Windlesham cools on the idea when he realizes she would expect him to move in to her ghastly place, while he prefers his own palatial country house. So no deal.

Linnet's friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort, invites herself over to show off her fiancé, Simon Doyle; and suggests Linnet employ him as Land Manager. Linnet not only does so, but also steals him away from Jacqueline, and marries him.

Linnet and Simon head to Egypt for their honeymoon. Jacqueline pops up there also, following them around and bent on making Linnet miserable. Hercule Poirot is there on vacation. Linnet appeals to him to make Jacqueline just go away. Poirot reluctantly speaks to Jacqueline, without effect. Linette, Simon, Jacqueline, et al. embark on a journey on the S. S. Karnak.

Things come to a head quickly on the boat. Jacqueline confronts Simon, and shoots him in the leg. She is overcome with remorse and retires to her cabin, attended by nurse Miss Bowers. Then Linnet is found shot dead in her own cabin. Jacqueline is the obvious suspect, but has a iron-clad alibi: Nurse Bowers was with her all night. Now Linnet's valuable pearls are missing also.

Review: Linnet is the Ugly American - showy, braggy, entitled, and the Girl You Love to Hate. Right away I was rooting for her to be Victim #1. After a brief introduction to principals in England, we move right away to Egypt. I find some Christies hard to follow due to an overload of characters, and a lot of sleight of hand. This one I could follow fine. A most enjoyable read and the pieces fit together nicely at the end.

My edition has a map of the boat's layout (Ch. XII, p. 149) which appears at an appropriate point.

Aside: Every time I see the name S. S. Karnak I have this vision of Johnny Carson in a turban.

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

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Killing of Judge Mac Farlane by Mary Plum (1930)

 


About the author: All I could find is this Goodreads list and this bibliography on classiccrimefiction.com.

Major characters:
  • Gerland Louis Gilfillan Gillespie, "G", our British protagonist
  • Brick Carrio, the body
  • Judge -- Mac Farlane
  • Claire Mac Farlane, his daughter
  • Mrs. Downing, the housekeeper
  • Lucy Miles, the parlor maid
  • Willard Ferguson, the family lawyer
  • Tugs Schrader
  • Detective John Smith
Locale: Chicago

Synopsis: Gerland Louis Gilfillan Gillespie, "G", has moved from England to Chicago in search of adventure. He finds it when he opens his apartment to find a body on the floor, a knife in his neck, and wearing a knife-proof metal vest under his shirt. The dead man, a gangster identified as 'Brick' Carrio, had been scrawling something on the floor with his own blood, spelling out "INCH", the rest unreadable. When his name gets in the papers, G is invited to meet with Judge Mac Farlane, who is seeking information on the Chicago underworld. G meets with him, and is enchanted by his daughter Claire Mac Farlane. G returns to his apartment and is called upon by a man claiming to be the police fingerprint expert, who goes around the apartment ostensibly photographing fingerprints of the murderer, but in reality erasing them.

G and Tugs Schrader, a friend of the judge, go to visit the judge, but on the way find his body sprawled in the road - a setup waiting for the next car to come along and run over him, disguising the fact he was already dead. There is more drama at the judge's home: housekeeper Mrs. Downing has found out she is being cut of the judge's will, and parlor maid Lucy Miles is caught opening the judge's safe. 

After breaking the news of the judge's death to Claire, G learns that Brick Carrio had been in the judge's house the night before, removing a confession from his safe.

Review: This story emphasizes the wisdom of the old rule - if you are going to cut someone out of your will, never, never, never tell them before you do it. This story kept me guessing. The victims are daisy-chained: A is dead, apparently by B. Now B is dead, apparently by C. Now C is dead .. and so on. A thoroughly enjoyable story with Chicago gangsters lurking around the edges, but never becoming a significant part of the story. I could not locate any biographical info on Mary Plum, and I could only find references to these other books:
  • Susanna, Don't You Cry
  • Murder Of A Red Haired Man
  • Murder at the Hunting Club
  • Dead Man's Secret
  • State Department Cat 
  • Murder at the World's Fair.




Monday, November 23, 2020

Faulkner's Folly by Carolyn Wells (1917)

 



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. See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:

  • The late James Faulkner, builder of Faulkner's Folly
  • Beatrice Faulkner, his widow
  • Eric Stannard, artist, dying as story opens
  • Joyce Stannard, his wife
  • Barry Stannard, his son by previous marriage
  • Natalie Vernon, the voluptuous live-in model
  • Blake, the footman
  • Annette, the maid
  • Eugene Courteney, neighbor
  • Mr. Wadsworth, widower
  • Mr. & Mrs. Truxton, jewel collectors
  • Coroner Lamson
  • Detective Bobsy Roberts
  • Orienta, a clairvoyant
  • Alan Ford, professional detective

Locale: Long Island, NY

Synopsis: James Faulkner had built an opulent mansion. He ran out of money in the process, and so it became known as Faulkner's Folly. He passed away two years ago, and his widow, Beatrice Faulkner, has sold the mansion to Eric and Joyce Stannard.

Eric Stannard is an artist and employs Natalie Vernon, a cute young blonde thing as his live-in model; much to the annoyance of wife Joyce. Stannard was also working on a portrait of Beatrice Faulkner, which was part of the purchase price of the house. She is visiting to pose as usual, and comes down the grand staircase to find excitement in the studio: Eric is found stabbed to death in his chair, with wife Joyce and model Natalie standing behind him looking at each other.

Not only is he dead, but his priceless emerald collection is missing. Local detective Robert "Bobsy" Roberts investigates, but cannot figure out which woman is guilty. A local clarivoyant, Orienta, offers her services. After demonstrating her prowess of reading notes inside sealed envelopes in the dark, she proceeds to describe the murder - and murderer - in great detail. To the shock of the family, she exonerates Joyce and Natalie, and reveals the murderer is a man, and describes him, but cannot put a name to him.

The family becomes frustrated with Bobsy's lack of progress, and hires professional detective Alan Ford. After briefly interviewing the principals, he reveals the murderer.

Review: This Carolyn Wells follows the usual Fleming Stone formula of the ace detective (but this time, Alan Ford) showing up in the final chapter to take a quick sniff around and then reveal everything which should have been obvious to the locals. This is an excellent plot, and there are several parallel mysteries:
  • Who killed Eric?
  • How did the murderer enter/exit the room?
  • Where did the emeralds go?
  • How does Orienta read sealed notes in the dark?
The plot is complicated by four love connections which are gradually revealed. All four mysteries noted above are solved. I was beginning to suspect some fair play issues, but there are none. All the hints were revealed. 

A crime scene map is provided which is valuable in understanding the setup.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Case of the Backward Mule by Erle Stanley Gardner (1946)

 

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This is a continuation of my reviews of Gardner's non-Perry Mason novels. This is the second (and last) of two Terry Clane novels (the first is Murder Up My Sleeve).

Major characters:

  • Terry Clane, attorney, in tight with the Chinese community; a.k.a. First Born, and Owl
  • Yat T'oy, Terry's servannt
  • Alma Renton, a widow, Terry's love interest
  • Cynthia Renton,  Alma's sister, a.k.a. Painter Woman
  • Horace Farnsworth, E.A.I.T.C.*, already dead 
  • Stacey Nevis, E.A.I.T.C.
  • George Gloster,  E.A.I.T.C.
  • Ricardo Taonon, E.A.I.T.C.
  • Daphne Taonon, his wife
  • Bill Hendrum 
  • Edward Harold, convicted of Farnsworth's death
  • Sou Ha, a.k.a. Embroidered Halo
  • Inspector Malloy
* Eastern Art Import and Trading Company

Locale: San Francisco

Synopsis: Terry Clane returns to San Francisco from studying concentration in the Orient. No sooner does he step off the boat, when  the police bring him in for questioning. Edward Harold is on death row for the murder of Horace Farnsworth (boyfriend of Cynthia Renton after Terry broke up with her). Now Farnsworth has escaped, Cynthia is nowhere to be found, and the police think Terry knows their whereabouts. The police show him a wooden figure of a Chinese man riding a mule backwards, and ask if he recognizes it. He does. It belongs to Cynthia Renton, and now it has blood spots on it.

Terry is convinced that Harold is innocent of the charges, and seeks to find him. He is called to a meeting at a warehouse of the Eastern Art Import and Trading Company (E.A.I.T.C.), whose owners are George Gloster, Stacey Nevis, Ricardo Taonon, and the late Horace Farnsworth. Terry enters the warehouse to find someone has been living there. Then he finds the body of George Gloster.

Review: It is too bad there were only two Terry Clane books, they are excellent; especially for their descriptions of the Chinese community. After reading these, one feels as if he could go to Chinatown and feel right at home.

Sou Ha is a great character, well developed and believable as she guides Terry (and the reader) through the mysteries of Chinatown. Cynthia Renton has the leading mysterious where-is-she woman role, her sister Alma is relegated to a brief mention.

Terry Clane's identity is vague - in the first book he is referred to as a lawyer, but his life seems to circle around his trips to China to study with the monks. Bill Hendrum is a puzzle, his role is never explained. Inspector Malloy can be annoying, but that's his job.

A final little mystery - why did nine years elapse beween book #1 (1937) and #2 (1946)?

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Mystery of the Folded Paper by Hulbert Footner (1930)

 

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Also published as "The Folded Paper Mystery"

About the author: See this Wikipedia article

Major characters:
  • Finlay Corveth, news feature writer
  • Nick Peters, watchmaker
  • Henny Friend, owner of Boloney Bar
  • Nick Casino, a hit man
  • Kid River, small time hoodlum
  • General Diamond, a mercenary, a.k.a "The American"
  • Nipperg, a.k.a. "Robespierre"
  • Milly, Kid River's girlfriend
  • Mariula Peters, a.k.a. Mary Dare
  • Amos Lee Mappin, crime writer
Locale: Manhattan NY and Hoboken NJ (on opposite sides of the Hudson River)

Synopsis: Finlay Corveth, freelance feature writer, visits his old friend Nick Peters in his tiny Manhattan watch repair shop after hearing he had been burglarized. Peters had been hit on the head by a brass ball removed from his bedpost, and the shop ransacked; apparently by someone looking for something they could not find - but they took the brass ball away with them. Peters reveals he has a precious emerald locket hidden away somewhere safe, and says it is intended to be security for a young girl, Mariula Peters, who is away at school.  

Finlay suspects the emerald locket may be in the brass ball, and follows the trail of the ball as it passes through several hands, including a couple of small time thieves Nick Casino and Kid River. He recovers the ball at a scrap metal dealer. Finlay goes to Peter's shop to return it, but finds him strangled to death.

With the help of his friend, crime writer Amos Lee Mappin, they open the ball to find the emerald locket, and inside it a folded up piece of blank paper. They suspect General Diamond is behind the crooks trying to steal it, and strike up a friendship with him.

Mariula Peters, now kicked out of boarding school, is brought to Hoboken and gets an acting part in the theatre, under the stage name Mary Dare. Finlay and Mappin decode the blank paper, and seek out an unknown treasure.

Review:

This story is fast-paced and is fascinating for its look at 1930's Manhattan/New Jersey. It gets a bit dizzying with the constant trips through the Lincoln Tunnel to go back and forth. I am familiar with some of the neighborhoods in which the story is set (Inwood, Kingsbridge, Riverdale); and a map such as on a Dell Mapback would have been helpful. You may wish to get out a map of Manhattan to help you enjoy the story.

I had expected the two-bit hoodlums from the first part (Nick Casino, Kid River and Milly) to reappear, but they never did. Instead we get a couple of arch-criminals which Finlay and Mappin identify by nicknames (The American and Robespierre) as they do not know their real names. We eventually get the real names (General Diamond and Nipperg, respectively). 

Two especially good characters are young Mariula Peters, who gets a surprise ending; and Nipperg's wife, Diasy; who enjoys flirting with with Finlay.

A most amusing scene is when Finlay and Mappin throw General Diamond off the track to the treasure, by substituting a map with fake directions. 

The ending is a satisfying, surprise turn of events.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Body on the Floor by Nancy Barr Mavity (1929)

 

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About the author: Nann "Nancy" Barr Mavity (1890 - 1959) is the author of a series of mystery novels about crime reporter James Aloysius "Peter" PiperNancy Barr Mavity taught philosophy at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. She was a newspaper woman. She was a feature writer of the Oakland Tribune. In this capacity, she was the first woman to spend a night in Folsom State Prison, where she had gone to cover the pardon hearing of Warren K Billings. She lectured extensively and contributed to magazines. (from a Wikipedia article).

This is Peter Piper #2 (of 6). The full series is:
  1. The Tule Marsh Murder (1929)
  2. The Body on the Floor (1929)
  3. The Other Bullet (1930)
  4. The Case of the Missing Sandals (1930)
  5. The Man Who Didn't Mind Hanging (1932)
  6. The Fate of Jane McKenzie (1933)

Major characters:
  • Natalie Cole, a.k.a (incorrectly) Mrs. Asbury - the body on the floor
  • Clarkson L. Cole, her estranged husband, the "Tire king of Detroit"
  • --- Asbury, her estranged lover, a forest ranger, then a trucker and bootlegger
  • Allison Cole, her daughter
  • Elsie Cole Lawrence, her other daughter
  • John Lawrence, Elsie's husband
  • Edythe Grainge, telephone operator
  • Edward Comstock, elderly legatee
  • Winifred Newell, Asbury's secretary and lover
  • Peter Piper, reporter for The Herald
  • Barbara Piper, his wife
  • Emil Kurtner, expert witness #1
  • Chester Mason, expert witness #2
  • Jerry Dean, cub correspondent for The Herald
  • Sheriff F. M. Rondel

Locale: not stated

Synopsis:

Following an item submitted by cub correspondent Jerry Dean; Peter Piper, ace reporter for The Herald, is assigned to cover a woman's death under mysterious circumstances, having been killed with a shotgun - but was it murder or suicide? The woman, known locally as Mrs. Asbury, was actually Natalie Cole - estranged from her husband Clarkson L. Cole. She had been living with young, attractive --- Asbury as husband and wife, although not married. Recently they, too, became estranged when he took up with his secretary, Winifred Newell. She wanted him back, but he was more attracted to a string of young ladies more his age.

Her daughter, Allison Cole, had found the body and was in the process of falling apart. Jerry Dean takes her under his wing until Peter's wife, Barbara Piper, arrives to comfort her.

As Piper and sheriff F. M. Rondel try to determine if it is murder, it is found that she had made a will the day before, leaving her rance to elderly indigent neighbor Edward Comstock. The situation escalates at the inquest, when two expert witnesses, Emil Kurtner and Chester Mason, offer two totally contradictory versions of events.

Review:

This fast-paced story is set in the frenzy of a 1920's newspaper office, complete with chaotic press rooms, shouting editors, race-against-time telephoned reports, and star reporters taking notes on folded pieces of newsprint. The author knows her subject, being a newspaper reporter herself; and brings the excitement of reporting to the reader.

Oh, her use of words! Listen to this gloomy passage as the townspeople arrive at the inquest! What a scene:

The crowd had poured slowly, steadily into the dark interior of the undertaking parlors in a viscous, flowing mass. The porch still overflowed with those who had found no room inside, coagulating at the windows and doors, clotted on the steps.

There are two outstanding characters:
  • Edythe Grainge, the wallflower telephone operator who sees her role as an inquest witness as her big break, and 

  • Edward Comstock, with his philosophies about life, death, and morals. He reminds me oex-preacher Jim Casy (as played by John Carradine) in The Grapes of Wrath.  

The middle portion of the book drags a bit with various theories being hashed out, but that is common to most mysteries. A crime scene map is provided (p. 33). This book is the second about Peter Piper, the first being The Tule Marsh Murder.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Maxwell Mystery by Carolyn Wells (1913)

 

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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.

Major characters:

  • Peter King, our narrator
  • Irene Gardiner
  • Philip Maxell, the host
  • Mildred Leslie, his girlfriend
  • Edith (Leslie) Whiting, Mildred's sister
  • Tom Whiting, her husband
  • Miss Miranda Maxwell, Philip's maiden aunt
  • *Mr. Alexander Maxwell, Philip's uncle; brother of Miranda
  • Gilbert Crane
  • Clarence, Earl of Clarendon
  • Mr. Hunt, society detective
  • Fleming Stone, investigator
*Note: In the story "Mr. Maxwell" always refers to the elder, Alexander Maxwell.

Locale: New Jersey

Synopsis: Peter King, our narrator, is invited to a gathering at Philip Maxwell's country mansion, "Maxwell's Chimneys'. This is also the home of his aunt (Miss Miranda Maxwell) and deaf uncle, (Mr. Alexander Maxwell). The occasion is the expected engagement announcement of Philip to Mildred Leslie. During the train ride to the New Jersey mansion, Peter becomes enchanted with Irene Gardiner, on her way to it also. 

They arrive and join the other guests: Clarence, Earl of Clarendon; Gilbert Crane, Edith Whiting (née Leslie, Mildred's sister) and her husband Tom Whitney. Soon after all are present, Philip and Mildred retire to the library, where the guests believe he is proposing. Not so. Philip is shot dead, and Mildred found unconscious with a minor wound, with a gun in her hand.

Peter enlists the aid of Mr. Hunt, a "society detective" (whatever that is). Together they try to piece together what happened. Mildred revives and reveals they were both shot by an intruder. Peter and Hunt seek out clues which tend to point at the Earl. After coming to a dead end, Fleming Stone is consulted and provides the denouément.

Review: Just one chapter in, and already the formula is revealed:
  1. A murder will occur at the country house
  2. Peter King will be the amateur investigator
  3. Little progress will be made other than collection the clues
  4. Fleming Stone will appear at the end and provide the solution
This is your generic country house murder, with a lot of padding in the middle. Peter and Hunt mess around with clues, neither quite knowing what they are doing. The story takes a long diversion midway with a chase after the supposed intruder, whom they find, but which does not produce a suspect. Finally, as in the other Fleming Stone stories, he pops in (page 273 of 302!), takes a quick look around, and announces the solution. 

I had hoped the chase after the mysterious intruder would have supplied a solution, but no. The expected love interest of Peter and Irene fades away also. Overall, formulaic, but a nice look at country house and society customs of a century ago.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Murder Up My Sleeve by Erle Stanley Gardner (1937)

 

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This is a continuation of my reviews of Gardner's non-Perry Mason novels. This is the first of two Terry Clane novels (the other is The Case of the Backward Mule).

About the author:

Major characters:
  • Terry Clane, attorney, in tight with the Chinese community; a.k.a. First Born, and Owl
  • Yat T'oy, Terry's servannt
  • Alma Renton, a widow, Terry's love interest
  • Cynthia Renton, her sister, a.k.a. Painter Woman
  • Jacob Mandra, a bail broker and blackmailer; dead as the story opens
  • Juanita Mandra, Jacob's widow
  • George Levering, a polo player
  • Sou Ha, a.k.a. Embroidered Halo
  • Parker Dixon, D.A.
Locale: San Francisco

Synopsis: Attorney Terry Clane is back from spending time in China, has become fluent in Mandarin, and intimate with the Chinese culture of San Francisco. He had been approached by bail broker Jacob Mandra, a collector of obscure weapons. He was interested in having Terry obtain a sleeve gun for him - a spring-loaded dart pipe which can be hidden up one's sleeve. Terry has one of his own, but declined to give it to Mandra, as he was not sure of his intentions.

Terry's girlfriend is Alma Renton. It is believed Mandra is also blackmailing Alma for reasons unknown. While Terry is out with Alma Renton, Mandra is killed - with a sleeve gun. D. A. Parker Dixon calls Terry in and questions him. Neither he nor Alma have an alibi; but Alma has a motive: she was being blackmailed by Mandra.

A woman was seen leaving Mandra's apartment after the murder, carrying a large portrait which concealed her face. The police narrow the suspects to Alma, her sister Cynthia Renton, and a Chinese woman who they cannot identify. Terry is convinced of the innocence of all three, and enters the close-knit and closed-mouth Chinese community to solve the crime.

Review: This novel shows the familiarity and respect Gardner has for the Chinese community, most likely from his history serving as a real-life attorney for indigent Chinese. The descriptions reveal the inside of the community, never seen by outsiders. Attention is given to the Chinese practice of knowing when to speak, and when not to speak. This inside look is fascinating.

We never get to know the victim, he is dead as the story opens. There is the common Gardner technique of juggling the evidence around (in this case, the portrait) to point the way to the murderer when the police can't seem to figure it out on their own.

The story starts with Alma being Terry's love interest, yet he flips back and forth between her and sister Cynthia throughout. George Levering is a puzzle, his periodic role is not clearly defined (other than being a polo player) and he only serves as a link in the movements of evidence.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1936)

 



Oct 15: Reading now. Please check back again! RM

This review is of the Kindle edition.

About the author: J. Jefferson Farjeon worked for Amalgamated Press in London before going freelance. One of Farjeon's best known works was a 1925 play, Number 17, which was made into a number of films, including Number Seventeen (1932) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and joined the UK Penguin Crime series as a novel in 1939. Farjeon's crime novels were admired by Dorothy L. Sayers, who called him "unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures." (from a Wikipedia article).

Major characters:

Lord and Lady Aveling, the hosts
Anne Aveling, their daughter
Mrs. -- Morris, Lady Aveling's invalid mother
Thomas Newson, butler
Bessie Hill, maid

Detective-Inspector Kendall

The thirteen guests:
  1. Nadine Leveridge, a widow and ingenue
  2. John Foss, of the injured foot
  3. Harold Taverley, the cricketer
  4. Leicester Pratt, a painter
  5. Mr. -- Rowe, a sausage maker
  6. Mrs. -- Rowe, his wife
  7. Ruth Rowe, their daughter
  8. Edyth Fermoy-Jones, a mystery writer
  9. Sir James Earnshaw
  10. Zena Wilding, an aactress
  11. Lionel Bultin, gossip columnist
  12. Mr. Henry Chater
  13. Mrs. -- Chater
Locale: Bragley Court, a country house in Flensham, outside London

Synopsis: John Foss, depressed from having a marriage proposal rebuffed, wants to get away for a bit, so takes a train to Flensham on the spur of the moment. When getting off at the station, he catches his foot and turns his ankle. Nadine Leveridge assists him, and takes him along to Bragley Court, a country house of Lord and Lady Aveling, who are hosting a gathering she is attending.

John is placed on a sofa in the "ante-room" (I do hope the ante-room is equipped with anti-macassars) where can be observe the arrival of the twelve guests (he makes 13).

The first indication of an unpleasant gathering is the defacing of a portrait of Anne Aveling, daughter of the hosts, which Leicester Pratt had been painting. Then the Aveling's dog is killed. Next, the body of man - a stranger - is found at the bottom of a cliff.

Review: My first thought was: here we go, the isolated country house and a big guest list. Next we need a snowstorm and the guests knocked off one by one. The invalid mother upstairs is instantly suspicious, as is any alleged invalid in a murder mystery!

One aspect of this high-character count book I like is the methodical introduction of all the guests to John Foss, as we, the reader, observe and become acquainted with them.

However, John Foss was a disappointment. I expected he would be the observer-in-charge and find vital clues, but he is forgotten for most of the book, only returning at the end. Likewise with the invalid Mrs. Morris; whose exit at the end is ambiguous - is she alive or dead? Not sure. Edyth Fermoy-Jones, a mystery writer, is amusing as she shamelessly plugs her books at any opportunity, and snoops around for new plot ideas. Some of the guests are just cardboard and could be edited out without affecting the story, they only serve to enlarge the suspect pool.

You may also enjoy this review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Death on a Vineyard Beach by Philip R. Craig (#7 - 1996)

 


About the author: Philip R. Craig (1933 –2007) was a writer known for his Martha's Vineyard mysteries. He was born in Santa Monica and raised on a cattle ranch near Durango, Colorado. In 1951 he attended Boston University intending to become a minister, and got a degree in 1957. He taught English and Journalism at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts from 1962 to 1965, and at Wheelock College in Boston until 1999, at which point he retired to become a full-time writer. (Wikipedia)

Major characters:

  • Luciano Marcus, mob boss and target
  • Angela Marcus, his wife
  • Vinnie Cecilio, their grandson
  • Thomas Decker, their assistant
  • Jonas, their cook
  • Priscilla, their housekeeper, wife of Jonas
  • Joe Begay, J. W.'s former sergeant, a Wampanoag
  • Toni (Vanderbeck) Begay, Joe's wife, a Wampanoag
  • Linda Vanderbeck, Toni's mother, a Wampanoag
  • Maggie Vanderbeck, Toni's sister, a Wampanoag
  • Bill Vanderbeck, a shaman
  • Benny White, UMass student
  • Roger the Dodger, UMass student
  • J. W. Jackson
  • Zeolinda "Zee" Jackson, his wife

Locale: Martha's Vineyard (island) off Cape Cod, MA

Synopsis: J. W. Jackson and Zee have just married. While in Boston attending the opera, J. W. interrupts a murder attempt on Luciano Marcus. Back on the Vineyard, J. W. is surprised by a dinner invitation from Marcus, not knowing he is also an island resident. J. W. is hired by Marcus to find out who attacked him.

Marcus is wealthy and has fingers in many businesses; looks like a mob boss. His palatial home is on a large piece of property. One part is a cranberry bog, whose ownership is contested by the local Wampanoag tribe. Tribal members want the land back, providing a possible motive.

Review:

This is a laid-back book, and the most enjoyable of the series I have read thus far. It does not even become a murder mystery until the end; remaining an attempted murder mystery throughout. I continued to wonder when someone - and who - would turn up dead, didn't happen until the end.

Luciano and Angela Marcus are way too refined, cultured, and pleasant to be mob bosses. In fact, they are not even identified as such; just hinted. They are enjoyable characters, although Luciano has a short fuse when people wander into his property.

The best character is Bill Vanderbeck, a shaman. He pops in and out and no one sees him come and go. He offers his philosophy and comments and does not get involved in tribal drama. He reminds me of Mister Rogers!

The only little drawback to this book is that the attempted-murderer character from the opera scene (which opens the book) is not introduced until the very end, which cheats the reader out of trying to identify him throughout.

By the way ... the cover fooled me. It took a while before I realized the cattails, boathouse, and ducks form a skull!