Friday, January 31, 2020

The Terrace Suicide Mystery by Leonard Gribble (1929)

Babylon Revisited Rare Books

About the author: Leonard Gribble was not only a prolific crime writer, but also a prolific creator of pseudonyms ( Sterry BrowningLeo GrexLouis GreyPiers MarlowDexter MuirBruce Sanders; and Landon Grant ), all of which were definite improvements upon his birth name! See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Baronet Sir Giles Gillespie, dead as the story opens
  • Sir Royston "Roy" Gillespie, his son
  • Lionel Gillespie, Giles' brother, rumored to be dead
  • Miss Paula Dane, Gile's niece and ward, Lionel's fiancée
  • Richard Thorne, the butler
  • Anthony Slade, Dept. X-2, New Scotland Yard
  • Inspector Collins, county police
  • Albert Charles Worthy, a.k.a. "The Ferret"
  • Mick, a henchman 
  • The mysterious masked woman
Locale: Sudley Abbott, England

Synopsis: Baronet Sir Giles Gillespie had brought home a gruesome souvenir, an assembly of 100 sharp iron points, which he installed on the top of his library's terrace wall as a fun decoration. One morning he is found to have apparently fallen from the window onto the spikes and become impaled. Two, yes two, suicide notes are found, one of which was mailed to detective Anthony Slade of Scotland Yard. Giles' son, Sir Royston, arrives on the scene.

Anthony Slade arrives on the scene, and suspects murder. This is strengthened by the discovery of a perfumed (!) blackmail demand letter. He and county Inspector Collins compare notes but cannot agree on what happened. Slade finds ex-con "The Ferret" lurking about, and follows him to a vacant farmhouse where he observes a meeting between The Ferret, henchman Mick, and a mysterious woman in an evening gown and wearing a black velvet mask. The Ferret and Mick depart. Slade and Mystery Woman engage in a long repartee at mutual gunpoint. Royston's finacée, Paula Dane, is kidnapped.

Review: Anthony Slade is a hyper detective who alternates between long sessions of deep thought and jumping into various adventures without regarding the consequencesSlade has this surprising (and annoying) habit of producing evidence which has not been revealed to the reader, a bit disconcerting when these items suddenly pop into the story (a violation of Fair Play Rule #8: – “The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.”). For example, he is certain Gillespie was strangled to death prior to the impalement, but how does he know?

Some elements are quite outrageous but fun: a perfumed blackmail letter, and a Mystery Woman in full evening gown and black mask in a deserted farmhouse!

Overall, I was hot and cold on this story. Most of it is reminiscent of an old pulp thriller with lots of car chases, people tied up, lights going out, and random shooting. I was expecting Slade to come up with a gun in each hand. Towards the end, it improved, and the denouement revealed an unexpected solution, worthy of Agatha Christie.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers (1927)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. - Hebrews 12:1

About the author:  See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:

  • Inspector Charles Parker
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Gerald Wimsey, the Duke of Denver
  • Lady Mary Wimsey, their sister, engaged to...
  • Captain Denis Cathcart, the victim
  • Miss Lydia Cathcart, Denis' aunt
  • James Fleming, Cathcart's manservant
  • Mervyn Bunter, Lord Peter's butler
  • George Goyles
  • Hon. Frederick Arbuthnot
  • Col. & Mrs. Marchbanks
  • Mr. & Mrs. Pettigrew-Robinson
  • The Dowager Duchess of Denver, Lord Peter's mother
  • Farmer Grimethorpe, who will loose the dogs on you if you look at his wife


Synopsis: Lord Peter Wimsey is on holiday along with faithful butler, the Archie Goodwin-like Mervyn Bunter. They suddenly see news in the paper that his brother, Gerald Wimsey, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested on suspicion of murder. It seems he was found crouching over the dead body of Captain Denis Cathcart - who was engaged to Lady Mary Wimsey (Peter and Gerald's sister). Even worse, they had been seen in an argument earlier in the evening. No, wait, it gets even more worse - Gerald's gun is found beside the body. An expensive jeweled cat pin is found nearby.

There is a ray of hope - footprints are found leading away from the crime scene, to marks where a motorcycle/sidecar combo has departed. Lord Peter manages to track down the maker of the footprints in an underground socialist pub, and winds up with a bullet in his shoulder for his efforts. Then he and Bunter follow clues across a soupy moor - at night - in the fog - and fall into a pit of quicksand. They are rescued, and brought to a nearby hut of Farmer Grimethorpe, who has previously loosed the dogs on Wimsey. It seems Grimethorpe is intensly jealous of anyone who looks at, or speaks to, his stunning wife.

Gerald comes up to trial with all the pomp required of a peer trial. Things quickly start going downhill in the courtroom, for as every lawyer learns on day one of law school: Never ask a witness a question if you do not already know how they will answer!

Review: A very enjoyable and humorous Wimsey. Much ado is spent sorting out different versions of who-did-what-when in the house. The quick fact finding trip to Paris is fun. The adventure of falling into the bog on moor is very Sherlock Holmes-ish, and the rescue to the Grimethorpe farm turns the key in finding out what really happened. The buildup to the elaborate trial is fun with all its associated pageantry, and the trial itself falls apart quickly in Erle Stanley Gardner fashion as hapless lawyers attempt, unsuccessfully, to control unruly witnesses who blurt out all sorts of damaging details. The dangling loose end of the tragic Grimethorpe couple is resolved nicely at the very end. Unfortunately, the Dowager Duchess only makes one brief appearance in the story. 

Note: A floor plan of the house is provided for the reader to follow along, and the Gun Room is mislabelled as "Gin Room", which I admit would be a lot more fun.

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The D.A. Holds a Candle by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1938

#2 of 9 in the Doug Selby series

The full series is:
  1. The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
  2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
  3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
  4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
  5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
  6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
  7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
  8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
  9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)

Major characters:

  • Emil Watkins, ill-fated hitchhiker
  • Ross Blaine, young man who forged one check and likes to gamble
  • George Stapleton, Ross' well-to-do friend
  • Inez Stapleton, his sister
  • Robert Gleason, cabin boy #1
  • Tom Cuttings,cabin boy #2
  • --- Needham, retired broker
  • Carlo Handley, professional gambler
  • Audrey Prestone, cabin girl #1
  • Monette Lambert, cabin girl #2
  • Oscar Triggs, owner of the Palm Thatch roadhouse
  • Madge Trent, the hostess at the Palm Thatch
  • Doug Selby, D.A.
  • Sheriff Rex Baldwin
  • Chief of Police Otto Larkin
  • Sylvia Martin, crime reporter for The Clarion

Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis: The book opens with D. A. Doug Selby and Sheriff Rex Brandon giving a young man, Ross Blaine, a friendly talking-to regarding a bad check he passed. Then Selby and Brandon head to The Palm Thatch roadhouse to warn the owner, Oscar Triggs, to cut out the backroom gambling there. On the way they stop and check on a hitchhiker, Emil Watkins. That night Selby is called to look at an unattended death at the Keystone Auto Camp. The deceased turns out to be Watkins, the cause apparently is carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective heater. Two girls in an adjacent cabin, Audrey Preston and Monette Lambert, tell them their dates - Robert Gleason and Tom Cuttings - who rented that cabin - are at the Palm Thatch. 

Selby and Brandon suspect there is more to the death than appears. They go to the Palm Thatch to find a game in progress, with Ross Blaine, George Stapleton, and others. The hostess, Madge Trent, has disappeared, and the focus turns to the search for her. Selby teams up with reporter Sylvia Martin to find Trent.

Review: Right away we are in familiar Erle Stanley Gardner territory: a roadhouse with gambling in the back room, a slinky blonde hostess, some fast cars, and a dead body in a cabin at a motor court. D.A. Selby and Rex Brandon throw their weight around without the niceties such as search warrants. This is a good page-turner, and like many Gardners, best to devour in one or two sittings before you start losing track of who's who. The episode of the L.A. police on a gambling raid is quite enjoyable, with a specialized team who have done it before making quick work of the gambling joint. A sledgehammer is put to good use.

Selby's secretary from the first book, appears briefly (unnamed) once in this book. However, Inez Stapleton now chums around with Selby, and the book ends on a confrontational note, with her entering law school and vowing to meet Selby again, this time as a defense attorney; foreshadowing a later title in the series. Selby remains cozy with Sylvia Martin.

(The candle of the title turns out to be just a metaphorical candle).

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Call the Yard! by Hugh Clevely, 1930

First Place books
About the author: Hugh Clevely (1898-1963), who wrote also under the pseudonym of Tod Claymore, was born in Bristol, England. He obtained a pilot's license, was active in the RAF and finished the war as wing-commander. Clevely was one of the dozens of authors who wrote for the story paper The Thriller in the 1930s. Clevely wrote more than thirty titles for this influential paper and in addition several novels with serial characters, among them John Martinson “the Gang-Smasher" and Inspector Williams of Scotland Yard. As Tod Claymore, he wrote another nine mysteries, all with a series character named Tod Claymore. After the war Clevely contributed about a dozen titles to the hugely popular Sexton Blake series. (Condensed from this bio at

Major characters:
  • Philip Cavanagh, doctor and attorney; our protagonist
  • Corinna Lesley, artist, his love interest
  • Valerie Morris, a lodger of Corinna Lesley
  • Roland Piquar,  a lodger of Corinna Lesley
  • Ralph Montgomery Vincent, a flabby bohemian art collector
  • Stephen Tracey, friend of Philip Cavanagh
  • Jimmy McCrow, dancer and lounge lizard
  • Garbrielle Fleur (dead prior to the story)
  • Chief Inspector Williams
Locale: England

Synopsis: Philip Cavanagh is a medical doctor and attorney, practicing only law. He has a casual friendship with artist Corinna Lesley. Corinna lets a flat and takes in two lodgers: Valerie Morris (heroin addict and party girl) and Roland Piquar (checkered past).

No sooner has Piquar moved in when he makes a pass at Corinna. She rebuffs him and retreats to her room. When she comes out again, she finds him stabbed in the hallway. She tries to treat him and calls Philip Cavanagh for help, who determines he is dead. She claims she didn't kill him, but there was no one else in the apartment.

A photo found in his wallet of Garbrielle Fleur bears a family resemblance, she had died previously from a heroin overdose. Cavanagh takes matters into his own hands to solve the murder and prove Corinna's innocence. This leads him to the seedy Apollo Club and the world of drug dealers.

Review: This was a disappointment. It was almost a DNF (Did Not Finish), but halfway through I moved to skim mode to see how the almost-locked-room murder was done.

Cavanagh is a rough and tumble character, clearly borrowed from Clevely's writings for the 1930's pulp magazines; and is not believable. His solution to every issue is to beat someone up, kidnap them, toss them out of moving vehicles, and force information out of them - not in line with either of his alleged professions. 

The romantic sub-plot between him and Corinna shows what a cad he really is. He tricks her into accepting his marriage proposal. Then he invites her to his place - not for a romantic interlude - but so she can prepare his dinner.

Oh, yes, the murder ... the murderer is revealed at the end (no surprise there), but the specifics are not mentioned. How the murderer got in and did the deed remains a mystery.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1923

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Alfred Thipps, an architect with a bath
  • An unnamed body found in his bathtub
  • Sir Reuben Levy, a missing Hebrew financier
  • Sir Julian Freke, doctor in charge of the hospital dissecting room
  • Inspector Sugg
  • Inspector Charles Parker
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Mervyn Bunter, Lord Peter's butler
  • The Dowager Duchess of Denver, Lord Peter's mother
Locale: England

Synopsis: Lord Peter Wimsey is informed of a strange event by his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver - being the finding of a naked (except for a pair of pince-nez glasses) man in the bathtub of architect Alfred Thipps; who has no idea who it may be. Meanwhile, Sir Reuben Levy, a Hebrew financier, disappeared at the same time - leaving evidence that he walked out of his house naked.

Hmmm. The authorities (Inspector Sugg and Inspector Parker), as well as Wimsey, immediately try to connect the two. Is the man in the bathtub Sir Reuben? There is a superficial resemblance but they can't quite make the connection.

They eventually confirm the bathtub body is not Sir Reuben. Unfortunate. Now they have two mysteries, not one. Wimsey tries to trace the bathtub body, and Parker tries to find Sir Reuben. No dice. They swap tasks, that doesn't help either.

Review: My first delve into Dorothy Sayers. Oh, my, I am still out of breath. Prepare yourself for paragraph-length sentences, and page-length paragraphs! Some are just astounding:

"Of course, we're all Jews nowadays, and they wouldn't have minded so much if he'd pretended to be something else, like that Mr. Simons we met at Mrs. Porchester's who always tells everybody that he got his nose in Italy at the Renaissance, and who claims to be descended somehow or other from La Bella Simonetta - so foolish, you know, dear - as if anybody believed it; and I'm sure some Jews are very good people, and personally I'd much rather they believed something, though of course it must be very inconvenient, what with not working on Saturdays and circumcising the poor little babies and everything depending on the new moon and that funny kind of meat they have with such a slang-sounding name, and never being able to have bacon for breakfast." - The Dowager Duchess

And after "listening" to Lord Peter Wimsey. I just knew that voice from somewhere - then it hit me - he talks just like Philo Vance! (See my S. S. Van Dine blog):
  • The terminal letter "g" hasn't been invented yet, since he drops every one of them (havin', bettin', goin', gettin' etc). 
  • Statements of fact turned into rhetorical questions by appending 'what'? (It's ten o'clock already, what?)
  • Favorite phrase (same as Philo's): "Thanks, awfully."
  • Strange contractions: "S'pose" and not-quite-APA: "ain't"
  • Commenting by use of poetic quotations
But perhaps everyone talked like that in the 1920's. This book preceded the Philo Vances by a few years, so she certainly didn't copy him.

This is a rollicking story which does not let up. There are plenty of humorous asides and random references to people outside the story which adds to the general confusion.

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

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1937


#1 of 9 in the Doug Selby series

The full series is:
  1. The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
  2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
  3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
  4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
  5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
  6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
  7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
  8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
  9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)
Major characters:
  • Rev. Charles Brower - the deceased - or is he?
  • Mary Brower, his widow - or is she?
  • Shirley Arden, the wealthy femme fatale actress
  • Doug Selby, D.A.
  • Amorette Standish, his secretary
  • Sheriff Rex Baldwin
  • Chief of Police Otto Larkin
  • Sylvia Martin, crime reporter for The Clarion

Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis: Doug Selby has just won election to District Attorney, and Rex Baldwin also just won election to sheriff. The populace is divided, and the election was close. The Clarion supported Selby and Baldwin, and rival paper The Blade opposed them. They have just taken office when a minister, Charles Brower, is found dead in a hotel room. Circumstances point to suicide, but Selby suspects foul play. An autopsy reveals the death is due to morphia (morphine). 

The widow, Mary Brower, is notified - but when asked to identify the body, says it is not that of her husband. Either the body is not Charles Brower, or the widow is not Mary Brower - which is it? The deceased is also found to have been fascinated with actress Shirley Arden, who resides in the same hotel.

Review: This first Doug Selby story shows Selby a bit uncertain in his new role as D.A. There is a lot of emphasis on the pressure of the press. Reporter Sylvia Martin is a puzzle, she is sometimes a hard-boiled Brenda Starr with her feet up on his desk, and sometimes she comes to tears as she begs Selby to give her an exclusive story. Which is she? I do like the Brenda Starr version better. 

There is a side story occurring about the "Perry estate" - this is a typical Perry Mason puzzle in which a couple die in a car accident, but who inherits depends upon which one died last. It seems unconnected to the main story until the last few pages when it is tied in.

Secretary Amorette Standish has a minor role. I was hoping she would be a Della Street but she is only marginal to the story. Perhaps she is developed more later in the series.

Overall, a good start to the series. Selby is not so confident and assertive as Perry Mason, and is bewildered at times by clues unravelling all about him as the press pounds at his door.