Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Boudoir Murder by Milton M. Propper (1931)

About the author: See Mystery Monday: Who was Milton Propper? by Linda Shenton Matchett

Major characters:
  • Tommy Rankin, police detective
  • Lester Gordon, Rankin's assistant
  • William Condon, P.A. announcer at Broad Street railroad station
  • George Stokes, who didn't answer a page
  • Mr. Lippincott, manager of the Quaker Hotel
  • Ann Craig, a.k.a. Lillian Kennedy, the deceased
  • Horace Montgomery, host of the hotel's dinner dance
  • Mrs. Horace Montgomery, confined to bed
  • Andrew Montgomery, his son
  • Grace Thayer, Andrew's fiancĂ©e
  • Hugo Evans, Montgomery's butler
  • Mrs. Gorman, Montgomery's cook

Locale: Philadelphia, PA

Synopsis: William Condon is at work at Broad Street railroad station, announcing the trains. He receives a frantic call from a woman, begging that he page George Stokes to the phone - a matter of life and death. Condon makes the page - but no George Stokes replies. Condon returns to the phone call to hear the unmistakable sounds of a struggle before the phone is hung up.

Condon reports the incident to police, and detective Tommy Rankin traces the call to room 822 of the Quaker Hotel. He and hotel manager Mr. Lippincott enter the room to find a woman, registered as Lillian Kennedy, strangled. They find calls had been placed from that room to Horace Montgomery, who at the time was hosting a dinner dance in the hotel's ballroom in honor of the engagement of his son, Andrew Montgomery to Grace Thayer.

It quickly becomes evident the Montgomery household is deeply involved. Horace goes to view the body, and is surprised to find it is his maid, Ann Craig, who had left employment just that morning. Rankin interviews the domestic staff to find:
  • George Stokes was Ann Craig's suitor and departed after an argument, 
  • butler Hugo Evans was apparently eloping with her, and 
  • son Andrew had been seen kissing her (a Montgomery kissing a servant? shocking!)
With three men all vying for Ann Craig, motives abound.

Review: I do like a mystery with starts right out with some action, and this early police procedural jumps right in. Our victim is dead by page five. Tommy Rankin is cast as the young up-and-coming detective who relies upon speedy, yet proper police procedures. The action continues without pause as Rankin zeroes in on the Montgomery household and the Thayer household in turn.

I like following Rankin's thought processes, all neatly detailed and recorded, as he decides which clues are important enough for him to follow, and which to delegate to others. 

I laughed out loud when reading Propper's backhand compliment of Rankin's assistant, Lester Gordon: "Gordon, while neither particularly clever nor able, was persistent. Once set on a trail which had been ferreted out for him by another, he could be counted on to follow it to its very end." It immediately brought to mind Knox's Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction (1929) which has as commandment #9: "The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson ... his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader." 

I was a bit disappointed that Rankin is such a sterile character - we learn nothing about him. Is he married? single? where does he live? Does ever eat? drink? smoke? All unknown, perhaps revealed in another book. He is a machine, on the job 24/7. I will keep an eye out for more Milton Propper titles.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1936)

Major characters:
  • Miss Harriet Vane
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Violet Cattermole, who drank too much
  • Reggie Pomfret, admirer of Harriet Vane
  • Jukes, a dishonest servant
  • Lord Saint-George, Peter Wimsey's nephew
  • Miss Newland, who almost drowned
  • Annie Wilson, a "scout" (custodian)
  • Arthur Robinson, Annie Wilson's former husband, deceased
Locale: Oxford, England

Synopsis: Harriet Vane, a writer of detective stories, is off to a Shrewsbury College reunion, which will be topped with a party called 'The Gaudy'. Meanwhile, two things are happening in her life: she - and others - receive a series of anonymous letters with vague threats, and Lord Peter Wimsey (LPW) is continuing his campaign of seeking to marry her.

Harriet gets involved trying to find the writer of the poison-pen letters, who not only writes the anonymous letters, but also commits acts of vandalism at the college. Harriet catches a man climbing in over the wall - Reggie Pomfret - who turns out to become a friend and admirer. Harriet also gets to know Peter Wimsey's nephew, Lord Saint-George, who tends to run up a lot of debts for LPW to bail him out of.

Harriet wishes LPW were there to assist in finding the culprit, but he is off on various travels. Things come to a head when Miss Newland, terrorized by the anonymous letters, attempts to drown herself. LPW finally arrives on the scene and the two story lines of the anonymous letters and the repeated marriage proposals are finally resolved.

Review: This book starts off quite slowly with long descriptions of the college campus as the reunion approaches, replete with some some undefined acronyms with mystify this reader. A visit to this Wikpedia page explains that J.C.R. means Junior Common Room and S.C.R. means Senior Common Room - which not only refer to an actual room, but also the members of that room.

The anonymous letters are treated more of a nuisance than a real problem at the beginning, until the real harm of the vandalism begins.

I was waiting - waiting - for something to happen to kick the story into a murder mystery. After a long time, a body is apparently found hanging; and I thought this was the point - but alas, it was not a real body but a dummy. I was teased again when it appeared Miss Newland was a murder victim, but no, she survives quite well. There is one death - but it occured prior to the story line, and is dispensed of with a couple of sentences at the denouement as a part of the motive explanation.

This has been described as a novel with a detective story within, and it is. The happenings at the college are told in great detail - sometimes too much detail - and the action moves very slowly but steadily.

Lord Peter Wimsey has but a minor role in the book, appearing only at the end to figure out the anonymous letter mystery and provide the denouement.

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

Friday, March 6, 2020

The D.A. Cooks a Goose by Erle Stanley Gardner (1942)

#5 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:

  • Mrs. --- Hunter, a widow, in a car accident
  • Baby Mary Hunter, her infant daughter, died in the accident
  • Terry Blossten of Louisiana, owner of the car which hit the Hunters
  • Mrs. Sadie Grolley Blossten, his wife
  • Ezra Grolley, miser hermit, Sadie's Grolley's brother
  • Alice Grolley, Ezra's wife for a short period, then a murder victim
  • Baby Ruth Grolley, their infant daughter, left in the bus station
  • Jackson Teel
  • Margaret Faye, hitchhiker, was in the Hunter car

  • Doug Selby, D.A.
  • Sheriff Rex Baldwin, 
  • Otto Larkin, Chief of Police
  • Sylvia Martin, crime reporter for The Clarion 
  • Inez Stapleton, Selby's old girlfriend, now attorney for Sadie Grolley
  • A.B. Carr, attorney for Mrs. Hunter and Alice Grolley

 Locale: Madison City, California 

Synopsis: Mrs. -- Hunter, her baby daughter Mary, and hitchhiker Margaret Faye are riding on a mountain road when their car is hit by another. The Hunter car rolls down an embankment, and baby Mary dies.

The car which hit them was reported stolen. It belongs to Terry and Sadie Blossten of Louisiana. They are in the area to visit Sadie's ailing hermit brother, Ezra Grolley. Ezra is separated from his young wife Alice and their infant daughter Ruth. Ezra passes away in the hospital.

Alice and Ruth were waiting in a bus station when Ruth is called to the phone. She is apparently abducted, leaving the baby behind. D. A. Doug Selby and Sheriff Rex Baldwin enlists the help of Baldwin's wife to care for the baby while they search for Alice. Alice is eventually discovered murdered.

Ezra's shack is found ransacked, and it appears he had hidden away a fortune, now missing, but leaving behind a suspicious will. 

Mrs. Hunter and Sadie Grolley lawyer up. Hunter retains sleazy A. B. Carr, and Sadie Grolley Blossten retains Inez Stapleton, Selby's former flame and current grudge-holder.

A fight over Ezra's will is looming between his sister (Sadie) and - now that his wife is dead - his infant daughter who would be next to inherit. It appears the car accident may have been staged in an estate grab.

Review: I have read that this Doug Selby series offers more of an experience than the Perry Masons - more character development and depth than the assembly line Masons, and I agree. The D.A. Selby is our protagonist, quite the opposite of the Masons, and he is more thoughtful, well rounded, and less likely to be the tough guy. And he certainly is not in a position to juggle evidence like you-know-who.

Whenever ESG goes off on technical details of investigations, it is always fascinating and has the ring of truth for technology of the time. In this series, Selby has the opportunity to introduce technical subjects - while in the Masons, they are usually placed in the Foreword as a dedication to a particular person. Here we have two technical topics explored: how an Examiner of Questioned Documents works, and how blood spatters tell a story.

Whenever a ESG story has two similar-appearing people, or twins, you can always tell the old switcheroo is coming, and this story - with two similar women each having a same-age baby, is no exception.

One cringe-worthy element, though: this is the second time in the Selby series we have Inez Stapleton crying, an unnecessary stereotype.

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace (1920)

About the author (Goodreads): Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was a prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright, who wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, and countless articles in newspapers and journals.

Edgar Wallace

Major characters:

The Four Just Men:
  • George Manfred, the leader
  • Leon Gonsalez
  • Poiccart
  • Miguel Thery, a.k.a. Saimont
  • Bernard Courtlander, a replacement
Sir Philip Ramon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
Billy Marks, pickpocket turned informant
Detective Superintendent Falmouth
Charles Garrett, reporter for The Megaphone
Countess Maria Slienvich, a.k.a. The Woman of Gratz


Synopsis: "The Four Just Men" (FJM) are a group who seek to enact justice outside the law. They are responsible for the deaths of 16 people over time, who in their opinion, escaped justice. 

Part I: Sir Philip Ramon has come to their attention. Ramon is Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and while having committed no crime, is responsible for the introduction of a bill which the FJM oppose. This is the Aliens Extradition bill, which will allow the expulsion of persons who have come to England for sanctuary. The FJM have just replaced one of their number with Spaniard Miguel Thery. They groom him to execute Sir Philip, in the event he fails to withdraw his bill as they demand. The FJM, although killers, are exceedingly fair; and warn their victims in advance. Extraordinary measures are taken to protect Sir Philip. Newspaper ads are also placed offering rewards for the capture of the FJM, but it appears his end is inevitable.

Part II: An anarchist organization, the Red Hundred, is now the target of the FJM. After Miguel Thery meets his end, a new fourth is added -- one who goes by the name Bernard Courtlander. Manfred's cat-and-mouse game with the Woman of Gratz continues. Manfred winds up arrested and imprisoned, where he maintains he will escape to avoid the death penalty. 

Review: The Four Just Men are like four Simon Templars all at once. They go after those who escaped justice, and mete it out themselves; to the wink-wink of the authorities. Part I, the affair of Sir Philip Ramon, is exciting and winds up as a locked-room puzzle. Part II becomes confusing and hard to follow, as there are three distinct groups (FJM, Red Hundred, the police) - then four (adding the cult-like Rational Faithers) all against each other simultaneously. It then turns into a locked-room mystery as Manfred looks to escape from the condemned cell at the prison. The attitudes of the prison authorities are interesting as they treat Manfred with great respect as they reluctantly bring him to the execution house. Will he escape? If there is to be a sequel (and there are several!) he must!

One aspect which I found a bit annoying: Sherlock Holmes-like references to fictitious previous cases which are not authored anywhere. At least when the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew plug a different case, it really exists!

Also see this Wikipedia article.