Sunday, April 26, 2020

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers (1932)

Major characters:
  • Harriet Vane, writer of detective stories
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Julian Perkins, a teacher
  • Paul Alexis, a gigolo (deceased)
  • Mrs. Flora Weldon, who believed herself engaged to Paul Alexis
  • Henry Weldon, her son, a farmer
  • Haviland Martin, who was in the vicinity
  • Mrs. Morecambe, driving a Bentley
  • Antoine, another gigolo
  • William Bright, owner of a razor
Locale: Wilvercombe, on the coast of England

Synopsis: Harriet Vane is hiking along the coast in a remote area and comes across a dead body - his throat cut - perched on a rock at the tide line. She retrieves a razor as being the likely weapon, and walks to the nearest town for help, encountering hiker Julian Perkins along the way.

After reporting the body, Harriet stays at the posh Hotel Resplendent. The hotel employs four "gigolos", or professional dance partners for the guests. They are Antoine, Paul Alexis, Doris, and Charis. The police believe the deceased to be Paul Alexis, but have yet to recover the body. Hotel guest Flora Weldon is distraught, she had believed she was to marry Paul Alexis, but the other gigolos suggest that ha ha, that was just his usual line to the middle-aged ladies; she should have known that.

Lord Peter Wimsey arrives and in between marriage proposals to Harriet takes on the tracing of the razor. He finds it was last in the possession of a William Bright. Perhaps Bright and Perkins are the same person? 

The situation is complicated when it is found that Alexis believed himself to be Russian royalty, awaiting a return to mother Russia. A series of coded messages between him and someone in Russia adds to the intrigue.

Narrowing down the suspects is pretty straightforward, there aren't too many - but it is quite a puzzle to place them in space and time to have done the murder. One by one, Wimsey's theories are found to be incorrect.

Review: This starts off in the vein of John Dickson Carr, with Harriet Vane finding a body perched on a rock surrounded by smooth sand, with two sets of footprints: hers and the deceased. The episode of the discovery of the body is quite amusing:

Harriet Vane, a writer of detective stories, is puzzled when confronted with a real body; which never happens to writers of fiction who are trying to pass off knowing what they are writing about. What should she do? Well, what would the heroic investigator of her detective stories, Robert Templeton, do? He would do thus-and-so; so that is what I shall do. So now we have fictional Harriet Vane looking to her fictional character Robert Templeton, as she encounters a real (to her, but ultimately fictional) body. But wait, the onion has another layer! We have real detective story writer Dorothy L. Sayers writing of fictional detective story writer Harriet Vane looking to her own fictional detective Robert Templeton. Oh, my head!

The plot includes a secret message encoded using the Playfair Cipher, and includes an excellent description of how to encrypt and decrypt messages using it. I compared it to a description I had in a textbook, and it is not only correct, but explained much better using everyday language. (The wikipedia article linked above also cites Have His Carcase as a reference).

The repeated testing of theories by placing the suspects in time and space wore on and got a bit tiring when breaking down events in small intervals. The murderer is indeed found at the end.

See also this 2011 review and this 2020 review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The D.A. Breaks a Seal by Erle Stanley Gardner (1946)

#7 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:
  • Frank Norwalk, hotel manager
  • Fred Roff, attorney, deceased
  • Henry Farley, waiter, the accused
  • Coleman Dexter, a land speculator
  • Major Doug Selby, former D. A.
  • Carl Gifford, current D.A.
  • Alphonse Baker Carr, "Old A.B.C"
  • Anita Eldon, a Hollywood blonde bombshell, A.B. Carr's client
  • Sylvia Martin, reporter for The Clarion
  • Inez Stapleton, attorney
  • Barbara Horncutt, Inez' client
Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis:  Major Doug Selby is arriving home on a furlough from the Army, prior to heading out to the Pacific in the waning days of WWII. He notices a man and woman on his train wearing gardenias. As they alight at the Madison City, attorney A. B. Carr is waiting for them on the platform - and Selby realizes the gardenias are a signal so they recognize each other.

Selby runs into old flame - now attorney - Inez Stapleton. She is working on a contested will case, against A. B. Carr.

Word comes of a dead body found in the Madison Hotel. Selby accompanies Sheriff Rex Brandon to the scene, where they find Fred Roff deceased from poison in his room. He has a gardenia also. A blonde bombshell, Anita Eldon, is in the adjacent room, also with a gardenia. It appears all the gardenia wearers may be parties to the contested will case.

While D.A. Carl Gifford tries to discover evidence to prosecute hotel waiter Henry Farley for the murder, the contested will case goes to trial; as Selby tries to sort out the various gardenia-wearers. The trial comes to an abrupt halt when of the witnesses is poisoned.

Review: The previous Selby novel, The D.A. Calls a Turn, was a low point in the series; but in this novel Gardner and Selby are both back in good form. The gardenia club is an interesting twist, and we have two simultaneous cases (poisoning, contested will) heading to trial; with some obscure link between them. Selby is no longer D.A., but gets involved by being associated with old flame Inez Stapleton; who again is portrayed as breaking down in tears when things go badly - not a good attribute for an attorney; and this distracts from the story. 

The writing is very well done, one of my favorite sentences describes the deceased as he lies on the floor:
His bifocal spectacles had been pushed into one-sided incongruity by his fall and in some strange way lent an oddly facetious note to the occasion, as though these man-made aids to vision were somehow jeering at the final destiny of the eyes they had served.
The revelation of the murderer was a surprise, as this person served a minor role; and their connection to the victim a stretch. Nonetheless, a strong Doug Selby yarn.

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

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Man Who Knew by Edgar Wallace (1918)

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:
  • John Minute, wealthy mining magante
  • Jasper Cole, his secretary
  • Frank Merrill, his nephew
  • May Nuttall, Frank's girlfriend
  • Saul Arthur Mann, The Man Who Knew
  • Rex Holland, a mysterious person
  • Henry Crawley, a.k.a. Smith, a policeman
  • Constable Wiseman
Locale: England

Synopsis: Wealthy John Minute is home with his secretary, Jasper Cole; an amateur chemist. Jasper is interested in May Nuttall, a local mission worker; but so is Minute's nephew, Frank Merrill.

Meanwhile, a (unnamed) servant on his way to a job interview drops dead on the street. Constable Wiseman is standing over the body when Saul Arthur Mann appears, examines the dead man's pockets, and reels off a litany of facts about the person. Mann is "The Man Who Knows", who "collects facts as some men collect postage stamps". He runs an "information bureau", commonly known as a newspaper clipping service. He is the Google of his time. Similar to a newspaper morgue, news items are clipped and gathered and filed; and information sold to anyone who desires; usually Scotland Yard. Mann introduces a new twist - the news items are filed by number, not name; and only he has the index which reveals which number is used for each person.

After much discussion and positioning regarding wills, inheritances, and which suitor (Cole or Merrill) will get May Nuttall, John Minute is found shot in his home. Circumstantial evidence points to Merrill, who is tried and acquitted on a lack of direct evidence.

Additional intrigues occur. Another servant (Feltham) dies, from inhaling poison. Jasper Cole has been keeping a second house in a sketchy part of town known as Silvers Rents; which has a ladder but nothing to climb to. There is another man masquerading around as "Frank Merrill" who bears an amazing resemblance. There is a quiet mystery woman who is kept under wraps. There is a corrupt cop (Henry Crawley / Smith) who has some hold over her.

Review: An excellent read, with many parallel mysteries all at once. Mann's information bureau is a fascinating look at informational archival pre-internet. Who has the role of the detective? Not Saul Arthur Mann, as you may expect. He ran down facts, but is shocked at the revelation of the murderer. It takes some plodding work by Constable Wiseman and a group denouément to get at the truth, and the complex solutions are worthy of Agatha Christie. This is the best Wallace I have read thus far.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Alias His Wife by Stephen Ransome (1965)

About the author: Frederick Clyde Davis (1902-1977) was an American pulp writer. He was educated at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, and became a professional writer at the age of 22. Davis wrote several novels featuring his series detective, Professor Cy Hatch. He also wrote as Murdo Coombs, Stephen Ransome and Curtis Steele. (Fantastic fiction)

Major characters:

  • Ross Quarent, assistant prosecutor
  • Paula Quarent, née Spencer, his wife
  • Ken Spencer, Paula's cousin
  • Carol Wilson, Ross' ex-wife
  • Marie Greer, Carol's sister
  • Charles Ritchie, boyfriend of Marie
  • Lee Barcello, no-nonsense investigator
Locale: Florida

Synopsis: Ross Quarent is an assistant prosecutor. Paula is his second wife, after a brief first marriage to Carol Wilson. Paula begins receiving anonymous letters addressed to Paul Spencer (her maiden name). A letter states their marriage is invalid, as Ross was never divorced from his first wife Carol. This would make Ross a bigamist, and subject to prosecution; which would ruin his career.

A stranger, Charles Ritchie, appears on the scene and approaches Ross with questions about what it would take to influence a court case. It appears Ritchie may be blackmailing Ross by sending the anonymous letters.

Carol Wilson is back in town, staying at a hotel in the next room to Ritchie and his girlfriend (her sister). Marie Greer. Carol admits to Ross the divorce she pretended to have granted was never done. Ritchie is then found dead in his hotel room. Ross is faced with a murder investigation while trying to avoid becoming a suspect himself.

Review: This is a tight little mystery with a unique twist (the fake divorce). The 1960's setting has not aged well, though; as the wives first responsibility is making cocktails for the hard-working husbands as they arrive home, constant social alcohol use by everyone, and the fear that their daughter - now apparently born out of wedlock - will be branded "illegitimate". If you can overlook these cringeworthy elements, it does make a good story.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (1930)

Major characters:

  • Miss Harriet Vane, writer of detective stories
  • Philip Boyes, the deceased boyfriend
  • Norman Urquhaut, attorney, Philip's cousin
  • Ryland Vaughan, Philip's friend
  • Rosanna Wrayburn, Norman's aunt, an invalid
  • Nurse Caroline Booth, Rosanna's nurse, a spiritualism enthusiast
  • Inspector Charles Parker
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Sir Impey Biggs, Harriet Vane's attorney
  • Mervyn Bunter, Lord Peter's butler
  • Hon. Frederick Arbuthnot
  • Miss Katherine "Kitty" Climson, head of The Cattery
  • Miss Joan Murchison, a typist at The Cattery

Locale: England

Synopsis: The book opens with Miss Harriet Vane on trial for murder of her former live-in boyfriend, Philip Boyes. He had died of arsenic poisoning, and circumstantial evidence points to Vane. She had made regular purchases of arsenic which coincided with Boyes' periods of illness, eventually resulting in his death. Her explanation is that it was research for her new book on poisons, Death in the Pot.*

The trial ends with a hung jury. A second trial will be scheduled. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attended the trial, is convinced Vane is innocent, and vows to use the remaining time to prove it; as well as enable their marriage. Three big questions: Who had a motive? If Harriet didn't do it, who did? And how was the poison administered?

Wimsey seeks out help from his secret detective agency, The Cattery - ostensibly a typing agency but populated by women who have various detecting skills. 

* Biblical reference from a suspected poisoning incident recorded in 2 Kings 4:40


I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. When reading Sayers, I am always torn between rushing through to find out what happens vs. lingering over the perfect expressive language. 

The episodes of the ladies from The Cattery doing their undercover work are hilarious - as Miss Joan Murchison endures a fervent evangelical religious service in order to learn lockpicking, and Miss Kitty Climson infiltrates the home of Rosanna Wrayburn and conducts a fake seance to discover the location of a missing will.

Harriet Vane has but brief appearances at beginning and end - setting the stage for a marriage to Wimsey? Not sure, I should be reading these in order!

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

PS> The paperback cover illustration above has no relation to the story.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The D.A. Calls A Turn by Erle Stanley Gardner (1944)

#6 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:

  • Carleton Grines / Desmond Billmeyer - amnesia victim with two identities
  • Charles and Ma Freelman, and their four sons:
  •     Stephen, married to Bernice
  •     Gilbert, married to Carmen
  •     Edward, engaged to Corliss Ditmer
  •     Frank, in the navy
  • D.A. Doug Selby
  • Sheriff Rex Brandon
  • Attorney A. B. Carr
  • Attorney Inez Stapleton (Selby's old flame)
  • Reporter Sylvia Martin (Selby's current flame)

Synopsis: Sheriff Rex Brandon receives a phone call on Thanksgiving evening. A man identifies himself as Carleton Grines, and wishes to turn himself in for car theft. As Brandon and D.A. Doug Selby head out to pick him up, they encounter him coming the other way just as Grines’ vehicle crashes into another car and a truck. He is dead.

As they view Grines’ body later in the morgue, it is apparent his cheap clothes do not fit. His expensive, hand-made shoes lead to a tentative identification, not of Grines, but of wealthy grocery chain owner Desmond Billmeyer. Brandon brings in Carmen Freelman, who works for Billmeyer, and identifies the body as that of Billmeyer.

Brandon brings in relatives of Grines to view the body, they identify it as Grines.

The story is pieced together. Ten years ago, Grimes was sent to jail in Oregon (wearing the cheap clothes), and escaped during a fire - although it was believed he had died. He suffered a head injury during the fire, causing amnesia. He put together a new life as teetotaler Desmond Billmeyer and began a successful grocery chain. He had been drinking the night of the car accident, which brought back his memory as Grines. He apparently retrieved his ten-year-old clothing and put it on again. The mystery is: where was the clothing all this time? and what caused him to start drinking?

Review: Oh, this one was the most blah of the Doug Selby's thus far. No real drama. Selby and Brandon just cruise sleepily through this one. A. B. Carr is too polite and likable. Inez Stapleton has lost her jealousy and is just a pal. Sylvia Martin follows along from habit. 

The opening chapter fully describes everyone in the Freelman family, but they have little to do with the story. Time is spent chasing two "major" clues: the old set of clothes and an ownerless dog - but again, little to do with the plot. The ending has a flavor of picking someone off the street to be the murderer; and the murderer dictates his own denouement. 

Three more Selby's in the series, I am sure things will pick up after the war.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Secret House by Edgar Wallace (1919)

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:
  • Montague Fallock, publisher and blackmailer
  • Count Ernesto Poltavo, his translator
  • Gregory Farrington, millionaire, uncle to Doris Gray
  • Lady Constance Dix, his girlfriend
  • Gorth, his servant
  • Frank Doughton, journalist
  • George Doughton, his late father
  • Doris Gray, Frank’s girlfriend
  • Lady Patricia Dinsmore, Doris Gray’s aunt
  • Jim Moole, invalid owner of The Secret House
  • Dr. Fall, Moole’s butler/physician
  • T. B. Smith, Scotland Yard

Locale: England

Synopsis: Recent immigrant Ernesto Poltavo obtains a position as translator for Montague Fallock. Fallock publishes a newsletter “The Gossip’s Corner” for the servant class. Many of the letters to the newsletter arrive in French and Italian, and Poltava translates them. Newsy items go in the newsletter, but scandalous items are reserved by Fallock for blackmail. Poltava uses his position to obtain access to society, posing as ‘Count’ Poltavo.

One blackmail victim is Lady Constance Dix. Her boyfriend, millionaire Gregory Farrington, opens his door one night to find two men shot dead. T. B. Smith of Scotland Yard investigates. Later, Farrington attends the theatre with journalist Frank Doughton, Frank's girlfriend Doris Gray, and her aunt Lady Patricia Dinsmore. An attempt is made to shoot Farrington. Farrington disappears, a suicide note is found, and a headless body with his I.D. found in the Thames. T. B. Smith suspects Farrington is still alive, and the body a substitute.

The action moves to The Secret House, a mansion built by an eccentric American, invalid Jim Moole; known friend of Farrington. Smith arrives to look for Farrington. Moole’s butler/physician, Dr. Fall, allows Smith to look around. The house has many electrical gadgets and trick rooms which can change places. Lady Constance Dix disappears and is held captive in the Secret House.

Review: The setup with the scandalous newsletter scheme is interesting, and the job offer made to Poltavo by Fallock (wearing a bag over his head) reminds me of Sherlock Holmes' Red Headed League. This book gets pretty much everything thrown at the reader: blackmailers, a woman (Doris Gray) forced into a marriage she doesn't want, a henchman (Poltavo) after her himself, and a dead body in the river with the head missing and a suicide note attached (figure that one out!) 

Once we get to the Secret House, it begins to look like a classic James Bond adventure: the beautiful woman held captive, the master criminal in his elaborate refuge full of booby traps, into which the hero (T. B. Smith) finds his way; capture by the master criminal who spends a lot of time and pages in taunting repartée before doing away with him. They never learn - all that added delay allows the hero to be rescued every time!

Overall, a good first half is diminished by the fantastic science-fiction of the second half.

If you are a fan of mansions with elaborate built-in electrical tricks, you may also enjoy Spider House by Van Wyck Mason (1932).