Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Clue by Carolyn Wells (1909)


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:

  • Madeleine Van Norman, 22
  • Schulyer Carleton, her fiancé
  • Cecily Dupuy, her secretary
  • Marie, her French maid
  • James Harris, her butler
  • Tom Willard, her distant cousin
  • Mrs. Markham, housekeeper
  • Dorothy Burt. companion to Schuyler Carleton's mother
  • Miss Elizabeth Morton, a take-charge type
  • Robert Fessenden, best man, lawyer, amateur detective
  • Fleming Stone, last-minute detective

Locale: New Jersey


At age 22, Madeleine Van Norman has already inherited the vast Van Norman mansion, and is poised to marry very proper choice Schulyer Carleton. When she does, according to terms of  her late uncle Richard Van Norman's will, she will inherit his fortune - however, if she dies unmarried (just hours left!), the fortune instead goes to her distant cousin Tom Willard, who had been in love with her for years. So what does he love more - her or her money?

It is a moot question. She never makes it to her wedding, and is found stabbed to death the night before. Now Tom Willard inherits Richard's fortune. Next, the lawyer reads Madeleine's will! Surprise, she has left the mansion and grounds to Miss Elizabeth Morton; and she is not even related. 

The only person who seems to have had opportunity to do the crime is the groom, Schulyer Carleton; but he lacks a motive. The person with the big fat motive, Tom Willard, was not present and thus lacks opportunity. 


When a book starts out by describing the terms of a will (page 12), it becomes obvious a murder is in the making! The terms of the two wills are complex and worthy of a Perry Mason plot. 

The ladies make a habit of fainting when asked tough questions. Of course, if I were as tightly corseted as these 1909 ladies, I would also.

This follows a standard Wells pattern: the amateur detective (Robert Fessenden) flails around for most of the book exploring different motive theories, and near the end, Fleming Stone pops in (at page 313!), takes a look around, and quickly pulls off the denouément. This reminds me of my dentist visits where the hygenist does 99.9% of the work, then the dentist pops in for a quick little peek at the end (which adds an additional charge to the bill, of course!) 

The solution requires the reader to suspend disbelief on a couple of fronts. First, the murderer has a secret Santa Claus-type method of entering/exiting the house which is about as believable. Second, the murderer confesses, promptly stabs himself with the murder weapon, then casually dictates his will to his lawyer before popping off!

Overall, a nice period mystery until the strange solution is revealed.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (2016)


About the author: Ruth Ware is a pseudonym of Ruth Warburton.

Major Characters:

  • Laura “Lo” Blacklock, travel writer for Velocity (Cabin 9)
  • Judah Lewis, Lo’s boyfriend
  • Richard and Anne Bullmer, owners of The Aurora Borealis (Cabin 1)
  • Ben Howard, reporter, Lo’s old flame (Cabin 8)
  • Mystery woman (Cabin 10)
  • Lars and Chloe Jenssen
  • Cole Lederer, photographer
  • Tina West, editor of Vernean Times, a “stone cold bitch” (Cabin 5)
  • Archer Fenlan, travel writer (Cabin 7)
  • Alexander Belhomme, travel writer (Cabin 6)
  • Owen White, UK investor
  • Johann Nilsson, head of security

Locale: UK and the North Sea

Synopsis: A number of travel writers are invited on the promotional maiden voyage of luxury yacht Aurora Borealis. The yacht has ten staterooms and will be in service between Norway and the UK. Writer Laura “Lo” Blacklock is to fill in for her editor, who is out on maternity leave.

A few nights prior to sailing, a burglar breaks into Lo’s apartment and she is slightly injured in confronting him. Another source of anxiety: her boyfriend, Judah, is torn between leaving her for a job in the US or staying in the UK.

The yacht would be full, but a last minute cancellation leaves cabin 10 vacant. However, Lo, in adjacent cabin 9, observes a young woman in cabin 10. That night Lo hears a splash from cabin 10, and sees that someone has gone over the side and into the sea. She raises the alarm, but no one believes her, as cabin 10 is supposedly vacant and a check of all aboard shows no one is missing.

Lo finds a couple pieces of evidence to support her story: the woman’s mascara tube (which disappears) and a photo in which she appears (which gets destroyed). Lo becomes paranoid as the killer may be after her, and may be related to the earlier break-in at her home. She tries to find the killer as the crew becomes increasing suspect.

Review: As other reviewers have noted, this is an excellent page-turner which urges the reader to start and finish in one sitting. 

Suspense is built throughout by brief excerpts from the future prefacing each section, giving the reader hints of horrors to come.

The book gives good insight into the differences between the haves (the passengers) and the have-nots (the crew). It is an effective technique that the ship is filled not with the wealthy high-society future passengers, but middle class travel writers who are more relatable.

The theme of “I saw a murder, no one believes me, and now the killer is after me” reminds me of Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story "It Had to Be Murder" (and 1954 Hitchcock film based on it, titled Rear Window), 1959 Hitchcock film North by Northwest and even 1976 comedy/thriller Silver Streak. 

The arrangement of the staterooms is significant to the story. The layout is described in text, but the reader may also find my sketch helpful:

Cabins 2, 3, and 4 are occupied by Owen White, Cole Lederer, and the Jenssens; although it is not specified who has which one.

The book also contains suggested discussion questions for book groups, and a preview chapter from The Lying Game. 

I enjoyed the book and managed to break it into three readings.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Case of the Musical Cow by Erle Stanley Gardner (1950)

Major characters:

  • Rob Trenton, a dog trainer vacationing in Europe
  • Linda Carroll
  • Linda Mae Carroll, Linda's aunt
  • Frank & Marion Essex
  • Dr. Dixon, dog owner
  • Merton Ostrander, collector of cowbells
  • Harvey Richmond, undercover narcotics investigator 

Locale: Paris - Switzerland - New York

Synopsis: Vacationing Rob Trenton, Linda Carroll, and Frank and Marion Essex all sailed to Paris on the same ship. Rob has his eye on attractive Linda. Linda organizes a car tour (she had her car shipped with them) of Switzerland with Frank and Marion, and asks Rob to join them as a fourth to share expenses. Shortly into their tour, the Essex's are called home unexpectedly. Merton Ostrander, a fellow guest at an inn, fills in one of their spots. Ostrander is an avid collector of musical cow bells, and collects a number of them during the tour.

After the tour, things begin to go wrong. Rob falls ill with an intestinal complaint. He barely manages to make the ship and the four set sail back to the US. Rob's roommate is Harvey Richmond, who is very inquisitive about their movements. Merton Ostrander is seen dumping his precious cowbell collection over the side of the ship. Rob adopts a dog, Lobo, from fellow passenger Dr. Dixon.

After clearing customs in New York, Rob is driving Linda's car back for her. He discovers a cache of heroin hidden in the vehicle frame, and stashes it until he consults with Linda.

He goes to Linda's address to find a different woman who claims - and proves - that she is Linda Carroll, specifically Linda Mae Carroll; aunt to other Linda. A gang of drug smugglers steal the car in order to retrieve the drugs, find them gone, and then abduct Rob and demand to know what happened to the drugs. A shootout results in Rob being arrested and brought to trial.


This is one of the few non-series titles by Erle Stanley Gardner, and a nice treat from the usual California scenes. I was surprised by the number of story elements tossed in at the beginning, although a few of them are the requisite red herrings. For example, Frank and Marion Essex are prime characters right away, but then they are called home and never return to the story. Likewise, the two white capsule pills are a big deal at first, then they drop from the story but come back at the end with a brief innocent explanation. 

It ends up with the usual courtroom scene, with a twist - our protagonist Rob Trenton discharges his public-defender attorney (in front of the jury - how embarassing) and conducts his own defense. If you enjoy Erle Stanley Gardner and are looking for something different in his works, this is a good choice. By the way, there is no cow in the story.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Whip-Poor-Will Mystery by Hulbert Footner (1935)

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Weir Lambert, newspaper editor
  • Tasker Teeple, local busybody
  • Peter Birkett, state's attorney
  • Frank Baker, sheriff
  • Leila Cowdin, the girl on the hill
  • Lee Cowdin, her father, deceased
  • Saul Cowdin, the caretaker
  • Ralph Manners, a.k.a. The Whip-Poor-Will
Locale: Maryland

Synopsis: Weir Lambert publishes a small local newspaper in rural, coastal Kentville, Maryland. Kentville is inhabited by a few families, and also several slave-descendant families who live in shacks. Weir runs a personal ad from "The Girl on the Hill" which asks for her lover (the Whip-Poor-Will) to come to her quickly, as the "man" is gone away. This results in an uproar among the locals, for running such a obviously sinful ad from a shameless hussy in their paper. The locals try to find out who she is, but only Weir and sheriff Frank Baker figure it out with the use of some topographical maps.

Weir goes to the house to find it guarded by Saul Cowdin, a large Black caretaker. Weir sneaks around him to get to the main house, and finds a 17-year old girl, Leila Cowdin, living in squalor. Weir brings her some food and finds her putting a coffin together, with the dead body of her father, Lee Cowdin, in the house. She had found him outside, dead from a bullet wound. Weir urges her to contact the authories, but she refuses. Relucantly, Weir helps her bury Lee in a shallow grave.

The authorities discover this. Leila is arrested for murder, Weir arrested for being an accessory. They manage to break out of the town's simple jailhouse and flee together, with Weir confessing his love for Leila. Weir then searches for the murderer.

Review: At one-third of the way through I came to a screeching halt. The use of racist language pertaining to Black Americans is awful. The n-word is used, and various stereotypes are used against Black persons. I could not figure out if this comes from the author's prejudices, or if the author was trying to write realistically for characters in 1930's Maryland. In any event, it was unnecessary. I was disgusted and almost tossed it aside and crossed this author off my list, but I will give it a chance as the mystery is unusual and I am looking to see how it resolves.

Later: The racist talk was pretty much confined to one chapter. After that, we have a straight mystery story; which is pretty good given the earlier language. I can only rate this one star as the racist language sinks the entire book.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Master Criminal by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1924)


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. He also wrote the screenplay for Michael Powell's My Friend the King (1932) and provided the story for Bernard Vorhaus's The Ghost Camera (1933). 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:

The criminal gang:
  • John Mordaunt, a.k.a. Mr. Dicks, the master criminal
  • Beatrice Fuller, moll
  • Edward Tapley, the tall man
  • Joe Flipp, the dwarf
  • Jack Baxter, a.k.a. A. P. Smith
  • Arthur Lancing, a.k.a. George Finch, a.k.a. Alf Smith
The others:
  • Geoffrey Mordaunt, John's brother, of Scotland Yard
  • Joan Heather, Geoffrey's fiancée
  • James Cardhew, owner of the ruby
  • Wilfred Hobson, of Scotland Yard; a.k.a. Mr. Killick

Locale: London and environs

Synopsis: John Mordaunt, alias Mr. Dicks, is the master criminal and leads a gang consisting of beautiful Beatrice Fuller and others. One of the gang - Baxter, alias A.P. Smith, was assigned to steal a valuble ruby from James Cardhew. The theft went bad. Cardhew was killed, then Baxter shot by the authorities, and the ruby lost somewhere.

John seeks out a fall guy to go search for and retrieve the ruby. The gang has a meeting and chooses an unkempt tramp who has been following John around. John and the tramp meet privately, and the tramp reveals himself to be John's brother, Geoffrey Mordaunt of Scotland Yard, in disguise. He had been following John in order to apprehend him. They wind up in a standoff, and John, seeing the inevitable, turns his gun on himself. Geoffrey quickly disguises himself as John, in order to infiltrate the gang and recover the ruby.

Review: Another good period mystery by J. Jefferson Farjeon. He employs his usual little tricks as people having multiple identities and disguises. As others have noted, he excelled in creating creepy, gloomy atmospheres. A couple of excerpts:

...added to these things was the strange atmosphere of the hosue itself, its haunting setting, and utter loneliness. Amid this wilderness of trees there should have been peace; and peace, in one sense, there was; but it was a brooding, malignant peace, throbbing with subconscious discord.

...he glanced out of the window. The velvet shadoes of the spires had by now licked their way right across the lawn below, and were pointing, like black arrows, into the bushes.

I enjoyed the part where Mordaunt escapes across a lake in a leaky boat, and walks through the dark forest in search of a woodcutter's hut for a shelter; bribing the woodcutter to not reveal his presence. 

A cringeworthy part was a restaurant scene where no one wants to share a table with a Black man.

This title is available for Kindle.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Murder at a Vineyard Mansion by Philip R. Craig (#15 - 2004)


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:
  • Mickey Gomes, in jail but constantly escaping
  • Ron Pierson, builder of 'Pierson's Palace'
  • Maud Mayhew, the old aristocrat
  • Harold Hobbes, her son, admitted window-breaker
  • Ollie Mattes, short-lived night watchman
  • Sarah Bradford, an older softball player
  • Cheryl Bradford, her daughter
  • Ethan Bradford, her hermit son
  • J. W. Jackson
Locale: Martha's Vineyard (island), Massachusetts

Synopsis: The biggest news on Martha's Vineyard is a unknown vigilante, called 'The Silencer', who is on a crusade to destroy annoyingly-loud music speakers in cars and homes. Yes, it is illegal, but people secretly support his work.

Ron Pierson is building a giant showy residence, which locals sarcastically call 'Pierson's Palace'. Someone doesn't like it and has gone on a window-breaking spree. Pierson hires Ollie Mattes as a night watchman, but Mattes quickly falls (or was he pushed?) off the cliff to his death. Aristocratic matriarch Maud Mayhew approaches J.W. to establish that her son, Harold Hobbes, did not push him - because Harold admits to the window breaking which puts him high on the suspect list anyway. That doesn't last long, Hobbes is found dead in the driveway.

J. W. observes Cheryl Bradford hanging around the unfinished house, and has repeated interviews with her and her mother, Sarah Bradford. Both are horse lovers, and Sarah plays on a softball team for older women. Sarah's son is Ethan Bradford, a long-haired hermit, who meets visitors with a shotgun and threats; a strange retirement activity for a refined former electrical engineer who likes classical music.

Review: The murder mystery is very good. There are a small number of people in the story, and when the murderer - and the motive - is discovered, I realized the little clues that had been dropped here and there but it did come as a surprise. 

However, the Silencer story line is rather sci-fi and on the unbelievable side - someone has a mysterious ray gun and goes around zapping sound systems, but somehow all the other electronics in the cars and houses are not affected? Details about how the zapping was done are not revealed. I could just see a big fat violation of Knox Commandment #4 coming .. ."No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end." Sure enough, we get the appliance and a long scientific explanation at the end. Perhaps it is included on a technicality as it is not the murder weapon, but just a gadget that annoys readers. The identity of the Silencer was clearly indicated as soon as the character was introduced and was no surprise. 

The middle portion of the book deals with J.W. delving into the genealogy and relationships among the old-time local families. This does lay the groundwork for figuring out the killer at the end, so is essential, although I chose not to try to follow and comprehend the family trees presented.

Anita Pereira, a former lover of Hobbes, is a piece of work. She describes her open marriage  - oh, by the way, my husband has a new lover but I'm available at the moment - and comes on to J.W. repeatedly. When rebuffed, she just changes her pitch like any good salesperson: "Say, if you've not interested in sex with me, how about renting one of our horses and taking a couple of riding lessons?" Well, if you don't want the fish, how about the chicken?

Oh, another little annoyance is Craig's incorrect use of homophones. As in previous books, he uses "bridal path" instead of "bridle path", and "metal" instead of "mettle". Tsk, tsk. And he was a professor of English! 

Overall, a good story which kept me turning pages. No need to follow the family trees unless you really want to map things out and try to identify the killer that way - which would be possible. Don't worry too much about The Silencer. And don't get involved with Anita Pereira. She's probably found someone else by now anyway.

Some nice extras:
  • A map of Martha's Vineyard will all the places labelled
  • Recipes
  • Synopses/excerpts from books 1-14.