Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Maxwell Mystery by Carolyn Wells (1913)

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)

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.


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!

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Murder Runs in the Family by Hulbert Footner (1934)

You can read this book online here:

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Lance McCrea, our protagonist
  • Jim Beardmore, mill owner
  • Freda Rollin, Jim Beardmore's secretary, Lance's love interest
  • Tony Beardmore, Jim's son
  • Clinton Beardmore, Jim's half-brother
  • Rainer Stanley, Jim's son-in-law
  • Peter Bearemore, Jim's late father, a murder victim
  • Timothy Wilson, Jim's gardener
  • Professor Sempill, Lance's fellow boarder and friend
  • Bob Fassett, company gardener
Locale: Connecticut

Synopsis: Lance McCrea has fallen in love at first sight with Freda Rollin, who boards in the same house. Jim's overtures to Freda are rebuffed, as she says she is not free. She appears to have a relationship already with wealthy mill owner Jim Beardmore. Lance and Jim mix it up over Freda.

Lance follows Jim as he picks up a picnic-for-two and goes to his closed-up mansion, Fairfield. Jim enters the library to find Jim dead - but still warm. To his horror, he turns to see a hand reach around the door, grab the key, and shut the door - locking him in with the dead man.

Lance panics as the police approach and runs away, but encounters the murderer in the woods. Police pursue, there is a scuffle, and the murderer kills a policeman, Sgt. Doty. A long chase ensues as Lance evades the police. He is finally caught, but then escapes from the jail. He teams up with company gardener Bob Fassett to infiltrate the Beardmore Linen Mills. The rest of the Beardmore family are running the show with heavy hands; and Lance escapes a murder attempt of being thrown into a vat of acid.

Review: There are a couple of head-scratchers here which linger throughout the book. First, why does Lance run away from the authorities in the first place, as he is innocent? Second, why does he bother to break out of jail - which is, it itself, a crime? 

The murder mystery turns into a chase thriller for most of the book. The title hints at the killer, or at least narrows it down. There is a surprise at the end, unrelated to the murder; which gives a satisfying conclusion to the story. 

One drawback is the high character count. Everyone who pops into the story is named, thus (in my mind) becoming a suspect, and I had to keep a written list of who is who in case they reappeared later.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

A Knife for the Juggler by Manning Coles (1964)



About the author: (wikipedia): Manning Coles is the pseudonym of two British writers, Adelaide Frances Oke Manning (1891–1959) and Cyril Henry Coles (1899–1965), who wrote many spy thrillers from the early 40s through the early 60s. The fictional protagonist in 26 of their books was Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon, who works for the Foreign Office.

Major characters:
  • Lernhard Werner
  • Don Pedro, the juggler
  • The Grieving Widow
  • Pavel Dinnik, a kidnapped communist
  • Tommy Hambledon, British Secret Service
  • Inspector Antoine Letord, of the Sureté
  • Alexander Campbell, British model maker
  • William Forgan, his partner

Locale: France

Synopsis: Someone has been kidnapping communists around Paris, and they have disappeared without a trace. The latest was Pavel Dinnik. The British want him rescued - he was a most reasonable representative of Russia. Tommy Hambledon is sent to Paris to find him.

As soon as Tommy arrives, he witnesses a murder (of Lernhard Werner). While following the killer, he learns that he and another German (Goertz and Ernst Werner) are to attempt something during a juggling show by Don Pedro. Tommy attends, Don Pedro is killed by a thrown knife. 

In order to flush out the kidnappers, Tommy calls on his associates Alexander Campbell and William Forgan to speak at a fake communist meeting; hoping a kidnap attempt will be made. Being modelmakers, Campbell and Forgan know nothing about communism, and their inappropriate speeches start a riot.

Tommy finds the kidnapped communists are being held in a wing of a hotel, awaiting transport to a desert island. He assumes the identity of Karl Ardweg and procures a job as a warden. A mysterious grieving widow is a guest also a guest of the hotel and lurks about. Tommy confirms Pavel Dinnik is there, but how to get him out?

Review: An excellent Manning Coles adventure with all the necessary elements: explosions, fires, riots, kidnappings, and general mayhem; all improved by the modelmakers Campbell and Forgan who excel in jumping into trouble and stirring all the pots, never thinking of the consequences. A particularly amusing episode is when the modelmakers are in a cafe, attempting to converse in Spanish, while eavesdropping on a conversation in German; requiring simultaneous double translations.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Finger Man by Raymond Chandler (1950)



This novella is contained in 13 Short Detective Novels, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg.

About the author: Raymond Chandler (1888 – 1959) was an American-British novelist and screenwriterHe is a founder of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. The protagonist of his novels, Philip Marlowe, like Hammett's Sam Spade, is considered by some to be synonymous with "private detective". Both were played in films by Humphrey Bogart, whom many consider to be the quintessential Marlowe. (wikipedia).

Major characters:
  • Philip Marlowe, private eye
  • Lou Harger, his dapper friend
  • Miss Glenn, Lou's tall, red-headed gal
  • -- Canales, manager of a casino
  • Frank Dorr, the 'big guy' casino owner
  • various thugs
Locale: Appears to be Los Angeles, from the street names

Synopsis: Lou Harger, effeminate friend of Philip Marlowe, shows up in Marlow's office. Harger had owned a crooked roulette wheel, which allowed the operator to influence the results. The sheriff had confiscated it. That was OK with him, but somehow the wheel then wound up in Canales' casino, and they had no idea it was rigged.

Lou has a bright idea. He will go gamble on the wheel and win big, since the casino is unaware of its secret. Lou is too well known, so his gal Miss Glenn will do the gambling, while Marlowe stays in the background as a bodyguard. The scheme works too well. Miss Glenn rakes in $20,000; much to the dismay of the casino. So far, so good.

Next day, Miss Glenn appears at Marlowe's office with the $20,000, and tells him Lou is dead in her apartment, killed by casino thugs looking for the money. Marlowe goes to look but ... no body. Marlowe goes looking for him, knowing the casino crowd has it in for him anyway, as he had 'fingered' one of their own: Manny Tinnen (thus the title). Marlowe is grabbed and brought to the 'big guy', Frank Dorr, the owner of the casino.

Review: This is a concise little hard-boiled story with tough guys and one glamorous girl, lots of shooting, and the requisite witty repartée between the big mob boss and the captured hero. Snappy language, such as "As a bluff, mine was thinner than the gold on a weekend wedding ring." The cover art (above) pretty much sums it up: two guys, a girl with lots of cash, and a roulette wheel.