Monday, November 30, 2020

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (1937)

 

dustjackets.com

Major characters aboard the S. S. Karnak:
  • Linnet Ridgeway, too rich and entitled
  • "Uncle" Andrew Pennington, Linnet's American trustee
  • Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet's friend
  • Simon Doyle, stolen away from Jacqueline
  • Tim Allerton, a mama's boy
  • Mrs. Allerton, Tim's mother
  • James Fanthorp
  • Marie Van Schuyler, missing her stole
  • Cornelia Robson, cousin to Marie Van Schuyler
  • Dr. Carl Besner
  • Mrs. Salome and Miss Rosalie Otterbourne
  • Lousie Bourget, Linnet's maid
  • Signor Richetti, archeologist
  • Miss Bowers, a nurse
  • Ferguson, a communist
  • Fleetwood, engineer on the crew
  • Hercule Poirot
  • Colonel Race
And...
  • Lord Charles Windlesham, who would have been a proper choice for a husband
  • Joanna Southwood, Tim's 2nd cousin
Locale: England (briefly), then Egypt

Synopsis: Wealthy Linnet Ridgeway has been renovating her newly-purchased country house, and stringing along stiff old Lord Charles Windlesham about marriage. Windlesham cools on the idea when he realizes she would expect him to move in to her ghastly place, while he prefers his own palatial country house. So no deal.

Linnet's friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort, invites herself over to show off her fiancé, Simon Doyle; and suggests Linnet employ him as Land Manager. Linnet not only does so, but also steals him away from Jacqueline, and marries him.

Linnet and Simon head to Egypt for their honeymoon. Jacqueline pops up there also, following them around and bent on making Linnet miserable. Hercule Poirot is there on vacation. Linnet appeals to him to make Jacqueline just go away. Poirot reluctantly speaks to Jacqueline, without effect. Linette, Simon, Jacqueline, et al. embark on a journey on the S. S. Karnak.

Things come to a head quickly on the boat. Jacqueline confronts Simon, and shoots him in the leg. She is overcome with remorse and retires to her cabin, attended by nurse Miss Bowers. Then Linnet is found shot dead in her own cabin. Jacqueline is the obvious suspect, but has a iron-clad alibi: Nurse Bowers was with her all night. Now Linnet's valuable pearls are missing also.

Review: Linnet is the Ugly American - showy, braggy, entitled, and the Girl You Love to Hate. Right away I was rooting for her to be Victim #1. After a brief introduction to principals in England, we move right away to Egypt. I find some Christies hard to follow due to an overload of characters, and a lot of sleight of hand. This one I could follow fine. A most enjoyable read and the pieces fit together nicely at the end.

My edition has a map of the boat's layout (Ch. XII, p. 149) which appears at an appropriate point.

Aside: Every time I see the name S. S. Karnak I have this vision of Johnny Carson in a turban.

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

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Killing of Judge Mac Farlane by Mary Plum (1930)

 


About the author: All I could find is this Goodreads list.

Major characters:
  • Gerland Louis Gilfillan Gillespie, "G", our British protagonist
  • Brick Carrio, the body
  • Judge -- Mac Farlane
  • Claire Mac Farlane, his daughter
  • Mrs. Downing, the housekeeper
  • Lucy Miles, the parlor maid
  • Willard Ferguson, the family lawyer
  • Tugs Schrader
  • Detective John Smith
Locale: Chicago

Synopsis: Gerland Louis Gilfillan Gillespie, "G", has moved from England to Chicago in search of adventure. He finds it when he opens his apartment to find a body on the floor, a knife in his neck, and wearing a knife-proof metal vest under his shirt. The dead man, a gangster identified as 'Brick' Carrio, had been scrawling something on the floor with his own blood, spelling out "INCH", the rest unreadable. When his name gets in the papers, G is invited to meet with Judge Mac Farlane, who is seeking information on the Chicago underworld. G meets with him, and is enchanted by his daughter Claire Mac Farlane. G returns to his apartment and is called upon by a man claiming to be the police fingerprint expert, who goes around the apartment ostensibly photographing fingerprints of the murderer, but in reality erasing them.

G and Tugs Schrader, a friend of the judge, go to visit the judge, but on the way find his body sprawled in the road - a setup waiting for the next car to come along and run over him, disguising the fact he was already dead. There is more drama at the judge's home: housekeeper Mrs. Downing has found out she is being cut of the judge's will, and parlor maid Lucy Miles is caught opening the judge's safe. 

After breaking the news of the judge's death to Claire, G learns that Brick Carrio had been in the judge's house the night before, removing a confession from his safe.

Review: This story emphasizes the wisdom of the old rule - if you are going to cut someone out of your will, never, never, never tell them before you do it. This story kept me guessing. The victims are daisy-chained: A is dead, apparently by B. Now B is dead, apparently by C. Now C is dead .. and so on. A thoroughly enjoyable story with Chicago gangsters lurking around the edges, but never becoming a significant part of the story. I could not locate any biographical info on Mary Plum, and I could only find references to these other books:
  • Susanna, Don't You Cry
  • Murder Of A Red Haired Man
  • Murder at the Hunting Club
  • Dead Man's Secret
  • State Department Cat 
  • Murder at the World's Fair.




Monday, November 23, 2020

Faulkner's Folly by Carolyn Wells (1917)

 



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. See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:

  • The late James Faulkner, builder of Faulkner's Folly
  • Beatrice Faulkner, his widow
  • Eric Stannard, artist, dying as story opens
  • Joyce Stannard, his wife
  • Barry Stannard, his son by previous marriage
  • Natalie Vernon, the voluptuous live-in model
  • Blake, the footman
  • Annette, the maid
  • Eugene Courteney, neighbor
  • Mr. Wadsworth, widower
  • Mr. & Mrs. Truxton, jewel collectors
  • Coroner Lamson
  • Detective Bobsy Roberts
  • Orienta, a clairvoyant
  • Alan Ford, professional detective

Locale: Long Island, NY

Synopsis: James Faulkner had built an opulent mansion. He ran out of money in the process, and so it became known as Faulkner's Folly. He passed away two years ago, and his widow, Beatrice Faulkner, has sold the mansion to Eric and Joyce Stannard.

Eric Stannard is an artist and employs Natalie Vernon, a cute young blonde thing as his live-in model; much to the annoyance of wife Joyce. Stannard was also working on a portrait of Beatrice Faulkner, which was part of the purchase price of the house. She is visiting to pose as usual, and comes down the grand staircase to find excitement in the studio: Eric is found stabbed to death in his chair, with wife Joyce and model Natalie standing behind him looking at each other.

Not only is he dead, but his priceless emerald collection is missing. Local detective Robert "Bobsy" Roberts investigates, but cannot figure out which woman is guilty. A local clarivoyant, Orienta, offers her services. After demonstrating her prowess of reading notes inside sealed envelopes in the dark, she proceeds to describe the murder - and murderer - in great detail. To the shock of the family, she exonerates Joyce and Natalie, and reveals the murderer is a man, and describes him, but cannot put a name to him.

The family becomes frustrated with Bobsy's lack of progress, and hires professional detective Alan Ford. After briefly interviewing the principals, he reveals the murderer.

Review: This Carolyn Wells follows the usual Fleming Stone formula of the ace detective (but this time, Alan Ford) showing up in the final chapter to take a quick sniff around and then reveal everything which should have been obvious to the locals. This is an excellent plot, and there are several parallel mysteries:
  • Who killed Eric?
  • How did the murderer enter/exit the room?
  • Where did the emeralds go?
  • How does Orienta read sealed notes in the dark?
The plot is complicated by four love connections which are gradually revealed. All four mysteries noted above are solved. I was beginning to suspect some fair play issues, but there are none. All the hints were revealed. 

A crime scene map is provided which is valuable in understanding the setup.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Case of the Backward Mule by Erle Stanley Gardner (1946)

 

dustjackets.com

This is a continuation of my reviews of Gardner's non-Perry Mason novels. This is the second (and last) of two Terry Clane novels (the first is Murder Up My Sleeve).

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,  Alma's sister, a.k.a. Painter Woman
  • Horace Farnsworth, E.A.I.T.C.*, already dead 
  • Stacey Nevis, E.A.I.T.C.
  • George Gloster,  E.A.I.T.C.
  • Ricardo Taonon, E.A.I.T.C.
  • Daphne Taonon, his wife
  • Bill Hendrum 
  • Edward Harold, convicted of Farnsworth's death
  • Sou Ha, a.k.a. Embroidered Halo
  • Inspector Malloy
* Eastern Art Import and Trading Company

Locale: San Francisco

Synopsis: Terry Clane returns to San Francisco from studying concentration in the Orient. No sooner does he step off the boat, when  the police bring him in for questioning. Edward Harold is on death row for the murder of Horace Farnsworth (boyfriend of Cynthia Renton after Terry broke up with her). Now Farnsworth has escaped, Cynthia is nowhere to be found, and the police think Terry knows their whereabouts. The police show him a wooden figure of a Chinese man riding a mule backwards, and ask if he recognizes it. He does. It belongs to Cynthia Renton, and now it has blood spots on it.

Terry is convinced that Harold is innocent of the charges, and seeks to find him. He is called to a meeting at a warehouse of the Eastern Art Import and Trading Company (E.A.I.T.C.), whose owners are George Gloster, Stacey Nevis, Ricardo Taonon, and the late Horace Farnsworth. Terry enters the warehouse to find someone has been living there. Then he finds the body of George Gloster.

Review: It is too bad there were only two Terry Clane books, they are excellent; especially for their descriptions of the Chinese community. After reading these, one feels as if he could go to Chinatown and feel right at home.

Sou Ha is a great character, well developed and believable as she guides Terry (and the reader) through the mysteries of Chinatown. Cynthia Renton has the leading mysterious where-is-she woman role, her sister Alma is relegated to a brief mention.

Terry Clane's identity is vague - in the first book he is referred to as a lawyer, but his life seems to circle around his trips to China to study with the monks. Bill Hendrum is a puzzle, his role is never explained. Inspector Malloy can be annoying, but that's his job.

A final little mystery - why did nine years elapse beween book #1 (1937) and #2 (1946)?

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Mystery of the Folded Paper by Hulbert Footner (1930)

 

dustjackets.com

Also published as "The Folded Paper Mystery"

About the author: See this Wikipedia article

Major characters:
  • Finlay Corveth, news feature writer
  • Nick Peters, watchmaker
  • Henny Friend, owner of Boloney Bar
  • Nick Casino, a hit man
  • Kid River, small time hoodlum
  • General Diamond, a mercenary, a.k.a "The American"
  • Nipperg, a.k.a. "Robespierre"
  • Milly, Kid River's girlfriend
  • Mariula Peters, a.k.a. Mary Dare
  • Amos Lee Mappin, crime writer
Locale: Manhattan NY and Hoboken NJ (on opposite sides of the Hudson River)

Synopsis: Finlay Corveth, freelance feature writer, visits his old friend Nick Peters in his tiny Manhattan watch repair shop after hearing he had been burglarized. Peters had been hit on the head by a brass ball removed from his bedpost, and the shop ransacked; apparently by someone looking for something they could not find - but they took the brass ball away with them. Peters reveals he has a precious emerald locket hidden away somewhere safe, and says it is intended to be security for a young girl, Mariula Peters, who is away at school.  

Finlay suspects the emerald locket may be in the brass ball, and follows the trail of the ball as it passes through several hands, including a couple of small time thieves Nick Casino and Kid River. He recovers the ball at a scrap metal dealer. Finlay goes to Peter's shop to return it, but finds him strangled to death.

With the help of his friend, crime writer Amos Lee Mappin, they open the ball to find the emerald locket, and inside it a folded up piece of blank paper. They suspect General Diamond is behind the crooks trying to steal it, and strike up a friendship with him.

Mariula Peters, now kicked out of boarding school, is brought to Hoboken and gets an acting part in the theatre, under the stage name Mary Dare. Finlay and Mappin decode the blank paper, and seek out an unknown treasure.

Review:

This story is fast-paced and is fascinating for its look at 1930's Manhattan/New Jersey. It gets a bit dizzying with the constant trips through the Lincoln Tunnel to go back and forth. I am familiar with some of the neighborhoods in which the story is set (Inwood, Kingsbridge, Riverdale); and a map such as on a Dell Mapback would have been helpful. You may wish to get out a map of Manhattan to help you enjoy the story.

I had expected the two-bit hoodlums from the first part (Nick Casino, Kid River and Milly) to reappear, but they never did. Instead we get a couple of arch-criminals which Finlay and Mappin identify by nicknames (The American and Robespierre) as they do not know their real names. We eventually get the real names (General Diamond and Nipperg, respectively). 

Two especially good characters are young Mariula Peters, who gets a surprise ending; and Nipperg's wife, Diasy; who enjoys flirting with with Finlay.

A most amusing scene is when Finlay and Mappin throw General Diamond off the track to the treasure, by substituting a map with fake directions. 

The ending is a satisfying, surprise turn of events.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Body on the Floor by Nancy Barr Mavity (1929)

 

dustjackets.com

About the author: Nann "Nancy" Barr Mavity (1890 - 1959) is the author of a series of mystery novels about crime reporter James Aloysius "Peter" PiperNancy Barr Mavity taught philosophy at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. She was a newspaper woman. She was a feature writer of the Oakland Tribune. In this capacity, she was the first woman to spend a night in Folsom State Prison, where she had gone to cover the pardon hearing of Warren K Billings. She lectured extensively and contributed to magazines. (from a Wikipedia article).

This is Peter Piper #2 (of 6). The full series is:
  1. The Tule Marsh Murder (1929)
  2. The Body on the Floor (1929)
  3. The Other Bullet (1930)
  4. The Case of the Missing Sandals (1930)
  5. The Man Who Didn't Mind Hanging (1932)
  6. The Fate of Jane McKenzie (1933)

Major characters:
  • Natalie Cole, a.k.a (incorrectly) Mrs. Asbury - the body on the floor
  • Clarkson L. Cole, her estranged husband, the "Tire king of Detroit"
  • --- Asbury, her estranged lover, a forest ranger, then a trucker and bootlegger
  • Allison Cole, her daughter
  • Elsie Cole Lawrence, her other daughter
  • John Lawrence, Elsie's husband
  • Edythe Grainge, telephone operator
  • Edward Comstock, elderly legatee
  • Winifred Newell, Asbury's secretary and lover
  • Peter Piper, reporter for The Herald
  • Barbara Piper, his wife
  • Emil Kurtner, expert witness #1
  • Chester Mason, expert witness #2
  • Jerry Dean, cub correspondent for The Herald
  • Sheriff F. M. Rondel

Locale: not stated

Synopsis:

Following an item submitted by cub correspondent Jerry Dean; Peter Piper, ace reporter for The Herald, is assigned to cover a woman's death under mysterious circumstances, having been killed with a shotgun - but was it murder or suicide? The woman, known locally as Mrs. Asbury, was actually Natalie Cole - estranged from her husband Clarkson L. Cole. She had been living with young, attractive --- Asbury as husband and wife, although not married. Recently they, too, became estranged when he took up with his secretary, Winifred Newell. She wanted him back, but he was more attracted to a string of young ladies more his age.

Her daughter, Allison Cole, had found the body and was in the process of falling apart. Jerry Dean takes her under his wing until Peter's wife, Barbara Piper, arrives to comfort her.

As Piper and sheriff F. M. Rondel try to determine if it is murder, it is found that she had made a will the day before, leaving her rance to elderly indigent neighbor Edward Comstock. The situation escalates at the inquest, when two expert witnesses, Emil Kurtner and Chester Mason, offer two totally contradictory versions of events.

Review:

This fast-paced story is set in the frenzy of a 1920's newspaper office, complete with chaotic press rooms, shouting editors, race-against-time telephoned reports, and star reporters taking notes on folded pieces of newsprint. The author knows her subject, being a newspaper reporter herself; and brings the excitement of reporting to the reader.

Oh, her use of words! Listen to this gloomy passage as the townspeople arrive at the inquest! What a scene:

The crowd had poured slowly, steadily into the dark interior of the undertaking parlors in a viscous, flowing mass. The porch still overflowed with those who had found no room inside, coagulating at the windows and doors, clotted on the steps.

There are two outstanding characters:
  • Edythe Grainge, the wallflower telephone operator who sees her role as an inquest witness as her big break, and 

  • Edward Comstock, with his philosophies about life, death, and morals. He reminds me oex-preacher Jim Casy (as played by John Carradine) in The Grapes of Wrath.  

The middle portion of the book drags a bit with various theories being hashed out, but that is common to most mysteries. A crime scene map is provided (p. 33). This book is the second about Peter Piper, the first being The Tule Marsh Murder.