Thursday, December 31, 2020

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie (1968)


Major characters:
  • Aunt Ada, Tommy's Beresford's aunt
  • Mrs. Moody, a.k.a. Cocoa, resident of Sunny Ridge
  • Julia Lancaster, resident of Sunny Ridge
  • Miss Packard, administrator of Sunny Ridge
  • Amos and Alice Perry, residents of the riverside house
  • Emma Boscowan, widow of painter Boscowan
  • Nellie Bligh, church secretary
  • Mr. Eccles, attorney
  • Tommy & Tuppence Beresford
Locale: rural England

Synopsis: Aging Tommy and Tuppence Beresford go to visit his Aunt Ada, at Sunny Ridge nursing home. They meet resident Julia Lancaster, who makes veiled hints about a child who was killed and walled up behind a fireplace. Soon, Aunt Ada passes away, and Julia Lancaster is removed from the home by relatives.

Administrator Miss Packard has the Beresfords go through Aunt Ada's possessions. One item is a painting of a little house by a canal, which was given to Aunt Ada by Julia Lancaster. Tuppence recognizes the scene as one she has seen from the window of a train.

Tuppence wants to return the painting to Julia Lancaster, but is unable to track her down - every inquiry she makes is fruitless. She decides to track down the house in the painting, and finds it occupied by Amos and Alice Perry, who also have stories about children being killed in the vicinity years ago. While trying to track down Mrs. Lancaster, Tuppence is attacked.

Review: The first third of the book seemed quite somber to me, dealing with the inevitability of aging, not only of the Beresfords, but also residents in a nursing home. Agatha was in her late 70's at this writing, and it must have been on her mind as well. I thought about stopping at that point. Then Tuppence got on the trail of tracking down the painting, the narrative recovered and got more exciting. The happenings around the little house get revealed bit by bit, and near the end the story takes a rather suprising and startling turn with Tuppence getting into extreme danger. An excellent story, in which the scary people turn out to be quite pleasant, and the pleasant people turn out quite scary.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Murder on the Bridge by Lynn Brock (1930)



Original title: Q.E.D.

About the author: Lynn Brock (1877-1943) was the pseudonym of Alister McAllister, an Irish writer. McAllister was born in Dublin and educated at the National University of Ireland, where he became Chief Clerk. He served in British Intelligence and in the machine gun corps during WW1. (gadetection)

Major characters:

  • Dr. Sidney Melhuish, overworked doctor
  • Barbara "Pickles" Melhuish, his wife
  • Simon Wyckham Melhuish, their son
  • Harry Halliday, their chauffeur
  • Colonel Wyckham Gore, good friend of Pickles, godfather to Simon
  • Gretta Higgins, tried for murder and acquited
  • Woodbine and Bullock, two tramps
  • Dr. Dorch, a money lender
  • Ross, Dr. Dorch's secretary
  • Anderson, Dr. Dorch's chauffer
  • Inspector Lord

Locale: England

Synopsis: Dr. Sidney Melhuish, a G.P. (General Practitioner), is called out on a foggy night to see Sir William Larmour. The doctor's wife, "Pickles", is out of town visiting her friend (?) Colonel Wyckham Gore. Chauffeur Harry Halliday takes the doctor to see his patient, across "The Bridge", a high suspension bridge running 250 feet above a busy river. The Bridge has a manned toll booth at each end, and due to construction economy, not lighted in the middle. 

Halfway across The Bridge, they are flagged down by a pedestrian who says a man is in need of aid on the sidewalk. Melhuish exits to render assistance, and disappears in the fog. Halliday loses track of him and cannot locate him. Leaving the car in the middle, Halliday walks back to the toll booth for assistance, but Melhuish cannot be found.

Later that morning, a boat crew finds Melhuish's body on the riverbank. He had been struck and thrown off the bridge. A routine check with Sir William Larmour reveals the call for the doctor was a hoax, and it appears the doctor was lured to the bridge.

A homeless tramp, Woodbine, is found dead on the local golf course, poisoned from a drink. In his pocket is a metal badge with Q.E.D. engraved on it. Nearby lives Dr. Dorch, a moneylender, with his secretary Ross and chauffeur Anderson.

Colonel Wyckham Gore and Inspector Lord come to see Pickles and investigate. They find letters on his desk with references to "Q.E.D." Is there a connection to Woodbine? Did someone want him dead? 

Review: This book immediately draws the reader into the scary world of a high suspension bridge on a foggy night. Much of the initial action takes place on the bridge. It is a page turner, and no sooner had I started then I was halfway through. 

Then, suddenly, the story turns to Woodbine the dead tramp and his Q.E.D. badge, and his connection to moneylender Dr. Dorch who lives nearby. Dorch has not been seen for a while, and is rumored to be in the US. He left his house in care of his secretary, Ross, and chauffeur Anderson; who are packing up Dorch's house as fast as they can. The story quickly bogs down on this note, with interminable following of cars and people, and even following of dogs. Several dogs play a part in the story, I could not figure out their significance.

The first half was great and suspenseful, the second half plodding. Much effort was placed on connecting the two deaths, but really was unnecessary. It seemed as if two separate books had been spliced together.

Note: The word chauffeur is written as 'shover' throughout. This homophone trick took a bit to figure out.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Anybody But Anne 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. See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Raymond Sturgis, our narrator
  • Anne Mansfield Van Wyck
  • David Van Wyck, her husband
  • Morland Van Wyck, David's son by previous marriage
  • Barbara Van Wyck, David's daughter by previous marriage
  • Barclay Lasseter, David's secretary
  • Beth Fordyce, a mystic
  • Mrs. Stelton, a widow
  • Condon "Connie" Archer
  • Mrs. Carstairs, the creepy housekeeper
  • -- Carstairs, her son, a valet
  • The library committee: Millar, Brandt, and Garson
  • Markham, local detective
  • Fleming Stone, the master detective
Locale: The Berkshires (western Massachusetts)

Synopsis: Raymond Sturgis sets out to visit his school-days sweetheart, Anne Mansfield - now Anne Mansfield Van Wyck; married to brusk David Van Wyck. They live in a U-shaped mansion, a main house with two attached wings. One wing is David's study. Raymond finds that he is not the only one enchanted with Anne, she is also desired by Condon "Connie" Archer, and even her own stepson, Morland Van Wyck.

David goes in for sudden impulses, the latest is becoming a Philanthropist. He wants to give his entire fortune to the community to build a library. The family is aghast, it will leave them penniless. Against their wishes, David sets up a meeting to make the donation - in his study, with the library committee of Millar, Brandt, and Garson. The next morning, Van Wyck does not show for breakfast. Then he is found locked in his study, dead from an apparent stab wound. The room is locked tight, and there is no weapon in evidence. The family heirloom, the priceless Van Wyck pearls, are missing. The deed giving the fortune to the library is missing also.

Review: As soon as the book describes the house's unique architecture in detail, we can tell we are being set up for a locked-room mystery. The house has two wings, but they are only attached to the main house at narrow points, only wide enough for connecting doors:

My first thought was some hanky-panky would occur at one of the inside corners, where you could see out one window and into another, but no. The layout does play a part in the crime, and it is well described in advance, giving the reader broad hints to "watch here!"

It is a bit amusing to see various suitors lined up to be the next husband for Anne, even before the body cools off. Five men, by my count, are in love with Anne and waiting to be next.

Mystic Beth Fordyce and Housekeeper Mrs. Carstairs are both rather etherial. They never walk anywhere, but just "glide" through the house.

We have three detectives to deal with: The amateur (Raymond Sturgis), the local (Markham), and the prima donna (Fleming Stone). Stone makes a cameo appearance early in the book - unusual for a Carolyn Wells. 

Overall, a fine period locked-room mystery with lots of family drama.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Dragon's Teeth by Ellery Queen (1939)

Major characters:
  • Cadmus Cole, mult-millionaire
  • Margo Cole, a.k.a. Ann Strange, his niece
  • Kerrie Shawn, his niece
  • Edmund De Carlos, Cadmus' agent/assistant
  • Lloyd Goossens, Cadmus' attorney
  • Violet Day, Kerrie's roommate
  • Beau Rummel, private investigator
  • Ellery Queen, private investigator
Locale: New York City and Tarrytown, NY

Synopsis: Ellery Queen has gone into the P.I. business with Beau Rummel. Their first client is Cadmus Cole, multi-millionaire. Cadmus insists on hiring Ellery only. He provides a $15k retainer against future services, to be outlined in his will when he dies. His death occurs a few days later, on his yacht in the Caribbean, and he is quickly buried at sea.

The instructions he left are simple: Just locate his heirs for the estate. They are Margo Cole, the daughter of his brother Huntley (deceased); and Kerrie Shawn, the daughter of his sister Monica (also deceased).

Beau is going to run down the heirs, but as the contract was with Ellery only, he goes by Ellery's name to do so - a bit unethical.

The two nieces are found. Kerrie is looking for work in Hollywood, and Margo is living a life of opulent ease in Paris. They come to New York City. Now for the second stipulation in Cole's will: the girls will inherit his fortune, but only if they reside in his Tarrytown estate for a period of one year. They move in, but don't get along. If one of them dies, her share of the fortune reverts to the other. There are several attempts on Kerrie's life - are they accidents, or is Margo trying to cash in? Beau Rummel (as Ellery Queen) hatches a plan to protect Kerrie - by marrying her, which cuts her out of the estate. They wind up together in a cheap hotel room - then Margo is shot dead, with Kellie found holding the gun.

Review: This is a nice tight Queen mystery. There is a small cast of characters, and forcing the two heirs to live together adds to the tension. There are a number of odd clues and red herrings: false teeth, pens and pencils, wigs, etc. The will with odd conditions, and the fact that Cadmus Cole dies right away but is buried at sea (thus, no body) raises suspicion of hanky-panky. There's a lot of identity misdirection. A good solid Queen for the period.

One loose end: what happened to the injured horse?

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Man with a Load of Mischief by Martha Grimes (1981) Richard Jury #1


This is #1 of 25 books featuring Richard Jury. See this Wikipedia article for biography and list of the 25 Richard Jury books. Click this Martha Grimes label to see all my reviews of this series.

Major characters:

  • William Small, Esq., dead man #1
  • Rufus Ainsley, dead man #2
  • Jubal Creed, dead man #3
  • Simon Matchett, proprietor of the MLM pub, a widower
  • Inspector Richard Jury
  • Melrose Plant, a former lord
  • Lady Agatha Ardry, Melrose's aunt
  • Oliver Darrington, mystery writer
  • Sheila Hogg, his secretary/mistress
  • Denzil Smith, the vicar
  • Ruby Judd, the vicar's housemaid
  • Vivian Rivington, a plain poet
  • Isabel Rivington, her elegant stepsister
  • Marshall Trueblood, gay? antique dealer

Locale: England

Synopsis: The village of Long Piddleton endures two murders in as many days. The first is William Small, Esq., who is found garroted - and if that is not enough, he is stuffed headfirst into a beer keg at the Man with a Load of Mischief pub. The next day Rufus Ainsley is found dead, his body resting on the support bar for the sign over the Jack and Hammer pub. Both men are strangers in town.

Inspector Richard Jury of Scotland Yard is called in. With the help of local ex-lord Melrose Plant (and despite help from Plant's Aunt Agatha Ardry) Jury sets about to find the killer. In the meantime the vicar's housemaid, Ruby Judd, has disappeared as well. Most of the locals all have something to hide, but what is the motive to knock off three men at three pubs?

Review: This was my first read of a Richard Jury book, and it is a delight. I quickly found that the book could not possibly be read quickly - it is so full of wonderful language, dialogue, and even strange use of words (there was no customing going on in the pub ... because there were no customers). This book immerses the reader in the coziness of British pubs. The description of The Man with a Load of Mischief pub with the dark, low-ceilinged dining room and bar downstairs, and a number of guest rooms upstairs, closely matched my only experience with the like, being The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. I am now in the process of gathering more Richard Jurys!

and then nowwe have this little mystery...apparently no connection to the book, but could there be a musical?

Friday, December 11, 2020

Inspector Frost in the City by H. Maynard Smith (1930)

About the author: GADetection states: H(erbert) Maynard Smith (1869-1949). Born in London; educated at Wellington College, Oxford, and Cuddesdon Theological College; Canon, Church of England; editor of Church Quarterly Review. His seven crime novels feature Inspector Austin Frost of Scotland Yard, "all of them negligable as detection and tedious as mere adventure" (Barzun / Taylor).

Major characters:

  • McKinley M. Macmillan, "Triple Mac", wealthy American #1
  • Edward van Storck, wealthy American #2
  • Robert Hugh Bolton, 35, art collector
  • Michael Stepanovich, 67, antique dealer
  • Alexander Stepanovich, his son, seller of Russian jewels
  • Ms. Ransom, boarding house owner
  • Lizzie Ransom, her daughter
  • -- Brown, ex-con, now valet to R. H. Bolton
  • Mrs -- Brown, ex-con, his wife, now housekeeper to A. Stepanovich
  • Friedrich Festonen, 45, a Finn
  • Karl Weil
  • Max Weil, his brother
  • Detective Billy Smith
  • Inspector Austin Frost, our narrator

Locale: London

Synopsis: A body is found in a dark alley, Bolter's Court. It appears to be McKinley M. Macmillan, "Triple Mac", and has been stabbed with an antique dagger. A man is found standing over the body, who identifies himself as Edward van Storck, a wealthy American.

Both identifications fall apart. Triple Mac is alive and well in the US. The bystander is found to be Robert Hugh Bolton, who immediately lights it out for Paris.

Inspector Austin Frost and Detective Billy Smith seek to identify the body, but make no immediate progress. The investigation centers on a number of people with connections to Russia and the sale of compromising documents. The dead man is identified, and found to be living in a boarding house run by Ms. Ransom and her daughter Lizzie Ransom. 

Review: Despite other reviews I have seen, I found this story fast moving and engaging. The skullduggery of the Russians and the amusing repartée between Frost and Smith and the fantastic characters remind me of the Manning Coles adventures of Tommy Hambledon. 

A nice aspect is that the story pauses twice while Inspector Frost reviews the case, naming each person and summarizing their involvement thus far. It makes following the story much easier for the reader.

A drawback is that some chapters contain long passages of alternating conversation, without periodic clues as to who is speaking - so it takes a bit of concentration to follow along. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Clue of the Forgotten Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner (1934)


This is one of the non-Perry Mason books. Originally written under the pseudonym of Carleton Kendrake (the only book written under this name).

Major characters:

  • Charles Morden, reporter for The Blade
  • Edward Shillingby, private detective, dead
  • Frank B. Cathay, bank director and general big-wig
  • Mary Briggs, a hitchhiker
  • Dan Bleeker, publisher of The Blade
  • Charles Fisher, a lawyer
  • Sidney Griff, a criminologist

Locale: not stated

Synopsis: (Story line 1) Charles Morden, reporter for The Blade, is following a story in which Edward Shillingby, private detective, is shot dead on the street. The shooter had stopped Thomas Decker just moments before, but inquiring and finding that he was not Shillingby, passed him up to find Shillingby further up the block, shooting him as Decker witnesses. Morden runs a story on the murder, and not longer after, Morden is hit on the head and killed.

(Story line 2) Meanwhile, police pick up a man, giving the name John Smith, for driving while intoxicated. He has a woman with him - Mary Briggs, a hitchhiker. At the station, they find he seems to be Frank B. Cathay, an investor and bank director. This is scandalous as big-wheel Cathay was out drinking with a woman not his wife. The Blade runs a story on it. Then the real Frank B. Cathay shows up, indignant that someone is impersonating him and that The Blade has libeled him by publishing the story that he was the drunk driver. The Blade admits the error and runs a retraction. Then Cathay is found dead - poisoned. Dan Bleeker, publisher of The Blade, hires criminologist Sidney Griff to find the killer.

Review: This was not my favorite Gardner, but I stuck with it to the end. It is too hard to follow. There are two separate story lines running in parallel, and each one has way too many characters. Any character that pops in for any reason is named, which causes the reader to try to note and remember that name. 

Further, many characters use aliases, sometimes three. Dan Bleeker himself gets exasperated in Chapter XVII: "My God, this case is full of women, and every woman has at least one alias.We started with the hitchhiker, who gave the name of Mary Briggs to the police. We now find her in a hotel registered under the name of Stella Mokley, and probably that's not her real name. Then, there's this Stanway woman, who apparently is Blanche Malone; and there's Alice Lorton, who built up a fictitious [identity of] Esther Ordway. I wouldn't doubt if it turns out that Mrs. Cathay really isn't Mrs. Cathay at all." Confused yet?

This story was written (1934) about the same time as the first Perry Mason (1933). Criminologist Sidney Griff is a takeoff on Perry Mason - the dominating brain behind the investigation who pushes the story forward - while publisher Dan Bleeker is a takeoff on P.I. Paul Drake who does all the legwork. This was the only book written under the pseudonym of Carleton Kendrake, so this was never developed into a series.

Friday, December 4, 2020

The House with the Blue Door by Hulbert Footner (1942)

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Sandra Cassells, wealthy social reformer
  • Agnes Delaplaine. her housekeeper
  • Sieg Ammon, ex-Sing Sing prison
  • Letty Ammon, his wife
  • Richard "Blondy" Farren, ex-Sing Sing prison
  • Queenie Deane, night club singer
  • "Handbag Hattie" Oliver, a thief 35
  • "Spanish Jack" D'Acosta, 44, croupier
  • Soup and Mary Kennedy, cooks
  • Amos Lee Mappin, investigator
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Wealthy social reformer Sandra Cassells always has to have a Project. Her latest is buying a shabby house in lower Manhattan, and renovating it into a hostel for just-released convicts. She is quite selective about her guests: they have to be on the younger side, and have potential for rehabiliation.

Sandra invites her friend, investigator Amos Lee Mappin, to dinner to meet her first three residents: Sieg and Letty Ammon, and Richard "Blondy" Farren. She names the place "Hope House" and looks to the Ammons to be the hosts at the home (which had its front door repainted blue as part of the spruce-up), along with Soup and Mary Kennedy as cooks/housekeepers. Mappin cautions her that this plan could lead to all sorts of trouble if she is not careful.

It becomes apparent that Blondy has his eyes on Letty, so she arranges for him to get a job in distant Cleveland instead. She recruits a third boarder, "Spanish Jack" D'Acosta, an out-of-work croupier. Letty sneaks out one night to meet someone - could it be Blondy? - and she winds up dead.

Review: Amos Lee Mappin is a great unofficial investigator - he is tight with the authorities, and he has the plodding, detail oriented work ethic of the detective. You can feel the tension build at the home as it becomes populated with the ex-cons. When Letty is killed, Mappin looks for the smallest details to build a version of what happened. Much of the chase is for a mystery man who has been seen but not identified. This is one of the better Footners I have read, and I am keeping my eye out for more.