Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Trio for Blunt Instruments by Rex Stout (1964)


About the author: Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was an American writer noted for his detective fiction. His best-known characters are the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, who were featured in 33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975. (wikipedia). (bibliography)

This title consists of three novellas.

Kill Now - Pay Later

Wolfe has a friend, Pete Vassos, a bootblack who has a route shining shoes - and enjoys literary conversations with him as he shines Wolfe's and Archie's shoes weekly. He has several clients, including Dennis Ashby, in an office just before he comes to Wolfe's home. This time Vassos arrives, upset. He had gone to Ashby's tenth-floor office to find he had just jumped (or was pushed?) out the window. He hints that he saw someone else in Ashby's office. Next Vassos himself is found dead, having jumped (or was pushed?) off a cliff. Wolfe immediately figures Vassos' daughter, Elma, may be next on the killer's list as her father may have mentioned the identity of the other person to her; and takes steps to protect her. For a fee of $1.

Murder is Corny

Nero Wolfe has a weekly corn delivery from an upstate farm, delivered by farm worker Kenneth Faber. One day the corn doesn't show up, but Inspector Cramer does, with the corn box under his arm. Seems Faber was found dead at the previous stop, Rusterman's Restaurant, bashed by a length of pipe. He was sweet on the farmer's daughter, Sue McLeod, an expensive model, and a previous girlfriend of Archie Goodwin. Faber wanted her for himself, so he cooked up a great idea: tell all her suitors that she was pregnant and he did it. The problem is: Sue tells the police Archie was on the scene of the murder.

Blood Will Tell

Archie receives a necktie with a spot of blood on it in the mail, along with a note (allegedly) from wealthy James Neville Vance. Archie goes to see Vance to find that it is indeed his tie, but he didn't mail it. While they are discussing this little puzzle, the police arrive on a welfare check call on the downstairs apartment. Vance (the landlord) and Archie accompany the police to the apartment to find Mrs. Bonny Kirk dead on the floor, hit with a liquor bottle. Did someone mail the tie in order frame Vance? If so, why to Archie and not the police?

Review: 

The Nero Wolfe novellas are just right for a one-hour self-contained bedtime read! Kill Now - Pay Later is the best of the three, although I did groan a little when Stout trotted out the old trope where the victim dips his finger in his own blood to write the name of the murderer just before he expires (didn't that go out in the 1930's)? Murder is Corny comes in second, the only downside being the obvious signs pointing to the killer. Blood Will Tell was a bit confusing, with a big shell game played with nine identical neckties; and I admit I gave up on following the ties around and just went along for the ride.




Monday, September 13, 2021

The Bass Derby Murder by Kathleen Moore Knight (1949)

 

photo: AbeBooks

About the author: Surprising little is known about Kathleen Moore Knight (1890-1984), at least online. She is not listed in Wikipedia nor the more popular mystery fiction directories; her booklist is on Fantastic Fiction. My count is 34 mystery novels, all published by the Crime Club; a few under the pseudonym of Alan Amos. See this 1946 interview.

Major characters:

Lucius Amsdon, powerful Wall Street bully 
Lucy Amsdon, his high-fashion daughter

The seven on Amsdon's they-want-to-kill-me list:
  1. Larry Amsdon, his nephew
  2. Henry Thorpe, his embezzling secretary
  3. John Forrest, his fired junior partner and next-door neighbor
  4. Les Scotland, mystery man from New York
  5. Sam Jennings, spiteful neighbor on the other side
  6. Whit Belcher, his source for a stolen prize winning bass
  7. Will Beardsley, whose daughter he humiliated
Polly Ann Beardsley, Will's daughter
Doug Weatherbee, Polly Ann's boyfriend 
Bart Morrison, sports reporter for the NY Herald
Elisha Macomber, chair of the Board of Selectmen

Locale: Penberthy Island, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Synopsis: Bully Lucius Amsdon likes to throw his weight around. He built a mansion summer home on Penberthy Island, and gave an adjoining lot to his junior partner, John Forrest, for a modest home. On the other side is Sam Jenning's property. The only land access to Amsdon's place is through Jenning's woods. Jennings has refused to sell him a right-of-way for access, and tensions escalated from there. The island residents all resent Amsdon.

Several little incidents lead Amsdon to believe he is being targeted for persecution and harassment. He comes to Selectman Elisha Macomber with a list of seven people (1-4 off-islanders, 5-7 islanders) who he claims want to see him dead (see list above).

The annual Bass Derby is getting underway. Contestants arrive, including a mysterious Les Scotland, who obviously is a novice at fishing. Reporters arrive, including Bart Morrison, who has a role organizing Macomber's notes of the affair. Amsdon cooks up his own party to steal the limelight away from local Polly Ann Beardsley, expected winner of Queen of the Derby Ball; and focus the cameras instead upon his own daughter, Lucy Amsdon.

As everyone expects, Amsdon is found dead on his beach.

Review: The sequence of the story is interesting, well explained, and effective. It starts out with Amsdon's body being found, then is told in retrospect. Elisha tasks reporter Bart Morrison with organizing his notes in a Watson-like manner; which is a tool to make the story work out.

The list of seven suspects is alluded to throughout, yet the reader never gets to see the list. The list in the synopsis above is my own. I kept track and got 6 of the 7 easily, I missed Les Scotland.

The book could have benefitted from a sketch map of the Amsdon/Jennings/Forrest places. 

Overall, a nice Elisha Macomber tale from an excellent series.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

And on the Eighth Day by Ellery Queen (1964)

 

photo: L. W. Currey Inc.

About the author: John on Goodreads writes: Most of the Ellery Queen mystery novels of the sixties were ghostwritten by other authors. Avram Davidson, better known for his fantasy/sf fiction, wrote And On the Eighth Day based on an outline by Frederick Dannay, half of the Ellery Queen writing team.

Major characters:
  • Otto Schmidt, storekeeper
  • The Teacher
  • The Successor
  • Storicai the Storesman
  • Ellery Queen
Locale: The Nevada desert

Synopsis: It is 1944 and Ellery Queen is just finishing up a job in Hollywood producing films for the war errort. He drives across the desert into Nevada, and stops at a remote outpost, The End of The World Store, Otto Schmidt, proprietor. While there, he encounters two strange men: one quite old, one middle-aged; dressed in robes and speaking in a stilted old fashioned English. They pay for their supplies with a large silver coin.

Ellery gets his own supplies and inquires on the best route. He gets confused in the desert, and winds up approaching a lush agricultural community in an isolated basin. He is welcomed by the old man from the store, who introduces himself as The Teacher, leader of their community; and his protegé, a young man called The Successor. 

The community is an independent town of several hundred, and have developed their own ways and customs; eschewing contact with the outside. They are religious, and follow practices which are a mix of Christianity, Judaism, and other beliefs. The town operates smoothly, and Ellery (called El-roi Quenan) is welcomed as someone the prophets had foretold would arrive prior to a time of great trouble.

The Holy Congregation House is their church. The Teacher and The Successor live there. There is a sacred room, the Sanquetum, which holds their prayer scrolls, a holy book of some sort, and their 'treasure', consisting of (originally) fifty silver dollars, obtained from selling some possessions in their move. The dollars have diminished a bit, 19 of them having been used over time to purchase supplies from The End of The World Store, where a sympathetic Otto Schmidt takes the rare silver dollars into the city to sell them and credit the group's account.

As foretold, trouble begins. Someone has been trying to get into the Sanquetum. Then their inventory manager, Soricai the Storesman, is found murdered. It is the first crime to occur in their community, and Ellery steps in to investigate.

Review:

*POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD* I cannot write about this book without revealing the following plot line.

About halfway through, the reader, if at all familiar with the account of the resurrection of Jesus in the Bible, will realize we are in a carefully constructed allegory. Most of the major events of the crucifixion/resurrection are present, applied to the current day - even some of The Teacher's dialogue at his trial is taken verbatim from the Bible.
  • "Teacher" is another name used for Jesus in the Bible.
  • The Teacher decides to sacrifice himself in order to save others.
  • The Teacher is betrayed for 30 pieces of silver.
  • The Teacher is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
  • The Teacher invites Ellery to share his last meal of bread and wine on Thursday, reminiscent of The Last Supper.
  • The Teacher leads his followers up the hill to his execution on Friday.
  • The Teacher dies on the hill on Friday.
  • On Saturday, the only event: Ellery wept.
  • On Sunday, the surprise appearance of Manuel (emmanuel) from the heavens.
I enjoyed the book, especially the descriptions of how the independent community organized themselves. 

The only loose end was the revelation of the sacred book - it did not seem to make sense to me how it became so, and what the point of it was. Suffice to say, it was not a religious book, and has no connection to the Bible.



Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Help the Poor Struggler by Martha Grimes (1985)

 



About the author: This is #7 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.



Synopsis: A series of four child murders has Scotland Yard anxious for a solution. Division Commander Brian Macalvie is after Superintendent Richard Jury to get it solved now. The four murders all have slim connections to the wealthy widower Robert Ashcroft. Ashcroft has been caring for his niece, ten year old Lady Jessica Mary Allan-Ashcroft (as she prefers to call herself) after the death of her parents. Ashcroft had been in Australia previously with his brother Jimmy. Jury suspects something is amiss and is concerned that Jessica could be next. 

Jury looks at three mysteries:
  1. Is Richard Jury really Richard, or his brother Jimmy? Jessica is the sole heiress to his fortune, and none of the current house staff knew Richard prior to his time in Australia.
  2. Is Molly Singer, the woman who found one of the bodies, really Molly Singer - or is she Mary Mulvanney, who has a long time grudge against Brian Macalvie?
  3. Who has the motive for the killings? Is it someone in the Ashcroft orbit, or could it be Sam Waterhouse, recently released from Dartmoor and hanging around?
Review: This one was quite somber for the first half with the series of child murders. I was looking for something lighter with a lot of Melrose Plant / Aunt Agatha repartée, but Melrose does not appear until halfway through, and Aunt Agatha only mentioned briefly.

The character of Division Commander Brian Macalvie was a puzzle, he started out being take-charge-nasty to everyone but then chums up to Jury in a rather abrupt change.

As always, I enjoyed the Scotland Yard office scenes with Chief Superintendent Racer, saucy tease Fiona Clingmore, and Cyril the cat.






Saturday, September 4, 2021

Marked Men by Charles Neville Buck (1929)

 

AbeBooks

About the author: Charles Neville Buck (1879 - ?) was an American writer who had many of his novels staged in theater productions and adapted into films during the silent film era.  His work includes yarns about the mountain men of Kentucky and their traditions. He worked for a year as a cartoonist and then for about a decade as reporter in Kentucky. Buck also published under the pseudonym Hugh Lundsford. (wikipedia)

Major characters:
  • Clem W. Archibald, Sportsman's club member
  • Millicent Jasper (stage name) Crenshaw (real name), actress, Archibald's fiancée
  • J. G. Smith, attorney, member of the club
  • Carl Warren, Smith's junior partner
  • Olivia Cary, Smith's secretary
  • Jerry Cliff, bank president, member of the club
  • Dawes Fleetwell, actor from Kentucky
  • Felicity "Lissy" Fleetwell, his wife
  • Muir Bratchell, Felicity's jilted lover
  • Inspector Crandall, head of New York detectives
  • Lt. Rossi, New York police

Locale: New York City and Kentucky

Synopsis: The Sportsman's Club is an exclusive New York club for millionaires. They are in the process of relocating to a new building, and several of the members decide to run out the clock on the lease of the old space, remaining until the very last minute as movers take the last furnishings from the building. 

Club member Clem W. Archibald is just coming down the stairway when he falls to the bottom. Attorney J. G. Smith and other members go to his aid to discover he has been shot. He dies before he can say what happened.

A young woman comes to see Inspector Crandall about the murder. She is Millicent Jasper, an actress (Jasper is her stage name, Crenshaw her real name). She reveals she is Archibald's fiancée, and he has been supporting her and backing the play in which she is appearing.

Some local civic leaders approach J. G. Smith and urge him to take on an investigation to find the killer, and he reluctantly agrees.

Flamboyant actor Dawes Fleetwell calls on his agent only to find the play he was scheduled for has been cancelled due to backer Archibald's death. The story then changes to Fleetwell's history in Kentucky. Fleetwell and Muir Bratchell had been competing for Felicity Cawdon's hand, and Fleetwell stole her away from Muir. Dawes took her to New York. 

J. G. Smith is looking for an agent for his development business in Kentucky, and comes across now-attorney Muir. He hires him and brings him to New York, where he encounters Dawes and Felicity again, in a strained but polite meeting. Meanwhile, crime runs rampant in New York, with several more murders occuring. The police seek Dawes' assistance in sorting out the shootings, as Dawes has backcountry gun experience.


Review: The story starts out strong but takes an abrupt turn when switching to the back story of Dawes Fleetwell. The account of his upbringing in Kentucky goes on much too long (three chapters). I started wondering if I was indeed reading the same book I had started. Buck mostly wrote stories about rural Kentucky, and I began wondering if this New York murder mystery was just an excuse to get another Kentucky tale into print. To make things worse, the dialog in the Kentucky portion is rendered in hard-to-comprehend phonetic dialect: "Hit come on like a hurricane an hit jest pint blank swep' everything afore hit. We rassled with ther gal in sperit. We argyfied thet leastways she a bound ter wait an talk with you fust."

At that point I considered pulling the plug and doing a rare DNF (Did Not Finish). We had a murder, but no suspects, no weapon, no motive, no progress, and the story went and got bogged down in a drawn-out love triangle in the Kentucky hills. Then the love triangle moved to New York to be continued there.

The story flipped between New York and Kentucky several times, and this was distracting. Clem Archibald's murder was forgotten until the very end, when the murderer is revealed to be a character only introduced in the final pages.



Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Man Who Didn't Exist by Geoffrey Homes (1937)

 

dustjackets.com

About the author: Geoffrey Homes was a pseudonym for Daniel Mainwaring (1902-1977), an American novelist and screenwriter. He was born in California, and attended Fresno University. He held various jobs, including migrant fruit picker, private investigator and reporter, before turning to writing in the thirties. He subsequently became a screenwriter for movies. Homes's series characters were Jose Manuel Madero, LA reporter Robin Bishop and PI Humphrey Campbell. Bishop eventually marries Mary Huston, a secretary at the Morgan Missing Persons Bureau detective agency.

Major characters:
  • Robin Bishop, newspaper reporter for the Evening News
  • Mary Bishop, his wife
  • George Clark, City Editor for the Evening News
  • Zenophen Zwick, mystery writer, supposed suicide; a.k.a. William Nye
  • Gordon McHaig, mail clerk
  • Jonathan Roberts (dead prior to the story)
  • Merle Hillary, a painter
  • Kermit Turner, a playwright
  • Syrena Chapman Turner, Kermit Turner's ex-wife
  • Septimus Sidney, a novelist
  • Mitchell Grove, a poet
  • Hallam Taylor, Chief of Detectives
Locale: Los Angeles area

Synopsis: Newspaper reporter Robin Bishop is taking in an evening's entertainment at a seashore casino with his wife, Mary. He steps out onto the beach and finds a jacket folded neatly, with a note pinned to it. The note is a suicide note, signed by Zenophen Zwick.

If this is true, it will be a nationwide sensation. Zenophen Zwick is the country's foremost mystery writer. It is known to be a pseudonym, and no one knows his actual name. Bishop and City Editor George Clark begin putting together the story, although a bit suspicious that it could just be a publicity stunt. Although no one knows who Zwick is, most concur he is likely one of the following:
  • Jonathan Roberts (although he died years ago from a fall)
  • Merle Hillary, a painter
  • Kermit Turner, a playwright
  • Septimus Sidney, a novelist
  • Mitchell Grove, a poet
Mary Bishop (Robin's wife) takes it upon herself to read everything by the other writers to determine if one of them is really Zwick. Bishop finds the post office box where Zwick receives his mail under the name William Nye. The mail clerk, Gordon McHaig, states he has seen him and can identify him. Bishop publishes a photo of McHaig in his story, stating that McHaig is the only person who has seen Zwick. That night a visitor to McHaig's home shoots him dead. The search for Zwick's body stops immediately and a warrant is issued for his arrest.

Review: I always enjoy stories where the investigator is a newspaper reporter, and the story includes scenes inside the newspaper offices - back in the day when they were a chaotic frenzy as competing papers fought it out on the streets in alternate editions. (I especially like those by Nancy Barr Mavity.) This one is no exception. The writer brings his previous real-life reporter experience to the story.

I had forgotten that some newspapers used to print two editions per day - the evening edition and a morning "sports" edition (with the previous night's scores), which was even printed on different colored paper!

The story builds nicely, especially with the introduction of the tall mysterious woman (note: mysterious women are always tall). A most interesting character is Peter's wife, Mary, becoming the quiet-behind-the-scenes research investigator as she peruses books by Zwick, Grove, Turner, and Sidney to discover leads to Zwick's identity, and the murderer.

The trash-talk between the reporters and detective Hallam Taylor is priceless!



Sunday, August 29, 2021

Streaked with Crimson by Charles J. Dutton, 1929

 

dustjackets.com

About the author: Charles J. Dutton (1888-1964), mystery writer and minister, was educated at Brown University, Albany Law School and Defiance Theological Seminary.  He lived in New England (where many of his books are set) and later settled in Iowa. (from gadetection)

 

Major characters:
  • Harley Manners, Professor of Abnormal Psychology
  • George Carter, Secret Service
  • James Rogan, Chief of Police
  • Paul Mason, financial newsletter publisher, found hanged
  • Edward Robb, secretary to Paul Mason
  • Molly Rand, Mason's girl on the side
  • Robert Rand, Molly's husband
  • Abigail Tripp, librarian
  • Henry Albert, lawyer
  • John Bartley, criminologist
Locale: The coast of Rhode Island or Connecticut (not specified)

Synopsis: Harley Manners, Professor of Abnormal Psychology, is motoring to the coast to visit with his old friend George Carter, and meet criminologist John Bartley. He takes a shortcut and winds up lost in the fog. He stops at the first house he comes to - a dark, apparently deserted mansion - the "old Wilson house". He finds the front door ajar, walks in, and discovers the body of a man hanging in a room, his wrists tied behind him. Looks like murder. He leaves, finds his way to his friend's house and reports the discovery. 

James Rogan, Chief of Police, responds and they go to the scene. They find the rope hanging, but the body is gone and cannot be located. The rope is covered in black pitch with a crimson mark every few feet. Returning to the police station, a Mr. Robb arrives to report his employer, Paul Mason, publisher of a financial report newsletter, did not show up for the sailing of his yacht. 

Rogan, Manners, and Carter return in daylight to thoroughly search the mansion. Manners goes to the attic and roof and tangles with a man who escapes. The body they sought is found on the roof and identified as Mason. A room in the house shows signs of feminine occupancy, and it is believed Mason had been meeting a woman there for trysts. 

Busybody librarian Abigail Tripp keeps a close eye on her neighbors from behind her curtains. She sees Richard Rand and his wife Molly Rand having an argument. She disapproves of Molly, a tease with her short skirts and shiny silk stockings. Then Molly is no longer seen. Abigail goes over to spy and finds Molly's body hanging with a rope similar to that used on Mason. The next house on the dead-end street after the Rand cottage belongs to lawyer Henry Albert. 

Review:

The opening chapters describe driving through thick fog at night, and are very descriptive and enjoyable and place the reader right into the scene. They are well done and reminded me of the opening of Deep Lay the Dead by Frederick C. Davis (1942) in which another professor is having a bad drive, but through a snowstorm.

The opening setup is a bit predictable, though: Manners gets lost in the fog at night. (I thought: He will stop at a creepy mansion.) He stops at a creepy mansion. Manners enters the mansion. (I thought: He will find a body.) He finds a body. Manners goes and gets the police. (I thought: The body will have disappeared.) The body has disappeared.

Much ado is made about the rope used, black from being coated with pitch, with red paint marks at intervals. I was sure it would turn out to be a line from a boat (since we are on the coast), pitch-covered for waterproofing, marked at intervals to take soundings (depth measurements). But I was wrong. In fact, not much explanation is given about the strange rope except that the murderer preferred it.

The most enjoyable character is librarian Abigail Tripp, and how she sniffs at anything the least bit improper, all the while spying on her neighbors.

There are many academic allusions to sexual deviations, pornography, and sadism leading to the murders, although being 1929, nothing is explicitly stated.





Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green (1878)

 


Yesterday's Gallery and Babylon Revisited

About the author: Anna Katharine Green (1846 – 1935) was an American poet and novelist. She was one of the first writers of detective fiction in America and distinguished herself by writing well plotted, legally accurate stories. Green has been called "the mother of the detective novel". The Leavenworth Case is frequently cited as the first mystery written by an American woman, although The Dead Letter by Seeley Regester was published earlier (1866). (excerpt from wikepedia)

Major characters:

  • Ebenezer Gryce, police detective
  • Q, police operative
  • Everett Raymond, attorney and our narrator*
  • Horatio Leavenworth, the victim
  • Miss Mary Leavenworth, Horatio's niece and heiress
  • Miss Eleanore Leavenworth, Horatio's niece (Mary's cousin)
  • James Trueman Harwell, Horatio's secretary
  • Katherine 'Kate" Malone, cook
  • Molly O'Flanagan, upstairs maid
  • Hannah Chester, ladies' maid
  • Henry Clavering, a.k.a. Le Roy Robbins
  • Amy Belden, a.k.a. Mamma Hubbard

Locale: New York City and environs

Synopsis: Junior attorney Everett Raymond (our narrator) is approached by James Trueman Harwell, private secretary to millionaire Horatio LeavenworthRaymond's firm of lawyers represented Leavenworth. Raymond is asked to assist the police by detective Ebenezer Gryce, whose bout with rheumatism has left him lame and unable to walk easily.

Leavenworth has been found shot in a locked room of his mansion - the key missing. Initial investigation showed that the house itself was also locked tight, limiting the field of suspects to the family (consisting only of his two nieces, Mary Leavenworth and Eleanore Leavenworth), and employees/servants. The only potential witness, maid Hannah Chester, has gone missing.

It is quickly determined that Leavenworth was in the process of making a new will, and his extant will specified Mary as his sole legatee, while Eleanore is cut off with nothing. This was known, and led to the enmity between the two.  Raymond is developing an affection for Mary, and it is learned that Horatio kept a pistol; and that Eleanore had learned how to use it. Eleanore is also found in possession of the key to the death room.

A suave stranger, Henry Clavering, appears on the scene and seems to be known by both Mary and Eleanore. He hints to Raymond that he has been married - perhaps to one of the nieces. The search for marriage evidence and the missing Hannah leads Raymond to another town, to the home of Amy Belden; known for taking in strangers in need.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Poirot Loses a Client by Agatha Christie (1937)

 

dustjackets.com

This is Hercule Poirot #20, also published as Dumb Witness.

Major characters:
  • Emily Arundell, who fell down the stairs
  • Charles Arundell, her nephew
  • Theresa Arundell, her niece, and sister to Charles
  • Dr. Rex Donaldson, fiancé of Theresa
  • Bella Tanios, another niece
  • Dr. Jacob Tanios, Bella's husband
  • Wilhelmina "Minnie" Lawson, companion to Emily
  • Ellen, housekeeper
  • Annie, cook
  • Dr. Grainger, Emily's physician
  • Hercule Poirot
  • Capt. Arthur Hastings, Poirot's companion and our narrator
Locale: Littlegreen House, Market Basing

Synopsis: Elderly Emily Arundell is the last of a generation living in the family home, and as such, has a substantial estate from her inheritances. Her nephew, Charles Arundell; and her nieces Theresa Arundell and Bella Tanios, are expecting to inherit from her. Charles can't wait and is always seeking 'loans' from Emily, but she holds tight onto the purse strings. Theresa can't wait to finance her husband - Dr. Rex Donaldson's - career. Bella can't wait to provide a better life for her husband - Dr. Jacob Tanios - and their two children.

Bob the dog has a favorite game. He sits at the top of the stairs while a person at the bottom tosses his ball to him. He catches it and pushes it off the top so it bounces back down. One night Emily approaches the stairs in the dark, trips, and falls down the length of the stairs. She is shaken but not injured seriously. Charles holds up the ball at the bottom of the stairs, and declares Emily must have stepped on it.

Emily is adamant she did not step on the ball. It had been put away in its drawer for the night. She suspects one of her relatives may be trying to hasten their inheritance, and on April 17 writes a letter to engage Hercule Poirot to investigate. Emily sets her letter aside. On April 21 her lawyer Purvis draws up a new will for her, cutting out her relations and leaving everything to housekeeper Ellen. On May 1 Emily passes away, believed to be natural cause. Eventually housekeeper Ellen comes across the sealed letter to Poirot, and drops it in the post. Hercule Poirot receives it on June 28. He and Capt. Arthur Hastings head out to Littlegreen House to see Emily, to find she is already dead and buried, with her house for sale. 

Poirot considers Emily his client, even though she is dead, and feels responsible to investigate. Posing as a potential buyer, Poirot inspects the house and finds evidence that a string or wire had been placed across the top of the stairs to precipitate Emily's fall.

Review: 

This novel follows the tried-and-true formula:
  1. Last of a generation holds all the wealth
  2. Grasping relations can't wait to inherit
  3. Annoyed, last of a generation makes new will, cutting out the relations 
  4. Murder!
  5. Shell game with the wills
There are references to "crossed writing" to which the reader may be unfamiliar. This was a common practice at the time to save paper and minimize postage cost, and consisted of writing a letter in the usual manner, turning the page 90 degrees, and continuing to write the "second" page crossways directly on top of the first. Then the page was turned over and pages 3 and 4 written on the back in the same manner, thus squeezing four pages of text onto one sheet of paper.

crossed writing

This was a great read and enjoyed how the evidence of the dog-and-ball was worked in. Charles was as interesting character, I could never quite figure him out. Is he a rogue or just a carefree ne'er-do-well?

The story is not quite linear - Emily's death is announced in the first sentence. Then the story is told in flashback after Poirot receives the delayed letter - an interesting method.

The character Ellen is never introduced, and just pops into the story unannounced. After a while I surmised she is Emily's housekeeper.

My copy is a ex-library 1937 first edition which is falling apart, but complete: 


I find it fascinating to look at the signout record on the inside back cover, and think about how people on the home front during WWII got through it with the help of Agatha Christie! Patron 318 was reading this very copy during the attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7 1941)!



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


Monday, August 9, 2021

Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell (1993)

 


About the author: Patricia Cornwell (born 1956) is an American crime writer. She is known for her best-selling novels featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, of which the first was inspired by a series of sensational murders in Richmond, Virginia, where most of the stories are set. The plots are notable for their emphasis on forensic science, which has influenced later TV treatments of police work. (wikipedia)

Locale: Virginia

Synopsis: Virginia's Chief Medical Examiner, Kay Scarpetta, is anxiously awaiting a scheduled execution of Ronnie Joe Waddell, convicted for the murder of TV anchor Robyn Naismith. If the execution occurs as scheduled, she will have to go into the office to perform the autopsy. If the execution is delayed at the last minute by Governor Norring, she gets the night off. As it happens, the governor does not intervene, Waddell is executed, and so she has to go in to work. There were some irregularities in the execution - causing what could be odd injuries to Waddell - and so Kay is questioned harshly by attorney Nicholas Grueman.

All is routine until several weeks later when a 13-year old boy, Eddie Heath, is murdered. There are similarities to the Naismith murder.

Later, Jennifer Deighton, who reads horoscopes for others from her home, is found dead as an apparent suicide. It is quickly determined, however, that it was a murder. Then the shocker: fingerprints at the scene match those of executed Ronnie Joe Waddell. It appears Waddell is alive - and therefore, someone else was executed in his place.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The Red Box by Rex Stout (1936)

 

dustjackets.com

About the author: Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was an American writer noted for his detective fiction. His best-known characters are the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, who were featured in 33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975. (wikipedia). (bibliography)

Major characters:
  • Miss Molly Lauck, poisoned prior to story.  Model at Boyden McNair Inc (BMN)
  • Llewellyn Frost, theatrical producer, Wolfe's client
  • Dudley Frost, Llewellyn's father
  • Mrs Edwin (Calida) Frost, Llewellyn's Aunt Callie
  • Miss Helen Frost, Calida's daughter, Llewellyn's cousin, model at BMN, "the sylph"
  • Miss Thelma Mitchell, model at BMN, "the blonde"
  • Boyden McNair, president of BMN
  • Mrs. Lamont, assistant at BMN
  • Perren Gebert, a hanger on with no visible means of support
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: This is a story of two boxes. Box #1 (brown) is a candy box which contained poisoned chocolates, and caused the death of Molly Lauck prior to the beginning of the story. Box #2 (red) is Boyden McNair's, head of a fashion design company which employed Molly Lauck as a model.

Theatrical producer Llewellyn Frost hires Nero Wolfe on a two-part job: find out who poisoned Molly Lauck, and convince his cousin, Helen Frost, to leave their employ. Boyden McNair had taken a special liking to Helen, and treated her as a daughter.

Wolfe interviews Boyden McNair. McNair suddenly leaves the topic of Molly Lauck to state, to Wolfe's surprise, that he has made a will and it names Wolfe executor of his estate. He is lalso eaving him his red box. He is about to tell where the red box is, pauses to take aspirin for his headache, and falls dead - poison victim #2, and right before Wolfe's eyes no less.

From McNair's description of the red box, it appears it contains the solution to the killings; but the red box cannot be found - even by Wolfe's operatives. Inspector Cramer wants the box also, but Wolfe is adamant that it became his property upon the death of McNair. The race is on to find the box.

Review:

This is an early Wolfe (#4) and he is a kindler, gentler sort than in later stories; and is even talked into leaving his house on business. He even cooperates courteously with Inspector Cramer.

It was not clear to me:
  1. Why Llewellyn wanted to find Molly's killer in the first place - why did he care?
  2. Why is Llewellyn in tight with Boyden McNair Inc., as he was a theatrical producer and didn't work there, but always seemed to be hanging around there despite all the disdain he showed for the place, calling it a "hellhole"?
I enjoyed the story, and the search for the red box kept the excitement up until the end, since no one knew where it was or what was in it. Wolfe's little trick with the box was an effective surprise. The ultimate event that followed the opening of the box was very similar to endings in the Philo Vance /  S. S. Van Dine stories which were being written during the same time period. 

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



Search for a Sultan by Manning Coles (1961)

 


About the authors: (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:

Good guys:
  • Prince Achmed, in line for the throne
  • Sayed, Achmed's son
  • Hassan, Achmed's valet
  • Lady Ross-Crockdale, the "Lost Crocodile"
Bad guys:
  • Emil Abdul, next in line after Prince Achmed
  • Sulman bin Boukhba, leader of the extremists
  • Sampiero, a Corsican
  • La Cigale, an assassin
  • La Rose Bleue, "The Blue Rose"
  • The Gravedigger / La Fossoyeur
And of course:
  • Tommy Hambledon, British Intelligence
  • William Forgan & Alexander Campbell, the model makers
  • Inspector Antione Letord
Locale: France and Qathusn, a middle eastern kingdom

Synopsis: The Sultan of Qathusn is getting on in years, and people are antsy to know who will succeed him. His son, Prince Achmed, has the post all but wrapped up. His nephew, Emil Abdul, is next in line; and knows if he can eliminate Achmed he can be Sultan quite soon. British and Western interests hope for Achmed, who is friendly toward their oil interests. Emil Abdul, however, is tight with the extremists who wish to cut the British and the West off.

Achmed is poisoned at a reception and dies, alarming British intelligence as Emil Abdul is now much closer to the throne. There are rumors Achmed had a son in France, and if true, this son would be next in succession. Tommy Hambledon is assigned to find the son, if he exists.

The extremists, led by Sulman bin Boukhba, do all they can to thwart Hambledon. The climax comes at a conference in Quathusn, in which Hambledon's model maker friends, William Forgan and Alexander Campbell, impersonate two of the delegates in order to discredit Emil Abdul. They are joined by a larger-than-life journalist,  Lady Ross-Crockdale, the "Lost Crocodile", in creating a chaos to their advantage.

Review: This is the penultimate (#24 of 25) Tommy Hambledon book, the series ceasing upon the passing of one of the authors (Adelaide Manning). 

The setting may be the Middle East but the shenanigans are all Tommy Hambledon. Everything goes by the book until Tommy gets to France, and takes shelter with a farmer who will assist him if - quid pro quo - Tommy helps him out with over some quarantine restrictions on his circus elephant. Tommy, farmer, and elephant get stuck on a toll bridge in search of Achmed's son.

Tommy enlists the aid of his model maker hobbyists, Forgan and Campbell, and their presence always leads to more sub-rosa activities than Tommy is willing to instigate. Their method of disposing of the body of one of the bad guys will have the reader laughing.

The action moves to Qathusn where the Sultan is holding a conference. Forgan and Campbell are on their own, and strike up an alliance with Lady Ross-Crockdale; even though it is not really clear whose side -if any - she is on. 

The characters are great. Forgan and Campbell are enough to steal the show from Tommy, even without Lady Ross-Crockdale. 

The next book (#25), The House at Pluck's Gutter, will, sadly, close out the Tommy Hambledon series.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Murder in Three Acts by Agatha Christie (1934)

 

dustjackets.com

Major characters:
  • 1   Sir Charles Cartwright, a retired actor
  • 1   Mr. Satterthwaite, observer of the human condition
  • 1   Rev. Stephen Babbington
  • 1   Mrs. Margaret Babbington
  • 1 2 Lady Mary Lytton Gore
  • 1 2 Hermione "Egg" Lytton Gore, her daughter
  • 1 2 Dr. Sir Bartholomew "Tollie" Strange, a nerve specialist
  • 1 2 Anthony Astor, a.k.a. Miss Muriel Wills, a playwright
  • 1 2 Miss Angela Sutcliffe
  • 1 2 Oliver Manders, the young fellow
  • 1 2 Cynthia Dacres, of Ambrosine Ltd., dressmakers
  • 1 2 Captain Freddie Dacres
  • 1    Miss Violet Milray, housekeeper to Sir Charles
  • 1     Hercule Poirot
  •    2  John Ellis, butler to Sir Bartholomew
Locale: 
Sir Charles Cartwright's home: Crow's Nest, Loomouth, Cornwall
Sir Bartholomew Strange's home: Melfort Abbey, Yorkshire

Synopsis: 
Act I. Retired actor Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a dinner party. Housekeeper Miss Milray suggests to Sir Charles that she sit at table as well, else there will be 13 - unlucky! (guests are indicated by "1" above). During cocktails, Rev. Stephen Babbington reluctantly sips his, then falls dead. Some suspect foul play. An analysis of his glass reveals nothing suspicious. 

Act II. Nerve Specialist Sir Bartholomew Strange is hosting a dinner party at his home. (guests are indicated by "2" above). Sir Bartholomew sips his port, and falls over dead. Again, nothing is found in his drink, however, an autopsy reveals nicotine poisoning. The butler, John Ellis, disappears completely.

Act III. It now appears the two deaths are linked. An exhumation of Rev. Babbington is ordered and nicotine poisoning is also found. Preliminary inquiry is made by Sir Charles, Egg Lytton Gore, and Mr. Satterthwaite. They concentrate on the guests present at both deaths. Which was the intended victim, and which was a coverup killing? It doesn't make sense. Hercule Poirot eventually enters the investigation and stages a trap in order to identify the killer.

Review:

This novel is divided up nicely into three sections or "acts". The "acts" give a theatrical environment to this story which gives the lead role to actor Sir Charles, who unconsciously assumes mannerisms and speech of his various past roles in an amusing manner. The title also hints that the murders involve a performance of some sort, of which I will not reveal further.

Hercule Poirot makes a brief appearance at the first dinner party, then is not seen until the investigation by Sir Charles, Egg Lytton Gore, and Mr. Satterthwaite is well under way; and they grudgingly accept him into their circle after Poirot "invites himself" in.

Mr. Satterthwaite, the observer of the human condition, is almost our narrator. The story is told in third person, but follows his thoughts and actions closely. At first I expected him to be Poirot incognito, but no. 

A solid Christie which a clever solution. It would help the reader to have a list of those present at the two parties, but it is not defined too well in the book; so refer to my list above.

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

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Alphabet Hicks by Rex Stout (1941)

 


This is a standalone novel - not a Nero Wolfe. It was later republished under the title The Sound of Murder. According to Wikipedia (See this page) there is only one other work featuring Alphabet Hicks: a short story titled "His Own Hand" which also appears in anthologies under the title "Curtain Line". Also note the linked Wikipedia page incorrectly places this title under "Works related to Nero Wolfe" - but there is no relation at all.

About the author: Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was an American writer noted for his detective fiction. His best-known characters are the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, who were featured in 33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975. (wikipedia). (bibliography)

Major characters:
  • Alphabet Hicks, disbarred lawyer
  • Judith Dundee, accused of selling out her husband
  • Richard I. Dundee, her husband, owner of the plastics factory
  • Ross Dundee, their son, a technician in the factory
  • Herman Brager, an engineer in the factory
  • Heather Gladd, a secretary in the factory
  • Martha Cooper, Heather's sister
  • George Cooper, her husband
  • Jimmy Vail, a competitor
Locale: Katonah, New York

Synopsis: Disbarred lawyer Alphabet Hicks is driving a NYC taxicab, and picks up a fare, Judith Dundee. She recognizes his name and hires him to fix a touchy issue: her husband, Richard I. Dundee, has accused her of selling his business secrets on plastics manufacturing to a competitor, Jimmy Vail. She claims innocence, but her husband says he has proof - in the form of a phonograph record (which they call a sonograph plate) containing a conversation between her and Vail.

Hicks encounters another woman - Martha Cooper - and initially thinks she is Judith, as she has an identical voice. Hicks follows her to Katonah, NY, site of Dundee's plastics factory. She goes to the house on the site, which is occupied by Heather Gladd (secretary), Herman Brager (engineer), Ross Dundee (a technician, and Richard's son), and Mrs. Powell, a housekeeper.

Hicks suspects that the voice on the record may really be Martha Cooper, which would let Judith off the hook. Before he can investigate, Martha is found dead outside the factory; and the record is nowhere to be found. Her husband, George Cooper, arrives on the scene - and soon he is dead also.

Review: All through this book I thought I must be reading Erle Stanley Gardner. Gardner has a similarly-named lawyer (A.B.C. Carr) in his Doug Selby series. The action is like Gardner also. Hicks is quirky but quite at home dealing with the authorities, somewhat a disorganized Archie Goodwin. 

As soon as I found the plot involved a sound recording, I suspected a sneaky trick as in Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) - but thankfully - it does not. The recording does play a part in the solution, but is not as simple as being either Judith Dundee or Martha Cooper. Let's just say that manipulating media files is nothing new!