Thursday, January 28, 2021

Ladies' Man by Rupert Hughes (1930)

About the author: Rupert Hughes (1872-1956) was the uncle of billionaire Howard Hughes. See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Jamie Darricott, catnip to the ladies
  • Mrs. Helena Fendley, his current 'companion'
  • Mr. Horace Fendley, her cuckolded husband
  • Rachel Fendley, their daughter
  • Anthony Fendley, their son
  • Payton Weldon, Rachel's boyfriend
  • Sibyl Page
  • Fanny Blandon, Sibyl's aunt
  • Dr. Emery, a sketchy doctor at best
Locale: New York City

Note: This is a type of inverted detective story. The victim, Jamie Darricott, is killed as the story opens. The rest of the story is told in flashback, in events leading up to his death.

Synopsis: As the story opens, a crowd has gathered at a hotel in Times Square, to seek admittance to a costume gala called The Potiemkin Ball. The crowd sees a man hanging out of an eighth floor window, hanging on by his hands, then another pair of hands pushes him off, to his death.

The dead man is Jamie Darricott, ladie's man, man about town,  gigolo, "catnip to the ladies, who are the cats". He and the Fendleys were to have been the persons-of-honor at the ball. Helena Fendley was his current 'companion' - and she had been paying him for the privilege. 

Flashback - Jamie had accompanied Mrs. Findley to dinner, flaunting their relationship in front of Mr. Horace Fendley. At a nearby table, social climber Fanny Blandon arranges for him to meet her niece, young, alluring adventurer Sibyl Page. Jamie walks away from Mrs. Fendley, and talks Sibyl into spending 24 hours with him touring New York City. Their tour starts off well, but comes to a crashing halt when they encounter a very drunk/ill Rachel Fendley, and take protective custody of her. As Jamie cares for her, Sibyl's opinion of him changes for the better.

Jamie continues to play the field of women, wooing not only Helena Fendley, but also her daughter Rachel; as well as Sybil. This results in all of them -including cuckolded husband Horace - turning against him. The conversations all begin to turn to how to do away with him.

Review: Well, this is different. It is not a detective story, as there is no detective. (The original dust wrapper states 'YOU are the detective). The story opens with the murder (murderer not revealed), then flashes back for a straight-line narration up until the murder, with the murderer revealed as it happens. There is no detection. The characters are concerned with committing the murder and leaving the authorities to suspect persons unknown.

What I liked: A tight story, a small cast of well-developed characters, no red herrings. The method of concealing the murderer's identity was clever and unique.

What I disliked: The entire middle of the book is soap opera, with much jealousy and sniping. It is much too wordy. Whenever the author describes anything, it occurs with a string of three synonyms following - always in the same pattern, as in my example here: The repetition is annoying, grating, vexing, irritating. Every time. No doubt he had his thesaurus at hand, ready, prepared, positoned. The book is much too long, stretched, lengthy, extended, pushing out to 465 pages. An editor was sorely needed. Midway through I transitioned to only reading the first line of each paragraph, for a more concise story - I didn't miss out on anything. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

All at Sea by Carolyn Wells (1927)

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:

Garrett Folsom, big city lawyer
Anastasia Folsom, his sister
Roger Neville, his partner
John Ross, his valet

Ned Barron, the "copper king"
Madeline Barron, his wife
Angelica Fair, their guest
Croydon Sears
Robin Sears, his son
Carmelita Valdon
"The Duchess",  Helen Barnaby
Titus Riggs, architect

Locale: Ocean Town, New Jersey

Synopsis: The society principals are enjoying the beach at Ocean Town, New Jersey. Ropes are provided for the bathers to hold onto, so as not to be knocked down by the high surf. Garrett Folsom is knocked down and lets go, and when he comes up, he is dead. Those closest to him on the rope were Carmelita Valdon, "The Duchess" Helen Barnaby. Roger Neville, and Nad Barron.

One of the bathers finds a dagger in the surf, another locates a matching scabbard. 

Garret's sister, Anastasia Folsom, arrives and immediately takes charge of the investigation in her domineering, bull-in-a-china-shop way. She enlists architect Titus Riggs as a detective. He finds an auction house on the boardwalk had sold several such daggers the night before. He finds that Garrett had a little side business of blackmailing people. After Titus gathers many facts, Fleming Stone arrives on the scene.

Review: Wells novels are usually pleasant journeys into a genteel yesteryear, but this one disappoints on several levels. 

What could have been an interesting mystery was rather ruined by the vile character of Anastasia, who rolls over everyone and treats everyone, especially servants, like dirt.

Besides that, the characters are a bit - creepy. Anastasia is repeatedly referred to as 'manly', and physically described as such. Meanwhile, Garrett has a collection of a half-dozen "French dolls", which he carries with him everywhere, and talks to as he fondles them. Then it turns out the dolls are each replicas of various women he has loved in the past. 

Fleming Stone does not get a chance to make his usual dénouement. He is no sooner interviewing some of the principals, when in walks the murderer and confesses, describing how it was done! Guess Fleming didn't need to make the trip after all.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen (1934)

About the author: Ellery Queen is a crime fiction pseudonym created in 1929 by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, and later used by other authors under Dannay and Lee's supervision. Dannay and Lee's main fictional character, whom they also named Ellery Queen, is a mystery writer in New York City who helps his police inspector father solve baffling murders. (from Wikipedia - full article). 

Major characters:
  • (anonymous) the victim
  • Dr. Hugh Kirk, the crusty patriarch
  • Miss -- Diversey, his nurse
  • Donald Kirk, his son, owner of the Mandarin Press
  • Marcella Kirk, his daughter
  • Glenn Macgowen, her fiancé
  • Hubbell, their valet
  • James Osborne, Donald's confidential assistant
  • Felix Berne, Donald's business partner
  • Jo Temple, a writer for Mandarin Press
  • Irene Llewes, a.k.a. Irene Sewell, elegant woman from the 21st floor
  • Ellery Queen
  • Sgt. Thomas Velie
Locale: 22nd floor of The Chancellor Hotel, New York City

Synopsis: Crusty old Dr. Hugh Kirk, his nurse (Miss Diversey), his son Donald Kirk and daughter Marcella Kirk all occupy a suite on the 22nd floor of The Chancellor Hotel, New York City. Donald is the owner of The Mandarin Press, a book publisher. He also maintains an office on the same floor to meet clients, and also pursue his hobbies of jewel and stamp collecting. He employs an assistant, James Osborne.

A caller comes to the office, but will not reveal his name nor business to Osborne; and chooses to wait in the adjacent anteroom for Donald to arrive. Finally Donald arrives, and they find the door into the anteroom locked from the inside. Entering by the hallway door, they find the caller murdered on the floor. His clothes have also been put on him backwards, and everything movable in the room (bookcases, pictures, etc). has been turned around backwards.

All efforts to identify the victim fail. Who is he? Who was the murderer? and what was the motive?

Review: Lots of Chinese items, lots of orange items, and lots of red herrings in this story. A sketch map is included in my edition, which is essential to following the events. Near the end, the traditional Challenge to the Reader is presented. I had read the story several times in the past, and remembered the bizarre setup, but could not remember the solution. Queen fooled me yet again. The solution is presented in step-by-step logic, and although quite Rube Goldberg-ish, it is fair to the reader and one of the better Queens having country names in the titles.

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

Monday, January 18, 2021

Port of Seven Strangers by Kathleen Moore Knight (1945)


About the author: See this page on my blog Reading Katherine Moore Knight.

Major characters:

Ralph Herbert, a.k.a. Raoul Heribert, dead in the airport's men's room

Hotel guests:
  • *Gail Warren
  • *Lucia Warren, her aunt
  • *Senor Roberto Fonseca, a frail, elderly, blind man 
  • Marie Lombard, his nurse
  • John Brooks of St. Louis
  • -- Brooks, his wife
  • *Lorel van Etten, wealthy Norwegian? or Parisian? blonde
  • Yvonne Doucet, her maid
  • *Carl Caspar, refugee from Germany
Hotel staff:
  • Taylor Faraday, manager of the Hotel Dorado
  • *Larry Nolan, desk clerk of the Hotel Dorado
Staying nearby:
  • Sam Wray, construction engineer
  • Minerva Wray, his wife
  • Frank Hollertz, an engineer
  • *Lt. David January
  • Lt. Perry Lawson
  • Lt. Pete Lafond
  • Lt. Jarvis Holmes
Police Chief Sanchez

Locale: Vera Cruz, Mexico

Synopsis: Various travelers are converging on the Hotel Dorado in Vera Cruz, Mexico; just as the seasonal norté windstorms are due. One traveler never makes it that far, he is found dead in the airport rest room. 

They arrive at the hotel. Gail Warren, our protagonist, is taken with Lt. David January, one of four airmen delivering airplanes in the region. All the men's eyes are drawn to stunning Norwegian blonde Lorel van Etten, having arrived via slow freighter with fellow passenger Carl Caspar, a refugee from Germany. She has a connecting room with Gail.

A scream is heard the first night. Lorel van Etten is found in Gail's room, standing over the dead body of Caspar. A mixup with the keys had given her the key to Gail's room instead of her own. But it turns out Gail had just been in the room, and since she neglected to turn on the lights, didn't notice the dead body - making her the prime suspect.

Lorel van Etten is also hiding some diamonds, and they get lost - or stolen - providing motives for several others.

Review:  This is one of KMK's formula Mexican intrigues, all of which feature an open-air multi-story hotel with wraparound terraces; a trashy blonde, a brunette in peril wrongly accused, and a handsome - but slightly suspicious - man working to exonerate her. Even though the pattern is the same, the books are still enjoyable for their portrayal of the lush surroundings and exotic settings. They remind me a lot of Mignon Eberhart.

The story is a bit predictable until near the end, when several Christie-like surprises happen. Some people are not what they seem. This wakes up the reader and provides a stunning conclusion. The dead man in the airport seemed to have been forgotten, but then he is brought in at the end as part of the plot.

* Try as I might, I could not figure who the seven strangers of the title comprise. There are more than that staying in the hotel. You can get seven if you count just the most significant characters I have marked (*) in the list above.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Old Fox Deceiv'd by Martha Grimes (1982)


This is #2 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:
  • The deceased: either Gemma Temple or Dillys March
  • Colonel Titus Crael
  • Julian Craeal, his idler son
  • Olice Manning, housekeeper to the Craels
  • Adrian Rees, a painter
  • Kitty Meecham, the Irish bartender
  • Lily Siddons, seamstress, former 'cook's girl' 
  • Bertie Makepeace, a 12 year old on his own
  • Percy Blythe, eccentric roof thatcher
  • Richard Jury
  • Melrose Plant
  • Sgt. Wiggins
Locale: Rackmoor, England, a coastal fishing village

Synopsis: Rackmoor is an isolated fishing village clinging to some steep cliffs. It feaures two pubs (The Old Fox Deceiv'd and The Bell), a church, and not much else.  A woman has arrived in town claiming to be Dillys March, a long lost ward of wealthy Col. Titus Crael; and potential heir. Titus' son, Julian Crael, doesn't want anyone to share his future inheritence, and claims she is an imposter. There is some evidence - she seems to have a real identity of Gemma Temple of London; and some believe she has been coached to impersonate Dillys March. 

Titus Crael hosts an annual Twelfth Night (eve of Epiphany) costume party. Gemma/Dillys lacks a costume, and borrows a mummer's costume from Lily Siddons. On her way to the party, she is stabbed to death as she ascends the steep Angel Steps. Lily claims that she was the intended victim, and the murderer mistook Gemma/Dillys as her, due to the costume.

Richard Jury and Wiggins arrive to investigate, and meet up with Melrose Plant. They find there is a history of tragic, accidental deaths in the village - Col. Crael's wife and other son, Lily Siddons' mother, etc.)

Review: Oh, this book just screams for a street map of Rackmoor. I tried to follow the layout in my head - no go - tried sketching it out, usually I can do that, but no. All those tiny streets and who lives where?

The setting of the foggy fishing village is well described, and seems very realistic and similar to those here in Maine.

I had been advised to read this series in order, and I see why. The characters from Book #1 are here and some more arrive. Aunt Agatha makes a short appearance.

An amusing episode is when Melrose Plant attempts to interview a prostitute, but she thinks he is a customer and continues to undress despite all his efforts to stop her. 

Bertie Makepeace is a fun 12-year old, running the household on his own, and perfectly. Percy Blythe is an amusing old roof thatcher who ignores Plant but opens up wide to Jury.

I am glad my challenger friends turned me on to this series!

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Face in the Night by Edgar Wallace (1925)

About the author: Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was a prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright, who wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, and countless articles in newspapers and journals (Goodreads). In terms of production, by cranking out one novel per month, he was the British equivalent of Erle Stanley Gardner. See this Wikipedia article.

Edgar Wallace

Major characters:
  • Laker, a courier
  • Mr. Malpas, a recluse with a mask
  • Martin "Bunny" Elton
  • Dora Elton, his wife
  • Audrey Bedford (a.k.a. Audrey Torrington), Dora's sister
  • Hon. Lacy Marshalt, former senator from South Africa
  • Tanger, his valet
  • Captain Dick Shannon, Scotland Yard
  • Richard James "Slick" Smith, a crook or a Scotland Yard spy
Locale: London - the setup is like this:
  • Curzon St. - home of Martin "Bunny" Elton and his wife Dora
  • Portman Square - home of mysterious Mr. Malpas, and next door live Lacy Marshalt and his valet, Tanger. The two homes share a common wall.

Synopsis: Laker, a criminal courier, meets with his boss, Mr. Malpas, in London. He wants to see his face, hidden by a false chin over his face. Malpas reacts much as the Phantom of the Opera did -  Laker is dropped into the Thames shortly after. 

Audrey Bedford has been scraping a living from chicken farming. Destitute, she sells the farm and heads to London to stay with her sister, wealthy Dora Elton and her husband, Martin "Bunny" Elton. Captain Richard "Dick" Shannon of Scotland Yard has a minor traffic accident with a bus. Audrey gets off the disabled bus and Shannon gives her a ride to her destination. Shannon falls in love with her on sight.

The Queen of Finland is visiting the American Embassy in London. Shannon was there, keeping an eye on her priceless diamond necklace. While leaving the party, her necklace is stolen by Martin and Dora Elton. They are preparing to send it to Pierre, a fence, but are lacking a courier (Laker is now dead). They talk unsuspecting Audrey into making the delivery. As she makes the delivery, she and Pierre are arrested by Shannon.

Fast forward a year. Audrey is out of prison, and takes a highly-paid job from Mr. Malpas. It consists of rewriting his correspondence by hand. Meanwhile, nasty sister Dora is having an affair with Lacy Marshalt (Mr. Malpas' neighbor). Shannon continues to seek the lost diamonds, while Dora plots a way to get rid of Audrey.

Review: Well, this novel has everything thrown in. We have our leading lady, Audrey, out of jail and in the money from creepy Mr. Malpas, being paid a big wage to copy his correspondence out by hand. Malpas not only wears a mask to cover an apparent deformity, he lives in a large house full of electrical gadgets, microphones, a gigantic oriental idol complete with altar, secret compartments, secret passages, booby traps, and a revolving fireplace. Scary sounds occur in the night, and faces looking in skylights, and glowing green faces float around scaring people away. Bodies disappear and reappear! A mysterious limping man is always skulking around, of course. Piles of diamonds appear and reappear. Doubles and imposters! 

A couple of big fat parallels jumped out at me immediately:
  1. Audrey being hired for an exorbitant salary to get out of the way and laboriously hand copy correspondence is reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Red Headed League.

  2. Mr. Malpas reminds me of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, having a facial deformity hidden by a mask, a hideout full of gadgets, and the habit of communicating with the world by dropping little notes.
This book feels like one of the crazy titles from the Mystery League (which would appear about five year's hence). Enjoy it not for the depth of detection and figuring out the puzzle, but hang on for the wild ride through the spooky house at the amusement park, with every trope from the classic mysteries thrown in!

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Vineyard Deceit by Philip R. Craig (#3 - 1992)


This is J. W. Jackson #3, Also published as "The Double Minded Men".

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:

  • Edward C. Damon, ambassador-to-be
  • Emily Stonehouse Damon, his wife
  • Amelia Stonehouse Muleto, Emily's twin sister, a farmer, Zee's aunt by marriage
  • Ali Mohammed Rashad, a.k.a. The Padishah of Sarofim
  • Colonel Ahmed Nagy, his bodyguard
  • Standish Caplan, State Department
  • Jasper Cabot, a banker
  • Willard Blunt, a banker
  • Jason Thornberry,  of Thornberry Security
  • Helga Johanson, of Thornberry Security
  • J. W. Jackson
  • Zeolinda "Zee" Madieras, J.W's girlfriend

Locale: Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Synopsis: A middle eastern potentate, the Padishah of Sarofim, has come to Martha's Vineyard on a quest to reclaim a priceless emerald necklace stolen from his country decades ago. It is now in the possession of the Stonehouse sisters - farmer Amelia Stonehouse Muleto and Emily Stonehouse Damon, wife of diplomat Edward C. Damon. 

The return of the necklace was negotiated to occur at Damon's mansion, in exchange for a sum not mentioned. The police have rounded up extra security for the event, including J. W. Jackson. The plan is for the two necklaces (the real one and a paste copy) to be displayed, the real one turned over to the Padishah, while Emily retains the paste copy, prior to a big celebration party.

The handoff of the paste copy goes as planned, but when they open the box for the real one, it is empty. Guests are searched, the house is searched - no necklace. Shortly afterward, Willard Blunt, one of the bankers who was responsible for guarding the necklace is found dead.

Review: It is so relaxing to settle down with a Martha's Vineyard mystery. They are a bit hard to find on the used market, I suspect people are hoarding them. I have managed to find all but #1 so I have a good stash.

This was an excellent story. The bad guy is the Padishah, who is described as a "petulant child in a man's body", is controlled by his advisers, and is more interested in grabbing women in their private places than governing. This is soooooooo familiar to our own [insert name of a president here] who, at this writing, has just 9 days remaining in office. But I digress.

Back to the story .. an interesting story line is when J.W. teams up with Helga Johanson, and she winds up in his house .. wearing Zee's clothes .. and Zee finds out ... but it gets straightened out. 

The theft of the emerald necklace looked like the old switcheroo coming up, as there is a real one and a fake one. I thought I knew how the real one got stolen and snuck out of the house, but no, the red herrings tricked me. The actual logistics of the theft were quite a surprise, and definintely a method I had not seen in other books.

A couple enjoyable characters: Manny Fonseca and Bonzo. They have small but essential parts, and I hope they return in future titles, which await me on the shelf.

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Case of the Turning Tide by Erle Stanley Gardner (1941)

This is Gramps Wiggins #1, not a Perry Mason title. The only other Gramps Wiggins title is The Case of the Smoking Chimney.

Major characters:
  • Ted Shale, salesman of paper products
  • Nita Moline, glamorous blonde
  • Joan Harpler, of the yacht Albatross
  • Addison Stearne, of the yacht Gypsy Queen II
  • C. Arthur Right
  • Pearl Right, his wife
  • Warren Hilbers, her brother
  • Frank Duryea, District Attorney
  • Gramps Wiggins
Locale: fictional Santa Delbarra, California

Synopsis:  Salesman Ted Shale is on the beach, hoping to catch hotel magnate Addison Stearne as he gets off his yacht, in order to close a big deal on paper products. Ted sees a woman fall off the deck of Stearne's yacht, Gypsy Queen II. Ted goes out to rescue her, joined by Joan Harpler, who was on her own yacht Albatross. They retrieve the woman, Nita Moline.  Ted boards the Gypsy Queen II looking for assistance but instead finds two dead bodies, Stearne and C. Arthur Right. 

District Attorney Frank Duryea is surprised by a visit from Gramps Wiggins, complete with camping trailer. Gramps is the grandfather of his wife Milred. Frank is called to the yacht club dock to oversee the investigation, and question the three "witnesses": Ted Shale, Nita Moline, and Joan Harpler.

Stearne had been involved in an option to purchase oil property, and was to send a letter of acceptance. Whether he accepted or declined meant a substantial amount to his estate. Further, due to terms of his will, the inheritance path for his estate hinged on whether he or Right died first.

The mysteries facing Duryea are:
  • Who killed Stearne and/or Right?
  • Is it double murder, or murder-suicide?
  • Who died first?
  • What became of the acceptance letter?
As Duryea investigates, Gramps Wiggins tags along and makes several observations that everyone else missed.

Review: One would think the deaths of Stearne and Right are the central theme of this mystery, but they are not. The book focuses on the hanky-panky with the letter of acceptance, and manipulation of evidence surrounding it. These do affect the inheritance path, thus may or may not provide motive for a killer. No one really looks at the two deaths until the final pages.

Gramps is a character - a spry little hard-drinking outdoorsman with poor grammar - a bit out of his element which is more likely a desert hermit. He is introduced right away but doesn't contribute much until the end. He does teach Duryea an interesting trick in how to an interview a reluctant witness.

The dust jacket blurb by Gardner states: "Reading it over, now that it is finished, I can find numerous technical errors..." and so it is:
  • One story line has an attorney marrying his secretary suddenly, which to me seemed the old marry-me-so-you-can't-testify-against-me trope, but that story line - which had some promise - evaporates. 
  • Most of the middle part involves tracing movements of people and boats, and goes on far too long in too much detail.
  • The appearance of Gramps at the end is a comedic episode, which distracts from the story line.
The blurb also mentions Gardner has made an effort in this story to present events in a realistic manner as they unfold, without planting of unnecessary 'clews'. In this effort it succeeds. One more Gramps novel to go.