Monday, May 31, 2021

A Deadly Vineyard Holiday by Philip R. Craig (#8 -1997)

 


This is Martha's Vineyard mystery #8.

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:

  • Cricket Callahan a.k.a. Debby Jackson, daughter of the president
  • Joe & Myra Callahan, the president and first lady
  • Karen Lea a.k.a. Karen Jackson, Secret Service agent
  • Walt Pomerlieu, Secret Service agent
  • Ted Harris, Secret Service agent
  • Joan Lonergan, Secret Service agent
  • Jake Spitz, FBI agent
  • Burt Phillips, writer for a scandal sheet
  • Kenneth Eppers, a retired spook
  • Barbara Miller, a retired spook
Locale: Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Synopsis: The president, Joe Callahan; first lady, Myra Callahan; and teenage daughter Cricket Callahan are vacationing on Martha's Vineyard. J. W. Jackson encounters Cricket while surf fishing. She is frustrated with the constant surveillance by the Secret Service and wishes to get out by herself. She winds up at J. W.'s house with the Secret Service keeping an eye in the background.

J.W. notices a car stationed at the end of his driveway. It is occupied by Burt Phillips, a writer for a scandal sheet, The National Planet. J. W. flattens his tire to strand him until the authorities can take a look at him. Phillips walks up  the drive to the neighboring wildlife refuge, where he is later found dead from a broken neck.

J.W. learns there is concern about a possible attack on Cricket, and it is suspected that one of the Secret Service agents may be in on the plot; and may have been responsible for Phillips' death. This makes returning her to the compound unwise. Cricket changes her appearance and assumes a false identity of Debby Jackson, a cousin; and enjoys some time on the island as an un-famous teenager.

Review: A good adventure if you can suspend disbelief a bit, and envision the Secret Service A). losing track of one of the presidential family, and B). allowing her to stay with unknown J.W. Jackson instead of in the secure compound. The Secret Service agents come off as thugs, and I am sure they are much more professional in dealing with the public than portrayed. I hope so.

Those things aside, a good page-turning read of the "if you can't trust the government, who can you trust?" situation. It is amusing when J.W. learns a presidential visit to his home is imminent. What to do first? Mow the lawn? Shave? Put on clean clothes? Fix something to eat? I read 3/4 of the book in one sitting, only stopping as I was getting sleepy.

PS. There is no particular holiday - as mentioned in the title - involved. Think of holiday meaning "presidential vacation."

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout (1966)

 


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:

  • Isabel Kerr, the doxy
  • Avery Ballou, Isabel's sugar daddy
  • Orrie Cather, private investigator
  • Jill Hardy, Orrie's fiancé
  • Stella Fleming, Jill Hardy's sister
  • Barry Fleming, Stella's husband
  • Dr. Theodore Gamm, an internist
  • Amy Jackson, a.k.a. Julie Jaquette, a night club singer
  • Archie Goodwin, private investigator
  • Nero Wolfe,  private investigator

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Nero Wolfe's contract investigator, hotheaded Orrie Cather, is engaged to Jill Hardy. He previously had a fling with Isabel Kerr, who lives large but has no visible means of support. Turns out she is a doxy, a kept woman by sugar daddy business mogul Avery Ballou.

Isabel wants Orrie for herself, and tries to hold him by grabbing his P.I. license and stashing it in her room. Orrie, busy on another job, has Archie Goodwin visit her apartment to retrieve it. Archie finds her dead, hit on the head with a heavy ashtray.

The police find Orrie's license in her room. Orrie winds up held as a material witness, with a murder charge expected. The only way to get Orrie out of trouble is for Wolfe to find the killer. Wolfe enlists the aid of Julie Jaquette, night club singer and Isabel's best friend, to force the killer's hand. It works, the killer takes a few shots at Julie to show it.

Review: This had sat on my shelf for 24 years since the last reading, and I had forgotten how good it is. Bev's review (link below) spells it out in detail, but suffice to say Wolfe gets enamored with a night club singer, and elevates her to a place of honor in his home. Wolfe's method of exposing the killer is clever, and Archie adds a unique tweak to solve multiple problems all at once; including earning a substantial fee. Inspector Cramer only has a couple brief appearances, as Wolfe and Archie do most of the legwork. Great characters, and now I know what a hedgehog omelette is (it has almonds stuck in it which resemble the hedgehog's spines). 

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

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Pattern by Mignon G. Eberhart (1937)

 

dustjackets.com

About the author: (from Goodreads): Mignon Good (1899-1996) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1929 her first crime novel was published featuring 'Sarah Keate', a nurse and 'Lance O'Leary', a police detective. This couple appeared in another four novels. Over the next forty years she wrote a novel nearly every year. In 1971 she won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. 

Major characters:
  • Nan Bayne, our protagonist
  • Reginald Preedy, a lawyer, Nan's host
  • Maud Preedy, Reginald's wife
  • Olga, the Preedy maid
  • Alec, the Preedy boatman
  • Freida Tredinick, Nan's aunt
  • Ted Tredinick, Freida's son?
  • Jerome Cable, Nan's former fiancé
  • Celia Cable, Jerome's wife
  • Marietta Beauparle, Celia's French maid
  • John McHenry, sheriff
  • Jacob Wait, detective on vacation
Locale: Tredinick Island and adjacent Haven Island, on a lake near Chicago

Synopsis: There are two adjacent islands on a lake, Tredinick Island and Haven Island. Tredinick Island is home to the Preedys and the Tredinicks. Haven Island is home to the Cables.

Nan Bayne, a niece to the Tredinicks, is visiting the island and staying with Reginald and Maud Preedy. This is her first return to the island in three years - since she had left when fiancé Jerome Cable suddenly dumped her and married Celia.

Jerome meets Nan on the beach and he explains that he still loves her, and that the broken engagement was the result of a deception by Celia. Jerome insists he will get a divorce in order to marry Nan. Celia refuses to give him the divorce, and mentions something vague about her "pattern". Nan goes to Haven Island that night to confront Celia about her deception but cannot find her. On her way back to Tredinick Island, her rowboat bumps into a drifting canoe. Later the canoe is found to contain the body of Celia, shot to death.

The authorities want to arrest Jerome. Meanwhile, Nan has several encounters with black widow spiders, and since one is found in a closed jar, it appears someone is planting them near her.

Review: This has an interesting setup with two islands, and the body found in between. This has the usual Eberhart plot line of lovers wrongly accused. The setting is well done, with much activity occurring an night on the two islands -  and in between. 

The leave-me-alone-I'm-on-vacation detective, Jacob Wait, is just annoying. He lurks in the background for most of the book while people get his name wrong (Mr. Mate) and when finally he does speak up, he wants to hurry everyone and get it over with; sort of a gruff version of Carolyn Wells' Fleming Stone. He could have been dropped from the story and Sheriff John McHenry could have handled it on his own easily.

One aspect that was a bit jarring was the introduction of a new character, Frank Duro, near the end of the book. He is an essential part of the murder mystery and it seemed unfair to wait until the end to bring him in.

I thought here could be some loose ends but everything was tied up, including the spiders, the second light by the boathouse, and what the "pattern" is.

Overall, a great book to read in your lake cottage on a rainy weekend.  Watch out for spiders.




Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

 

dustjackets.com

About the author: Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894 – 1961) was an American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories. He was also a screenwriter and political activist. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), the Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse) and the comic strip character Secret Agent X-9. (wikipedia)

Major characters:
  • Sam Spade, private eye
  • Miles Archer, his partner
  • Effie Perrine, their secretary
  • Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a.k.a. Miss Ruth Wonderly
  • Joel Cairo, a slippery Greek
  • Casper Gutman, the fat man
  • Floyd Thursby
  • Iva Archer, Miles' widow
  • Detective Tom Polhaus
  • Lt. Dundy

Locale: San Francisco CA

Synopsis: Private Eye Sam Spade is approached by Miss Ruth Wonderly, who hires him to follow Floyd Thursby, who has run off with her sister. Miles Archer goes out on the tail job and is quickly shot dead. Hours later, Thursby himself is shot dead. Lt. Dundy of the police immediately suspect Spade of having shot Thursby in revenge.

The next day, Archer's widow, Iva Archer, comes to Spade's office and a romance between them is revealed. Miss Wonderly is found to be Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who is looking for a black statuette of a falcon. She is one of a group of three who all want it, the others being slippery Joel Cairo and fat man Casper Gutman.

Brigid admits her initial story about her sister was all a fabrication, she really wanted Spade to locate Thursby, who had hidden the falcon somewhere. Spade agrees to try to locate the falcon, but insists on the gang agreeing on a fall guy to take the blame for two murders.

Review: Despite the detailed description of Sam Spade, Joel Cairo, and Casper Gutman; my mind's eye can only see them as Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet as cast in the 1941 film version.

The best way to enjoy this classic book and film is as a duo. Read the book FIRST, then watch the 1941 film. The bulk of the film's dialog is taken verbatim from the book, so you can follow the story easily. The characters - all except Bogart - speak so rapidly (as was the custom then), there is no way you can follow their dialog unless you had an advance inkling of what they are saying. Plus, on my DVD version, Bogart is the only actor who can be heard with adequate volume - all the others are much quieter, likely due to microphone placement issues.

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




Monday, May 17, 2021

The Preying Mantis by Nancy Rutledge (1947)


About the author: Nancy Rutledge (1901-1976) was the author of ten works of crime fiction between 1944 and 1960 under her own name, two of them published only in England. She also had one mystery novel published as by Leigh Bryson in 1947. Rutledge had eight mystery novels serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, and one in a 1960 issue of Redbook. (gadetection) (bibliography)

Major characters:

  • Curtis Hilton, civil engineer
  • Horatia, his housekeeper
  • Douglas Trevor, his cousin
  • Barbara Sandine, society reporter for The Blade, Trevor's fiancé
  • Ricki Anthony, Trevor's spur-of-the-moment bride
  • Paulo Murdock, Ricki's philanthropist uncle
  • Lutz Walters, Paulo's secretary / strong-arm man

Locale: The midwest

Synopsis: Curtis Hilton receives a call from his cousin/roommate, Douglas Trevor, but he can hardly make him out. Trevor is badly injured in a hotel room somewhere. The next day, Hilton receives a telegram informing him Trevor is dead in a fall off a train, and his widow is accompanying his body home for burial.

This is a double surprise for Hilton - not only is his cousin dead, but he had been engaged to someone else: Barbara Sandine, society reporter for The Blade. 

Hilton meets the train carrying the body and meets the new bride: Ricki Anthony, now Ricki Anthony Trevor. She is accompanied by her uncle, millionaire philanthropist Paulo Murdock. Hilton also finds that Ricki is totally blind. Things do not add up - why had Doug suddenly dropped Barbara to marry a stranger?

Paulo and Ricki begin to work on Curtis. They are looking for a small jeweled preying mantis, but will not reveal why. Douglas had it and was sending it to Curtis, but Douglas was killed for it.

Paulo and his secretary/strong-arm man Lutz Walters take Barbara hostage to force Curtis to give up the mantis. In return, Curtis takes Ricki hostage to force the release of Barbara - a standoff. 

Review: This story involves everyone seeking a jeweled preying mantis, for reasons not stated until late in the story. It is clear, however, it has some mysterious use and is not being sought for the intrinsic value of its jewels. It reminded me immediately of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929), which preceded it by 18 years. Perhaps it had some influence. 

The most interesting aspect - and one that I enjoyed immensely - is the style of the writing. Curtis Hilton is our protagonist. The story is told in the third person, but interspersed are sections set in italics, which represent Curtis’ voice in his head - his thoughts at the moment as he ponders developments and makes choices. This made it easy to follow his reasoning and actually does a lot of the reader’s work us, allowing us to follow the story effortlessly.

It is known the preying mantis is concealed somewhere. It was clear to me from the beginning where it was, as the location is mentioned several times by the author as the story develops, without apparent reason. But that did not detract from the enjoyment. 

This story led me to look up Nancy Rutledge’s bibliography (below) and seek out other titles, and get The Maltese Falcon off my shelf for a long overdue re-read.

Beware the Hoot Owl (1944)
Blood On the Cat (1946)
THe Preying Mantis (1947)
Murder For Millions (1949)
Easy to Murder (1951)
Cry Murder (1954)
Murder in Disguise (1956)
The Frightened Murderer (1957)
Death Stalks the Bride (1958)
Escape Into Danger (1959)
Forgotten World (1960)
Alibi For Murder (1961)



 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Railway Detective by Edward Marston (2004)

 


Sorry, no review (read while away on vacation)  

About the author: Edward Marston is a pseudonym of Keith Miles.

Major characters:

Caleb Andrews, locomotive driver
Madeleine Andrews, his daughter
Frank Pike, locomotive fireman

William Ings
Polly Roach, doxy (prostitute)
Kate Piercey, doxy 
Daniel Slender, locksmith
Arthur Jukes, crook
Vernon and Harry Seymour, crooks
Sir Humphrey Gilzean, MP (Member of Parliament)

Superintendent Edward Tallis
Inspector Robert Colbeck
Sergeant Victor Leeming

Locale: England

Synopsis: Locomotive driver Caleb Andrews and fireman Frank Pike are driving a train with a cash shipment and a mail shipment. They are flagged down by crooks disguised as railway police. When they stop, the train is robbed. Caleb is seriously hurt in the process. Frank is forced to restart the locomotive and run it into a sabotaged piece of track, derailing it.

Inspector Robert Colbeck visits Caleb, and is enchanted by his daughter, Madeleine Andrews. 





Review:

The Basle Express by Manning Coles (1956)

 


Sorry, no review (read while away on vacation), but be sure to read this review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.



Beauty is a Beast by Kathleen Moore Knight (1959)

 


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:
  • Althea "Altie" Lester, real name Irene Elliott
  • Scott Maynard, her suitor
  • Hilda McGowen, her maid
  • Andrea "Andy" Lester, real name Sarah Jane Sherman
  • Dr. Harmon Duane Richards, Althea's doctor
  • Rhyce Broderick, pianist
  • Otis Hobbs, caretaker for the Lester home on Penberthy Island
  • Elisha Macomber, detective/selectman on Penberthy Island
Locale: Westchester County, NY and Penberthy Island, Massachusetts

Synopsis: Althea Lester (Irene Elliott) and Andrea Lester (Sarah Jane Sherman) comprise a successful song/dance team, billed as a sister act, but in reality no relation. Althea is being treated for an obscure, disfiguring disease - acromegaly - by her New York doctor, Harmon Duane Richards. This disease is slowly causing her face to become misshapen, resulting in loss of appearance. Althea seeks to keep her condition sectret, and makes demands on the doctor, and unable to get her way, shoots him; taking her medical file with her. She flees to the family summer home on Penberthy Island with her maid, Hilda McGowen; hoping to keep in isolation to keep her public from learning about her condition.

Caretaker Otis Hobbs visits the house, and following an argument, Althea pushes him off their dock, drowning him. Her pianist Rhyce Broderick arrives unexpectedly, and following an argument, she shoots him. She forces Hilda to help bury him. Next, Andrea arrives, unaware of the dangers.

Selectman/Detective Elisha Macomber becomes suspicious after Hobb's car is found hidden in the woods, nowhere near any water. Scott Maynard, suitor of Althea, arrives to assist Elisha in finding Althea and Andrea.

Review: I have read most of KMK's books, but this is the first one I would classify as a "thriller", using my own personal definition that in a thriller, the murderer is known to the reader all along, the mystery being will he/she get caught?

This is one of the later KMK books and Elisha is right on task, not even derailed by a hospital stay. It is a bit confusing when the two main character names continually flip between their stage names, real names, and nicknames; and it takes a bit of concentration to keep that straight. 

Hilda McGowan reminds of Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers as she gradually exerts her control over Althea.

Overall, a great dark-and-stormy night on the island read.





Friday, May 7, 2021

At Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie (1965)

 


Bertram's Hotel staff:
  • Mr. Humfries, manager 
  • Miss Gorringe, receptionist
  • Rose Sheldon, chambermaid
  • Michael "Micky" Gorman, commissionair (doorman)
and:
  • Elvira Blake, young heiress hotel guest
  • Mrs. Carpenter, chaperone for Elvira
  • Col. Derek Luscombe, Elvira's guardian
  • Bess, Lady Sedgewick, Elvira's estranged mother, an adventuress, and hotel guest
  • Canon Pennyfeather, absent-minded cleric, hotel guest
  • Ladislaus Malinowski, race car driver
  • Miss Jane Marple
  • Inspector Campbell of Scotland Yard
  • Chief Inspector Fred "Father" Davy of Scotland Yard
Locale: London and environs

Synopsis: Jane Marple takes a two-week vacation at Bertram's Hotel, known for its traditional Edwardian atmosphere. She encounters some guests: adventuress Bess Sedgewick, her daughter Elvira Blake, and forgetful cleric Canon Pennyfather.

Almost immediately Miss Marple has a feeling that everything is not as it appears; as if she is in a theatrical set with actors playing the guests. 

Elvira Blake will inherit a fortune when she turns 21. Her estranged mother is surprised to find her at the same hotel and urges Elvira's guardian, Col. Derek Luscombe, to take her elsewhere. Meanwhile, cleric Canon Pennyfather leaves for a conference, gets confused, and disappears. A few days later, he wakens in a private home near where a train robbery has recently occurred.

Elvira has been seen with a young race car driver, Ladislaus Malinowski, whose car has been seen at several recent robberies. She questions her lawyer about her inheritance: how much it is, and who would get it if she were to die. On Miss Marple's last day at the hotel, while talking with C.I. Davy, gunshots are heard on the street. Davy rushes out to find a hysterical Elvira next to the body of commissionaire (doorman) Micky Gorman. Elvira explains Gorman died shielding her from the gunfire.

Miss Marple and C.I. Davy reconstruct the disappearance of Canon Pennyfather to reveal a fact that helps unravel the mystery and identify the killer.

Review: At first I thought this was going to be one of the sad reminiscences about alas, things are not how they used to be, but that quickly passed as the story begins. The action does take a while, however, the murder not occurring until Chapter 20. There are a number of parallel mysteries occuring, and they all get tied together at the end. 

There are some loose ends. I was looking for an explanation of how the train robbery was accomplished, but no. At the end when the killer is identified, it is ambigous what is going to happen to that person. 

Overall, this was an excellent fast-paced read and the entire environment of the hotel quite enjoyable.



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

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Shadow in the House by Sinclair Gluck (1929)

 

Heritage Auctions

About the author: Sinclair Gluck (1887-1956) was born Jasper Sinclair Gluck in Buffalo, New York. Gluck was a prolific writer for the pulps, with works by him appearing in, for example, Argosy, Detective Fiction Weekly, even Black Mask. At least half of his published novels, including The Man Who Never Blundered, were originally serialized in pulps. (Goodreads)

The Bernards:

  • Paul Bernard, experienced detective
  • Marion Bernard, his wife
  • Elsa --, their niece
  • Landis ---, Elsa's newlywed husband, a rookie detective
The Harrisons and guests:
  • Mason Rees Harrison, a millionaire widower, dead by an arrow
  • Isabelle Harrison, his daughter
  • Anita Harrison, his daughter
  • Joel Harrison, his ?autistic? brother
  • Miss Mount, the housekeeper
  • Stimson, their butler
  • Susan Duckworth, housemaid #1
  • Helen Stokes, housemaid #2
  • James Harley, chauffeur
  • Mabel Harley, cook, James' wife
  • Ray Graham, a lawyer
  • Ethel Graham, his wife
  • Hobart Russell, fiancé of Isabelle, a house guest
  • Frederick Allen, a house guest, boyfriend of Anita
and:
  • Hiram Cuddy, an old Long Island farmer

Locale: suburban New York City

Synopsis: Newlywed Landis -- is a rookie detective. He is called out to a murder scene at the Harrison mansion, and brings his new father-in-law, Paul Bernard, an experienced detective, along.

At the Harrisons, they find millionaire Mason Rees Harrison dead from an arrow shot in the back. Archery is the family's passion, with a practice range on the third floor. All famly members know how to shoot arrows, which are made by Mason's brother Joel Harrison in his workshop. Joel is a quiet, introverted, dreamy sort (autistic?) who enjoys being alone, working on the arrows and stamp collection. 

Housekeeper Miss Mount gives Landis and Bernard a tour of the mansion and fills them in on all family matters. Butler Stimson is always at hand and is called upon for assistance often. The family and house guests are all questioned, while the body of Harrison remains on the floor. Later on, attorney Ray Graham - also a house guest - is shot with an arrow in the same manner, while standing in the same spot, but only incurs a minor arm injury. Graham's wife, Ethel, becomes a focus of the investigators when a strange old farmer, Hiram Cuddy, appears looking for her, and her past history becomes suspect.

Review:

The entire middle section of the book consists of the rather tedious questioning of the family and house guests. While repetitive and plodding, I realized that this is the essence of an investigation - gather the witnesses and ask the same questions, over and over and over. In that aspect, it is a realistic account, and in the format we today call a police procedural.

The detectives (and the reader) gradually learn clues which slowly unravel the mystery.

Paul Bernard and Landis form the typical good cop (Landis) / bad cop (Bernard) pair. Bernard is abrupt and domineering, Landis quiet and respectful. They put those qualities to good use.

I was wondering where brother Joel Harrison was. He is discussed throughout but does not actually appear until halfway through the book.

The butler Stimson is a very enjoyable character. It is fun to watch him switch between his submissive servant side and his human side. Susan Duckworth, housemaid #1, is also enjoyable as she is a flirty little thing who has some fun with the handsome detective Landis.

It was surprising to me that the body of Harrison was allowed to remain on the floor all during the day and evening of questioning, and even overnight - noting the coroner would return in the morning the collect it. It seemed a bit gruesome and unrealistic.

Several solutions were proposed and discarded before the truth is revealed. Overall, a solid, long, repetitive investigation and a good read by a hard-to-find author. 


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Dead Man's Secret by Mary Plum (1931)

 

mysteryfile.com

About the author: All I could find is this Goodreads list and this bibliography on classiccrimefiction.com.

Major characters:
  • John Smith, consulting detective
  • Gray Manners, host
  • Golding, Gray's valet
  • Mary Angell, actress
  • Louise Angell, her daughter
  • Tommy Bruce, Louise's fiancé
  • Janet Thayers
  • Ernst Putnam
  • Gretchen VanTeel, Putnam's fiancée
  • "Rook" Chilvers
  • Blake, Rook's valet
  • Police Chief Matson
  • District Attorney George Hewey
  • Coroner Fox
Locale: "one hour north of Chicago, on Lake Michigan" which puts it in Wisconsin.

Synopsis: Consulting detective John Smith is travelling back to Chicago and decides to stop in to see his old friend Gray Manners. Manners is in the midst of hosting a house party, and reluctantly invites Smith in. Smith observes the "party" is not going well, everyone seems glum and on edge. Most are wondering why Rook Chilvers, a notorious ex-con, is present.

It is revealed that actress Mary Angell has had her pearls and diamonds stolen from her bedroom during the night, but this does not seem to concern anyone. The guests retire upstairs for the night. John hears a gunshot, and runs upstairs to find Chilvers mortally wounded in his bedroom. A doctor is called. Before Chilvers passes away, he mentions a letter, and points to Mary Angell and says "You!". It turns out Chilvers had a row earlier and struck Ernst Putnam, who then left the house. Then the gun which had been seen near the body disappears. A maid reveals Chilvers had received a letter in the mail that morning, which apparently had been burned as ashes were found in Chilver's wastebasket. 

Smith works with District Attorney George Hewer to interview the guests and find the murderer. Tracing the (burned) registered letter leads them to a source who unravels everything. There is no shortage of suspects: three of the guests confess to being the killer!

Review: This is John Smith's second appearance (the first was in The Killing of Judge Mac Farlane). Once we get past the too-convenient setup of the detective just happening to drop in minutes before a murder, the story goes pretty well. We have a nice detailed drawing of the layout. What a house! And what is in that huge basketball-court space in the middle? (I would expect it to be open to the first floor with a gallery hallway all around).


And the crime scene:



Smith has to work hard to pull information from the reluctant guests. When the motive is finally revealed (it will not spoil the story to mention it has to do with some documents held by Chilvers), it is a clever surprise to the reader. The documents reveal relationships between some of the guests in a unique way, the way it all resolves is quite unexpected and satisfying.

The story has some drawbacks. First, the arrival of Smith is hyped by the author who brags about him quite a bit unnecessarily. There are several hints (but not explicity stated) - that the victim Chilvers is Black. The revelation of the murderer is a letdown and the reader feels cheated a bit. And a big loose end is left dangling: the victim was shot from behind, and much was made of the fact the revolver was found far in front of the victim (see drawing); instead of behind him where a murderer would likely drop it on his way out. However, the book ends without explaining the significance.

Overall, this is a nice, tight period mystery with a solid cast of characters; and I hope to find some more titles in this John Smith series: 
  • The Killing of Judge MacFarlane, 1930
  • Dead Man's Secret, 1931
  • Murder at the Hunting Club, 1932
  • Murder at the World's Fair, 1933
  • State Department Cat, 1945
  • Susanna, Don't You Cry!, 1946
  • The Murder of a Red-Haired Man, 1951