Monday, June 21, 2021

The Final Deduction by Rex Stout (1950)

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:
  • Althea Vail, wealthy client
  • Jimmy Vail, her husband, a kidnap victim
  • Ralph Purcell, her brother
  • Margot Tedder, her daughter
  • Noel Tedder, her son
  • Andrew Frost, her attorney
  • Dinah Utley, her secretary
  • "Mr. Knapp", alias of the kidnapper
  • Nero Wolfe, private detective
  • Archie Goodwin, private detective
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Wealthy Althea Vail approaches private detective Nero Wolfe to take on a case. Her husband, Jimmy Vale, has been kidnapped. She has received a ransom note from "Mr. Knapp" demanding $500,000. She is willing to pay the ransom, but hires Wolfe to ensure the safe return of Jimmy. 

Wolfe places a prominent ad in the newspapers to the kidnapper, advising that he is on the case. Althea pays the ransom as directed on a deserted back road, and the next morning Jimmy returns home safely. All looks resolved until the body of her secretary, Dinah Utley, is found in a ditch at the same back road. It appears she was in on the scheme, and she was killed as she wanted too big a cut of the ransom.

Right away, Archie suspects that this was all theatre, and that Jimmy "kidnapped himself" in order to get a pile of Althea's money. The ransom note was typed by Dinah Utley on her own typewriter, so it quickly becomes an inside job. Althea's son, Noel Tedder, approaches Wolfe and wants to make a deal. If he knows where the money is, and Wolfe helps him retrieve it, he will give Wolfe $100,000 of it. Then Althea's daughter, Margot Tedder, shows up and makes Wolfe a similar offer.

Wolfe accepts Noel's offer, but before he can take any action, Jimmy Vale is found dead in his library, killed by a fallen life-size bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin. It is unclear if it is accidental or murder.

Review: This is a good tight Wolfe, with a small cast of characters. Once Wolfe is convinced it is all an inside job, it is fascinating as he interviews the family members and deduces who is the killer. 

The killer was a surprise to me - Stout had me fooled. I had picked a different person.

When the real motive for the kidnapping/theft is revealed, it seems quite a stretch to me that someone would do that for the possible benefit realized.

One little annoyance: much is written about surmises, deductions, inferences, and assumptions; and which clue is which. However, with all the argument about that, they are never defined for the reader.

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

The Silent Partner by Kathleen Moore Knight (1950)
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 bibliography 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:

  • Tevan Larrimore Jones, our protagonist, a war widow
  • Julia Mandeval Lanning
  • Craig Lanning, her no-good husband
  • Jeffery and Lorna Duncan, and their daughter Sylvia
  • Bill Bagley, Sylvia's boyfriend
  • Ralston (attorney) and Zilpha Thayer
  • John Parr (banker)
  • Philippe LeBrun, a natty man rumored to be with Silver Sands
  • Ben Crandall, police chief
  • Grady Slemp, employee of Silver Sands

Locale: Florida

Synopsis: Lerida, Florida has seen better days. Old gracious estates are being bought up by the Silver Sands Development Company, who put in tacky tourist traps, amusement parks, and cheap motels. The disgusted locals have a hard time organizing against them, as the company is run by a "silent partner", whose identity is unknown.

Three estates remain on the shore:

  • Gray Grove. the old Mandeval estate, occupied by Julia Mandeval Lanning and her irresponsible husband, Craig Lanning.
  • Oak Lawn, The Larrimers - and Tevan Larrimore Jones' - former home, now owned by Jeffery and Lorna Duncan, and their daughter Sylvia. The Duncans have renovated the estate into a showplace.
  • Riverside, the rundown "Old Bromley" place, former home of the Bromleys, now owned by natty Philippe LeBrun; rumored to be a big wheel in Silver Sands.

Tevan Larrimore Jones, a war widow now living in Wales, has an invitation from old friend and neighbor Julia Mandeval Lanning, to come visit Gray Grove. Tevan arrives to find Julia married to a questionable sort, Craig. 

Craig calls out from the terrace. Julia and Tevan come out to find an injured man staggering over from Riverside, next door. He collapses in front of them, his last words being "Silver Sands". He is later identified as Grady Slemp, an employee of Silver Sands.

Circumstantial evidence points to Craig as being the murderer. Julia and Tevan try to find out who is being Silver Sands, until they are attacked as well.

Review: This is the first Knight novel I have come across set in Florida (the others are mostly Cape Cod or Central America). The setting of the town being developed away is done well, and the three adjoining estates are a great setting. It looks like the head of Silver Sands is the culprit, and suspicion falls on several townspeople in turn. 

There are a few surprises in store on one of the estates, and the developments there are numerous and creepy. Knight always does the heroine foolishly going out into the overgrown estate at night, but it is always entertaining and fresh. This is another great well-rounded offering from an underrated writer. I continue to add to my collection of her writings, still available if you search around a bit.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Case of the Black-eyed Blonde by Erle Stanley Gardner (1944)

Major characters:
  • Diana Regis, radio actress, the "black-eyed blonde"
  • Mildred Danville, her roommate
  • Jason Bartsler, mining operator, and her employer
  • Robert Bartsler, Jason's son, killed at Pearl Harbor prior to the story
  • Helen Bartsler, Robert's widow
  • Robert Bartsler, Jr., 3-year old son of Robert and Helen
  • Carl Fretch, Jason's stepson
  • Frank Glenmore, a mining manager for Jason 
  • Ella Brockton
  • Perry Mason, attorney
  • Della Street, his secretary
Locale: Los Angeles

Synopsis: Diana Regis shows up at Perry Mason's office. She has been assaulted - and give a black eye - by Carl Fretch, stepson of her employer, Jason Bartsler. Bartsler is a mining operator, and due to limited vision, has employed Diana to read him various articles and printed matter in the evenings. The assault occurred after a dinner date with Fretch went bad and he made her find her own way back. (Diana had an apartment with roommate Mildred Danville, but also had a room at Bartsler's home for her convenience while working there). 

She arrived back at Bartsler's to find Fretch holding Diana's purse, and showing Mrs. Bartsler it contained a diamond pendant belonging to her - alleging Diana had stolen it. Jason, being the problem-solving executive, offers Diana - through Mason - a quick $1500 settlement to forget everything, which she accepts. Case closed.

Jason likes Mason, and hires him to solve a separate problem of his own. He had a son, Robert Bartsler, who is missing in action from the 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor. Robert and his wife, Helen, apparently had a son which Jason was unaware of; and wants Mason to track him down. Helen is apparently putting the child up for adoption.

Mason and secretary Della Street go out to Helen's home, and find a blonde woman dead in back of the house. They initially think it is Diana Regis, but it turns out to be her roommate Mildred Danville; who resembles her.

(caution, potential spoilers here)

I do enjoy a Perry Mason, especially when there is a limited cast of characters to follow. Sometimes there are way too many to follow without making notes, but this one is quite concise.

In this early Mason, he is much tougher than later stories; and his relationship with Della quite a bit more steamy - they get to the point of deep kisses and making out in his car [shocking!].

I was fooled on one big account. I was expecting Robert Bartsler, MIA but never declared dead, to show up and become part of the plot. But no, he continued to rest in peace. Perhaps his role cast as a Pearl Harbor casualty (only three years before this writing) was too serious to be trifled with.

The one big annoying aspect of this story is that the cad, Carl Fretch, never got what he had coming to him. He walked away without being prosecuted or becoming the next victim. Tsk, tsk.

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

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Jerusalem Inn by Martha Grimes (1988)


About the author: This is #5 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:

  • Helen Minton, a building tour guide
  • Robin "Robbie" Lyte
  • Frederick Parmenger, a painter
  • Grace Seaingham
  • Elizabeth, Lady St. Leger
  • Beatrice Slight, a writer
  • William MacQuade, a writer
  • Tommy Whittaker, a snooker/oboe/piano player
  • Richard Jury
  • Melrose Plant
  • Aunt Agatha, Melrose's aunt
  • Vivian Rivington

Synopsis: Richard Jury is en route to his cousin's for the Christmas holidays, more out of a feeling of obligation than desire. He stops in the village of Washington and while wandering around encounters a young woman, Helen Minton, in the churchyard cemetery. She is studying some gravestones and making notes. She feels faint upon standing, and Jury is concerned and offers to escort her home. They have a visit and drinks; and set up a dinner date upon his return. 

Jury continues to his cousin's place, and stops in Washington again on the return. He finds the authorities present at Old Hall, a historic site in which Helen was a tour guide. She had been found dead in the upstairs bedroom, a vial of pills at hand. The autopsy finds poison.

Melrose Plant winds up snowed in at Spinney Abbey mansion with a lot of writers, artists, critics, titled persons, and of course, his Aunt Agatha (Lady Ardry). One of the writers, Beatrice Slight, is found dead outside while wearing Grace Seaingham's stole. Was Beatrice the intended victim, or was it mistaken identity? Melrose finds an interesting young companion, Tommy Whittaker, who likes to sneak out to the local pub, The Jerusalem Inn, to play snooker.

Richard Jury arrives, looking for Frederick Parmenger, who was a cousin to Helen Minton. Parmenger is at the mansion to paint a portrait of Grace Seaingham. He is found to be the only person present who knew both victims, and Jury looks for a connection and motive. 

Review: This is the fourth Jury I have read, I found it rather ho-hum overall. It started out well with the budding relationship between Jury and Helen Minton, and I was sorry to find her become a victim. The long discussions of the privileged class at Spinney Abbey was wearing. Getting Melrose Plant and Jury to find each other by accident was a bit of a stretch; as well as the eventual connection between the two victims. The explanation was a bit too long and involved and I did check out without trying to understand the various relationships involved. In short, too many characters. I stopped noting them down at 17.

Vivian Rivington, Jury's unrequited love, appears as well. Her engagement to the Italian count appears to be on the rocks (Jury hopes), but nothing more progresses - being saved for future books no doubt.

Tommy Whittaker is a great character, and I enjoyed reading about him. I did skim the play-by-play descriptions of his snooker games, not being familiar with it.

I enjoyed the conversations between Plant and his butler Ruthven, especially as Plant tries to get Ruthven to loosen up and be a friend. 

Aunt Agatha was in good form, and the descriptions of her cheating at bridge while trying to impress her other players was quite funny.

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

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Day the World Ended by Sax Rohmer (1929)

About the author: Arthur Henry "SarsfieldWard (1883 – 1959), better known as Sax Rohmer, was a prolific English novelist. He is best remembered for his series of novels featuring the master criminal Dr. Fu Manchu. (wikipedia)

Major characters:
  • Brian Woodville, correspondent for The Daily World, our narrator
  • Mme. Yburg
  • Marusa Yburg, her daughter
  • Gaston Max of the Surete, a.k.a. M. Paul, a flamboyant Frenchman
  • John Lonergan, US Secret Service, a.k.a. Aldous P. Kluster, Rev. Josiah Higgins
  • Anubis, master of Felsenweir castle, and cult leader
  • Nestor, a chemist
Locale: Baden-Baden, Germany

Synopsis: Brian Woodville, correspondent for The Daily World (and our narrator), is in Baden-Baden, Germany to investigate a story of giant bats haunting the local cemetery, and rumors of vampires. He is awaked at 3AM in his hotel by a voice warning him he has three days to leave Baden-Baden.

His first day he makes the acquaintance of:
  1. a mysterious woman, Mme.Yburg. 
  2. a flamboyant Frenchman, M. Paul
  3. a typical US tourist, Aldous Kluster
and initially considers all three of them adversaries. He meets an enchanting young lady, Marusa. He visits the cemetery to find Mme. Yburg has a key, and he sees a giant bat descend on the mausoleum of the Felsenweirs.

The second day he journeys into the Black Forest and finds a spot overlooking the Felsenweir castle, supposedly empty. But he sees guards in armor patrolling the grounds.  He then finds Aldous Kluster is really John Lonergan of the US Secret Service, and M. Paul is really Gaston Max of the Surete. They form an alliance.

They discover the castle is the source of mysterious energy fields, and that these fields had been previously reported disrupting radio communications in New England, coinciding with a visit there by Mme. Yburg.

Their attempts to infiltrate the castle are hindered by the energy fields surrounding it, and they wind up prisoners of Anubis, master of the castle; who has a plan to destroy all life in world (except for him and his followers). Woodville's love interest Marusa is in the castle also, and now she appears to be one of the enemy. Now it is up to Woodville, Lonergan, and Max to thwart Anubis' plan.

Review: I always thought Sax Rohmer, being author of the Fu Manchu books, was an inscrutable oriental himself - and I was astounded to find he is a regular guy named Arthur Ward (bio). But Oh, what fun! This book is more a science fiction adventure/romance than a mystery, featuring the mysterious Black Forest, cemeteries, mausoleums, giant bats, a castle complete with drawbridge and guards in armor. 

Some interesting aspects are the foreshadowing of inventions we take for granted today - remember, this is 1929 - remote controls, miniaturized cell-phone like radios, tracking of people by tags (similar to our RFID) worn on the wrist, and aerial (drone-like) surveillance.

One loose end left hanging was the explanation of the failed experiments in Hartford, Connecticut. It is mentioned they failed, and although disrupting radio throughout New England, no explanation is provided nor is it tied into the plot in any way. That story line was simply dropped.

If you really enjoy stories featuring giant flying bats, be sure to seek out The Curse of Doone by Sydney Horler (1930), a Mystery League title.