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!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Saint on Guard by Leslie Charteris (1943/1944)

 

dustjackets.com

About the author:

This book comprises two novellas: The Black Market and The Sizzling Saboteur.

The Black Market

The Saint is in New York City and learns from Inspector John Henry Fernack about a black market in precious Iridium, urgently needed for the war effort. He meets two industrial manufacturers who have been forced to buy it on the black market: Milton Ourley and Gabriel Linnet. Ourley's wife, Titania Ourley, takes a liking to the Saint. Urbane Allen Uttershaw is the head of the mining company which produces the Iridium. The Saint drops in to Linnet's home to find him dead, and a beautiful decoy, Barbara Sinclair, trying to set him to take the fall.

The Sizzling Saboteur

The Saint is driving across Texas and encounters a burned body in the road. Simon stops to assist, and the victim's (Henry Stephens Matson) last words appear to name his killer(s). He consults with the police, who are adamant it was a suicide. Simon doesn't believe it, and tracks down his girlfriend, Olga Ivanovitch. Through her, he gets a lead on the three named by Matson: Johan Blatt and Fritzie Weinbach. The third killer, Siegfried Maris, is more elusive. Simon finds that Matson was working in war production plants, and was a saboteur. He had failed to complete a sabotage mission for the Axis, and was murdered in revenge. The killers catch up to Simon and Olga, who wind up captives. 

Review: 

These two novellas are set in World War II-era USA. Both deal with bad guys messing with the war effort for personal gain or military advantage. 

The Black Market has several clever story lines, especially the use of decoy Barbara Sinclair to distract The Saint. The Sizzling Saboteur was not as engaging, and the whole setup of the killing seemed false - I would think agents out for a revenge killing would do something a bit more 'professional'. Simon's informer, Po't Arthur, is an enjoyable character.

Women are not too well represented in these stories, just one in each, both cast as elegant bad girls; although Olga turns out be on our side (the names are a tipoff - Olga is clearly Russian - therefore an ally. Johan, Weinbach, and Siegfried clearly German - thus the enemy). 

The stories do give a feel for the high wartime feelings present on the home front USA, when war production was the #1 priority. 



Monday, July 19, 2021

Red Wind by Raymond Chandler (1938)

 


This review is only about the short story "Red Wind". (There is a collection of his short stories bearing the same title).

About the author: Raymond Chandler (1888 – 1959) was an American-British novelist and screenwriterHe is a founder of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. The protagonist of his novels, Philip Marlowe, like Hammett's Sam Spade, is considered by some to be synonymous with "private detective". Both were played in films by Humphrey Bogart, whom many consider to be the quintessential Marlowe. (wikipedia).

Major characters:
  • Waldo / Joseph Coates / A. B. Hummel, the Barsaly chauffeur
  • Lew Petrolle, bartender
  • Frank Barsaly, wealthy engineer
  • Lola Barsaly, his wife
  • Al Tessilore, "the drunk"
  • Leon Valesanos, a croupier
  • Eugénie Kolchenko, the kept Russian woman
  • Philip Marlowe, Private Investigator
  • Sam Copernick, "bad cop" police detective
  • --- Ybarra, "good cop" police detective
Locale: Los Angeles, California

Synopsis: The hot, dry Santa Ana "red winds" are blowing. Private Investigator Philip Marlowe is having a drink in the bar across from his apartment house, and talking with 'young kid' bartender Lew Petrolle. A man comes in looking for a lady, who he describes precisely. As he leaves, a "drunk" (Al Tessillore) at the bar shoots him dead, calling him "Waldo".

After the authorities come, Marlowe returns to his apartment house and encounters a woman matching Waldo's description, Lola Barsaly. She identifies Waldo as Joseph Coates, who had stolen her expensive string of pearls. She gets Marlowe to enter Coates' apartment to retrieve the pearls - instead he finds a dead man, croupier Leon Valesanos, hanging from the Murphy bed frame. Marlowe takes his Valensano's keys and locates his car outside, and goes to a found address to find Frank Barsaly with his kept Russian woman, Eugénie Kolchenko. Barsaly reveals the motives while holding a gun on Marlowe.

Marlowe works out a tough deal with police detectives Sam Copernick and --- Ybarra to recover the pearls, protect their sources, and close the case.

Review: This is the story with famous opening line describing the hot, airless desert night: "On nights like that ... meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen." The reader will be reaching for the A/C as Chandler's setting is described.

The short story format is perfect for the hard-boiled genre. The reader gets beat up along with the characters in longer outings. There are quite a few characters in this short work, and their relationships are not always clear until late in the tale. The wistful ending is a bit of a surprise. One loose end: where did the real pearls go?



Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Beautiful Derelict by Carolyn Wells (1935)

 

goodreads

This is Fleming Stone #39.

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:
  • Fleming Stone, detective
  • Barry Wayne, yacht owner
  • Daniel Wayne, Barry's father
  • Patrick Wayne, Berry's uncle (Daniel's brother)
  • Elkins Van Zandt, yacht guest, lawyer
  • Jane Holt, Barry's fiancée
  • Samfari Wing, claiming to be Daniel's other son
  • U.S. Attorney Demarest
Locale: primarily Nantucket Island, Massachusetts

Synopsis: Fleming Stone is aboard the S. S. Nokomis bound from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to New York City. Captain Gregg sights a 40-foot yacht, The Hotspur, drifting, and sends some men, including Stone, to assist.

The men find two dead men aboard the yacht: Barry Wayne, below in the engine room, dead from a head wound; and Elkins Van Zandt on deck, dead from no obvious cause. There is no one else aboard.

The yacht is towed to port in New London, CT, and turned over to the Coast Guard. 

It is found that Barry Wayne is the owner of the yacht, and son of Daniel Wayne. Daniel, his brother Patrick Wayne, and Barry live on Nantucket Island (off Cape Cod, Massachusetts). Barry had planned to go sailing with his fiancée, Jane Holt, but her father protested against the two of them going alone, so Elkins Van Zandt went along instead.

Autopsies are performed to find Barry dead of his head wound, as expected, and Van Zandt dead from cancerious stomach ulcers. The mystery is: what happened? Is this a murder case, or accident; and was there anyone else involved? Then a mysterious person, Samfari Wing, appears on the scene and claims he is Daniel's other son.

Review: For once, we get our money's worth of Fleming Stone! Instead of appearing near the end of the novel as is his wont, he appears in the first sentence! This is an enjoyable novel, with lots of action and Fleming Stone in an active role throughout. Fleming Stone improves with age - so seeking out the later books in the series is recommended.

The third - and final - death occurs in a locked room, so the reader gets two separate enigmas to figure out. The method of entry to the locked room is telegraphed by the author as Fleming Stone considers the unique construction of the house, and an alert reader will have an inkling of how it was done.

The writing is lively, and the best parts are when the family members get testy with the coroner's interviews:

Coroner: "I have an odd idea, Mr. Wayne, that the tragic death last night was the work of a woman, rather than that of a man."

There was a silent pause.

"Did you hear me, Mr. Wayne?"

"Certainly," Pat replied, "I am not at all deaf."

"Then why did you not answer?"

"You didn't ask me any question."

"I made an observation."

"Am I supposed to comment on all your observations? Very well, then, I do not agree with you. I think [the victim]  was stabbed to death by a man."

"And how did your hypothetical man enter the locked room?"

"The same way your hypothetical woman did!"



Monday, July 12, 2021

It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr (1930)

 

dustjackets.com

About the author: John Dickson Carr (1906 – 1977) was an American author, who also published using the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger FairbairnHe lived in England for a number of years, and is often grouped among "British-style" mystery writers. Most (though not all) of his novels had English settings, especially country villages and estates, and English characters. His two best-known fictional detectives (Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale) were both English. (excerpt from this Wikipedia article.)

Major characters:
  • Jeff Marle, our narrator
  • Raoul Jourdain, 6th Duc de Saligny
  • Louise, Duchesse de Saligny (Raoul's wife)
  • Alexandre Laurent, Louise's ex-husband
  • M. Edward Vautrelle, Raoul's friend
  • Sid Golton, a usually-drunk American
  • Sharon Grey, Vautrelle's mistress
  • Dr. Hugo Grafenstein, a psychoanalyst
  • M. Henri Bencolin, detective
Locale: Paris 

Synopsis: The police are on the lookout for Alexandre Laurent. He was married to Louise Laurent, the marriage ending in divorce over his erractic behaviour and fixation in killing. He had plastic surgery done to disguise his appearance by a Dr. Rothswold, and killed him for his trouble. No one is quite sure what he looks like now.

Laurent has been stalking Louise. He claims the ability to enter buildings unseen. She marries Raoul Jourdain, 6th Duc de Saligny. On their wedding night, they visit a casino; with a protective police presence of M. Henri Bencolin and others. Raoul enters the Card Room, and the waiter enters to find him beheaded with a decorative sword which had been on the wall. 

The Card Room had been under constant observation. It is assumed the killer (Laurent?) was lying in wait in the room, yet no one observed him leave. A search finds the room directly above occupied by Sharon Grey, mistress of M. Edward Vautrelle, a friend of Raoul.

Narrator Jeff Marle enjoys an evening with Sharon Grey, while jealous Vautrelle exits through the garden. Marle and Grey find him dead.

Review:

This locked-room puzzler had me guessing at various secret mechanical devices or hidden entrances, but no such unfair advantage is taken. This is a shell game, in which we are led to believe a certain premise up front, and all that follows is built upon that premise; however the premise turns out to be false. The solution is startling, and I thought about it quite a bit after reading to comprehend the sequence of events. 

I do like characters to be introduced to the reader up front, and it was puzzling who the narrator was. Midway through the book we get a first name, "Jeff", and nearer to end we get the last name "Marle" and that he is a friend of Bencolin.

The explanation is provided in Chapter XIX, "The Hour of Triumph". In a description of the events in the card room, there is a footnote (p. 319 in my 1930 Collier Front Page Mystery edition) which says "See plan." I expected to find a drawing of the room, but none is provided. 




Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Gaol Breaker by Edgar Wallace (1924*)

 The Gaol Breaker (US title) / We Shall See! (UK title)

abebooks


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:
  • Det. Sergeant Mont of Scotland Yard, narrator
  • Billington "Billy" Stabbat, private detective
  • Levy Jones, operative for Billy Stabbat
  • Mary Ferrera, bank clerk and gambler, a.k.a. Miss Hicks and Miss X
  • Thomson Dawkes, man-about-town, a gambler
  • Sir Philip Frampton, bank owner and Mary Ferrera's uncle
  • George Briscoe, a thief
Locale: England, Monaco, and France

Synopsis: Detective Sergeant Mont (our narrator) is on vacation from Scotland Yard. He visits his old friend Billington "Billy" Stabbat, a private investigator. Billy is not really cut out for the business - he is an old softie, especially for the ladies; so he has operative Levy Jones do most of his legwork.

Man-about-town Thomson Dawkes is puzzled by a young woman he encounters in Monte Carlo. Calling herself "Miss X" or "Miss Hicks" (as 'X' is pronounced in French), she gambles large sums while referring to written notes, obviously some sort of system. She wins substantially more than she loses. He tries to make her acquaintance but is repeatedly rebuffed. When Dawkes encounters her in London, he hires Billy Stabbat to find out about her and her system. This leads to an encounter in Billy's office, in which Dawkes advances on her and she shoots him - seriously injuring him. Billy, trying to protect her, "confesses" to the shooting himself.

The investigation reveals she is Mary Ferrera, a clerk at Frampton's Bank in Elston. She is also the niece of bank owner Sir Philip Frampton. It is suspected Frampton has cooked up a gambling system and employs Mary to work the gaming tables. At a meeting - again at Billy's office - Mary and Frampton are left alone, and Frampton is found shot to death. Meanwhile Billy stands trial for Dawkes' shooting and is sent to prison for seven years.

Mont and Levy find the Mary's gun - still fully loaded - and deduce she was not the shooter of Dawkes and Frampton. Confounded, they plot to spring Stabbat from Dartmoor prison so he can solve the case.

Review:

Won't these P.I.s ever learn to not leave adversaries together unsupervised? The first time a client gets shot and wounded, and then they go right ahead and set it up again, this time with a client getting killed. Oh well, leaving the two shootings a mystery to the reader is the plot, as the reader is not privy to what really occurred in the room each time.

Stabbat is exactly the wrong type to be a P.I., constantly getting personally involved with clients and acting out of sympathy to them. However, this makes a good story line as he delegates most of the client contact to Levy.

Levy is an orthodox Jew and is constantly telling self-deprecating jokes and amusing (but stereotypical) stories about Jews, which is unnecessary and detracts from the story line. That aside, he makes a good Archie Goodwin to Stabbat.

The jail break episode is unique and amusing and worthy of a Manning Coles.

*The date 1924 is uncertain. My copy is an omnibus (The Mammoth Mystery Book), and it unclear which story has which publication date.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The 81st Site by Tony Kenrick (1980)

 


About the author: Tony Kenrick, an Australian, as born in 1935. See this biography.

Locale: Germany, France, and England

Major characters:
  • Wilhelm Lauter, trying to finish WWII ... in 1978
  • Hoff, a bank teller
  • Deiter Bruning, an engineer
  • Uher, a pilot with his own plane
  • Jim Pelham, an insurance investigator
  • Rossi Sruder, his stylish girlfriend
  • Brian Jakes, British Ministry of Defense
Synopsis: The story is told in alternating accounts of Wilhelm Lauter and Jim Pelham.

As a young man, Wilhelm Lauter was in the German Luftwaffe in WWII; devoted to the cause of the Third Reich. He was deeply depressed by death of Hitler and the German surrender in 1945, and hoped someday to be able to help Germany achieve the Third Reich goals. 

A chance conversation reveals to Lauter the Nazis built 81 V-1 flying bomb launch sites in northern France, but all postwar documents reference the discovery and destruction of only 80. Encouraged by the hope that one was missed and may still be made operational, he begins a search to find the 81st site; which he eventually does after many years of looking. 

Lauter acquires the remote farm which contains the site, deep in the woods. The launch site and materials had been carefully installed and just await assembly. He enlists the help of Nazi symphatizers Hoff, a bank teller; Deiter Bruning, an engineer; and Uher, a pilot. The plan is to send a V-1 to London, only this time with a nuclear warhead.

Jim Pelham is an American, working as an insurance investigator in London. Three buildings are destroyed by an immense explosion, and, suspecting a gas explosion, he is sent to the site to report. It doesn't look like a gas explosion. He finds a louvered panel with German markings in the wreckage, and finds it is part of a Nazi V-1 flying bomb. 

Pelham realizes that since the V-1 was a terror weapon and never meant for mass destruction, that this bomb may only he a test for something more to come.

Review: I take this book off the shelf every few years - it is a tense cat-and-mouse game. The alternating accounts of Lauter and Pelham are effective, note that they are staggered in time as Pelham does not become involved until the first test V-1 is flown; so the Lauter account is told in retrospect.

This is a good view into the workings of the V-1. I read a techincal description of the V-1 and everything matches. The method of getting a rocket into England without radar seeing it is clever and believable. The ending is tense until the last.

One point the reader may wonder: Could such a site be preserved after 33 years of hidden neglect? I live on the coast, near to a number of WWII defense installations, now mostly public parks. I have marveled at their state of preservation 70+ years later. One semi-underground bunker has the date '1944' cast in the concrete over the door, and I am always awed by the fact that such a facility, built to last, would be obsolete and abandoned just one year later.