Sunday, August 29, 2021

Streaked with Crimson by Charles J. Dutton, 1929

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green (1878)


Yesterday's Gallery and Babylon Revisited

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

Major characters:

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

Locale: New York City and environs

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Poirot Loses a Client by Agatha Christie (1937)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

crossed writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 9, 2021

Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell (1993)


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

Locale: Virginia

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The Red Box by Rex Stout (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Search for a Sultan by Manning Coles (1961)


About the authors: (wikipedia): Manning Coles is the pseudonym of two British writers, Adelaide Frances Oke Manning (1891–1959) and Cyril Henry Coles (1899–1965), who wrote many spy thrillers from the early 40s through the early 60s. The fictional protagonist in 26 of their books was Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon, who works for the Foreign Office.

Major characters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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