Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Trio for Blunt Instruments by Rex Stout (1964)


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)

This title consists of three novellas.

Kill Now - Pay Later

Wolfe has a friend, Pete Vassos, a bootblack who has a route shining shoes - and enjoys literary conversations with him as he shines Wolfe's and Archie's shoes weekly. He has several clients, including Dennis Ashby, in an office just before he comes to Wolfe's home. This time Vassos arrives, upset. He had gone to Ashby's tenth-floor office to find he had just jumped (or was pushed?) out the window. He hints that he saw someone else in Ashby's office. Next Vassos himself is found dead, having jumped (or was pushed?) off a cliff. Wolfe immediately figures Vassos' daughter, Elma, may be next on the killer's list as her father may have mentioned the identity of the other person to her; and takes steps to protect her. For a fee of $1.

Murder is Corny

Nero Wolfe has a weekly corn delivery from an upstate farm, delivered by farm worker Kenneth Faber. One day the corn doesn't show up, but Inspector Cramer does, with the corn box under his arm. Seems Faber was found dead at the previous stop, Rusterman's Restaurant, bashed by a length of pipe. He was sweet on the farmer's daughter, Sue McLeod, an expensive model, and a previous girlfriend of Archie Goodwin. Faber wanted her for himself, so he cooked up a great idea: tell all her suitors that she was pregnant and he did it. The problem is: Sue tells the police Archie was on the scene of the murder.

Blood Will Tell

Archie receives a necktie with a spot of blood on it in the mail, along with a note (allegedly) from wealthy James Neville Vance. Archie goes to see Vance to find that it is indeed his tie, but he didn't mail it. While they are discussing this little puzzle, the police arrive on a welfare check call on the downstairs apartment. Vance (the landlord) and Archie accompany the police to the apartment to find Mrs. Bonny Kirk dead on the floor, hit with a liquor bottle. Did someone mail the tie in order frame Vance? If so, why to Archie and not the police?

Review: 

The Nero Wolfe novellas are just right for a one-hour self-contained bedtime read! Kill Now - Pay Later is the best of the three, although I did groan a little when Stout trotted out the old trope where the victim dips his finger in his own blood to write the name of the murderer just before he expires (didn't that go out in the 1930's)? Murder is Corny comes in second, the only downside being the obvious signs pointing to the killer. Blood Will Tell was a bit confusing, with a big shell game played with nine identical neckties; and I admit I gave up on following the ties around and just went along for the ride.




Monday, September 13, 2021

The Bass Derby Murder by Kathleen Moore Knight (1949)

 

photo: AbeBooks

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:

Lucius Amsdon, powerful Wall Street bully 
Lucy Amsdon, his high-fashion daughter

The seven on Amsdon's they-want-to-kill-me list:
  1. Larry Amsdon, his nephew
  2. Henry Thorpe, his embezzling secretary
  3. John Forrest, his fired junior partner and next-door neighbor
  4. Les Scotland, mystery man from New York
  5. Sam Jennings, spiteful neighbor on the other side
  6. Whit Belcher, his source for a stolen prize winning bass
  7. Will Beardsley, whose daughter he humiliated
Polly Ann Beardsley, Will's daughter
Doug Weatherbee, Polly Ann's boyfriend 
Bart Morrison, sports reporter for the NY Herald
Elisha Macomber, chair of the Board of Selectmen

Locale: Penberthy Island, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Synopsis: Bully Lucius Amsdon likes to throw his weight around. He built a mansion summer home on Penberthy Island, and gave an adjoining lot to his junior partner, John Forrest, for a modest home. On the other side is Sam Jenning's property. The only land access to Amsdon's place is through Jenning's woods. Jennings has refused to sell him a right-of-way for access, and tensions escalated from there. The island residents all resent Amsdon.

Several little incidents lead Amsdon to believe he is being targeted for persecution and harassment. He comes to Selectman Elisha Macomber with a list of seven people (1-4 off-islanders, 5-7 islanders) who he claims want to see him dead (see list above).

The annual Bass Derby is getting underway. Contestants arrive, including a mysterious Les Scotland, who obviously is a novice at fishing. Reporters arrive, including Bart Morrison, who has a role organizing Macomber's notes of the affair. Amsdon cooks up his own party to steal the limelight away from local Polly Ann Beardsley, expected winner of Queen of the Derby Ball; and focus the cameras instead upon his own daughter, Lucy Amsdon.

As everyone expects, Amsdon is found dead on his beach.

Review: The sequence of the story is interesting, well explained, and effective. It starts out with Amsdon's body being found, then is told in retrospect. Elisha tasks reporter Bart Morrison with organizing his notes in a Watson-like manner; which is a tool to make the story work out.

The list of seven suspects is alluded to throughout, yet the reader never gets to see the list. The list in the synopsis above is my own. I kept track and got 6 of the 7 easily, I missed Les Scotland.

The book could have benefitted from a sketch map of the Amsdon/Jennings/Forrest places. 

Overall, a nice Elisha Macomber tale from an excellent series.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

And on the Eighth Day by Ellery Queen (1964)

 

photo: L. W. Currey Inc.

About the author: John on Goodreads writes: Most of the Ellery Queen mystery novels of the sixties were ghostwritten by other authors. Avram Davidson, better known for his fantasy/sf fiction, wrote And On the Eighth Day based on an outline by Frederick Dannay, half of the Ellery Queen writing team.

Major characters:
  • Otto Schmidt, storekeeper
  • The Teacher
  • The Successor
  • Storicai the Storesman
  • Ellery Queen
Locale: The Nevada desert

Synopsis: It is 1944 and Ellery Queen is just finishing up a job in Hollywood producing films for the war errort. He drives across the desert into Nevada, and stops at a remote outpost, The End of The World Store, Otto Schmidt, proprietor. While there, he encounters two strange men: one quite old, one middle-aged; dressed in robes and speaking in a stilted old fashioned English. They pay for their supplies with a large silver coin.

Ellery gets his own supplies and inquires on the best route. He gets confused in the desert, and winds up approaching a lush agricultural community in an isolated basin. He is welcomed by the old man from the store, who introduces himself as The Teacher, leader of their community; and his protegé, a young man called The Successor. 

The community is an independent town of several hundred, and have developed their own ways and customs; eschewing contact with the outside. They are religious, and follow practices which are a mix of Christianity, Judaism, and other beliefs. The town operates smoothly, and Ellery (called El-roi Quenan) is welcomed as someone the prophets had foretold would arrive prior to a time of great trouble.

The Holy Congregation House is their church. The Teacher and The Successor live there. There is a sacred room, the Sanquetum, which holds their prayer scrolls, a holy book of some sort, and their 'treasure', consisting of (originally) fifty silver dollars, obtained from selling some possessions in their move. The dollars have diminished a bit, 19 of them having been used over time to purchase supplies from The End of The World Store, where a sympathetic Otto Schmidt takes the rare silver dollars into the city to sell them and credit the group's account.

As foretold, trouble begins. Someone has been trying to get into the Sanquetum. Then their inventory manager, Soricai the Storesman, is found murdered. It is the first crime to occur in their community, and Ellery steps in to investigate.

Review:

*POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD* I cannot write about this book without revealing the following plot line.

About halfway through, the reader, if at all familiar with the account of the resurrection of Jesus in the Bible, will realize we are in a carefully constructed allegory. Most of the major events of the crucifixion/resurrection are present, applied to the current day - even some of The Teacher's dialogue at his trial is taken verbatim from the Bible.
  • "Teacher" is another name used for Jesus in the Bible.
  • The Teacher decides to sacrifice himself in order to save others.
  • The Teacher is betrayed for 30 pieces of silver.
  • The Teacher is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
  • The Teacher invites Ellery to share his last meal of bread and wine on Thursday, reminiscent of The Last Supper.
  • The Teacher leads his followers up the hill to his execution on Friday.
  • The Teacher dies on the hill on Friday.
  • On Saturday, the only event: Ellery wept.
  • On Sunday, the surprise appearance of Manuel (emmanuel) from the heavens.
I enjoyed the book, especially the descriptions of how the independent community organized themselves. 

The only loose end was the revelation of the sacred book - it did not seem to make sense to me how it became so, and what the point of it was. Suffice to say, it was not a religious book, and has no connection to the Bible.



Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Help the Poor Struggler by Martha Grimes (1985)

 



About the author: This is #7 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.



Synopsis: A series of four child murders has Scotland Yard anxious for a solution. Division Commander Brian Macalvie is after Superintendent Richard Jury to get it solved now. The four murders all have slim connections to the wealthy widower Robert Ashcroft. Ashcroft has been caring for his niece, ten year old Lady Jessica Mary Allan-Ashcroft (as she prefers to call herself) after the death of her parents. Ashcroft had been in Australia previously with his brother Jimmy. Jury suspects something is amiss and is concerned that Jessica could be next. 

Jury looks at three mysteries:
  1. Is Richard Jury really Richard, or his brother Jimmy? Jessica is the sole heiress to his fortune, and none of the current house staff knew Richard prior to his time in Australia.
  2. Is Molly Singer, the woman who found one of the bodies, really Molly Singer - or is she Mary Mulvanney, who has a long time grudge against Brian Macalvie?
  3. Who has the motive for the killings? Is it someone in the Ashcroft orbit, or could it be Sam Waterhouse, recently released from Dartmoor and hanging around?
Review: This one was quite somber for the first half with the series of child murders. I was looking for something lighter with a lot of Melrose Plant / Aunt Agatha repartée, but Melrose does not appear until halfway through, and Aunt Agatha only mentioned briefly.

The character of Division Commander Brian Macalvie was a puzzle, he started out being take-charge-nasty to everyone but then chums up to Jury in a rather abrupt change.

As always, I enjoyed the Scotland Yard office scenes with Chief Superintendent Racer, saucy tease Fiona Clingmore, and Cyril the cat.






Saturday, September 4, 2021

Marked Men by Charles Neville Buck (1929)

 

AbeBooks

About the author: Charles Neville Buck (1879 - ?) was an American writer who had many of his novels staged in theater productions and adapted into films during the silent film era.  His work includes yarns about the mountain men of Kentucky and their traditions. He worked for a year as a cartoonist and then for about a decade as reporter in Kentucky. Buck also published under the pseudonym Hugh Lundsford. (wikipedia)

Major characters:
  • Clem W. Archibald, Sportsman's club member
  • Millicent Jasper (stage name) Crenshaw (real name), actress, Archibald's fiancée
  • J. G. Smith, attorney, member of the club
  • Carl Warren, Smith's junior partner
  • Olivia Cary, Smith's secretary
  • Jerry Cliff, bank president, member of the club
  • Dawes Fleetwell, actor from Kentucky
  • Felicity "Lissy" Fleetwell, his wife
  • Muir Bratchell, Felicity's jilted lover
  • Inspector Crandall, head of New York detectives
  • Lt. Rossi, New York police

Locale: New York City and Kentucky

Synopsis: The Sportsman's Club is an exclusive New York club for millionaires. They are in the process of relocating to a new building, and several of the members decide to run out the clock on the lease of the old space, remaining until the very last minute as movers take the last furnishings from the building. 

Club member Clem W. Archibald is just coming down the stairway when he falls to the bottom. Attorney J. G. Smith and other members go to his aid to discover he has been shot. He dies before he can say what happened.

A young woman comes to see Inspector Crandall about the murder. She is Millicent Jasper, an actress (Jasper is her stage name, Crenshaw her real name). She reveals she is Archibald's fiancée, and he has been supporting her and backing the play in which she is appearing.

Some local civic leaders approach J. G. Smith and urge him to take on an investigation to find the killer, and he reluctantly agrees.

Flamboyant actor Dawes Fleetwell calls on his agent only to find the play he was scheduled for has been cancelled due to backer Archibald's death. The story then changes to Fleetwell's history in Kentucky. Fleetwell and Muir Bratchell had been competing for Felicity Cawdon's hand, and Fleetwell stole her away from Muir. Dawes took her to New York. 

J. G. Smith is looking for an agent for his development business in Kentucky, and comes across now-attorney Muir. He hires him and brings him to New York, where he encounters Dawes and Felicity again, in a strained but polite meeting. Meanwhile, crime runs rampant in New York, with several more murders occuring. The police seek Dawes' assistance in sorting out the shootings, as Dawes has backcountry gun experience.


Review: The story starts out strong but takes an abrupt turn when switching to the back story of Dawes Fleetwell. The account of his upbringing in Kentucky goes on much too long (three chapters). I started wondering if I was indeed reading the same book I had started. Buck mostly wrote stories about rural Kentucky, and I began wondering if this New York murder mystery was just an excuse to get another Kentucky tale into print. To make things worse, the dialog in the Kentucky portion is rendered in hard-to-comprehend phonetic dialect: "Hit come on like a hurricane an hit jest pint blank swep' everything afore hit. We rassled with ther gal in sperit. We argyfied thet leastways she a bound ter wait an talk with you fust."

At that point I considered pulling the plug and doing a rare DNF (Did Not Finish). We had a murder, but no suspects, no weapon, no motive, no progress, and the story went and got bogged down in a drawn-out love triangle in the Kentucky hills. Then the love triangle moved to New York to be continued there.

The story flipped between New York and Kentucky several times, and this was distracting. Clem Archibald's murder was forgotten until the very end, when the murderer is revealed to be a character only introduced in the final pages.



Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Man Who Didn't Exist by Geoffrey Homes (1937)

 

dustjackets.com

About the author: Geoffrey Homes was a pseudonym for Daniel Mainwaring (1902-1977), an American novelist and screenwriter. He was born in California, and attended Fresno University. He held various jobs, including migrant fruit picker, private investigator and reporter, before turning to writing in the thirties. He subsequently became a screenwriter for movies. Homes's series characters were Jose Manuel Madero, LA reporter Robin Bishop and PI Humphrey Campbell. Bishop eventually marries Mary Huston, a secretary at the Morgan Missing Persons Bureau detective agency.

Major characters:
  • Robin Bishop, newspaper reporter for the Evening News
  • Mary Bishop, his wife
  • George Clark, City Editor for the Evening News
  • Zenophen Zwick, mystery writer, supposed suicide; a.k.a. William Nye
  • Gordon McHaig, mail clerk
  • Jonathan Roberts (dead prior to the story)
  • Merle Hillary, a painter
  • Kermit Turner, a playwright
  • Syrena Chapman Turner, Kermit Turner's ex-wife
  • Septimus Sidney, a novelist
  • Mitchell Grove, a poet
  • Hallam Taylor, Chief of Detectives
Locale: Los Angeles area

Synopsis: Newspaper reporter Robin Bishop is taking in an evening's entertainment at a seashore casino with his wife, Mary. He steps out onto the beach and finds a jacket folded neatly, with a note pinned to it. The note is a suicide note, signed by Zenophen Zwick.

If this is true, it will be a nationwide sensation. Zenophen Zwick is the country's foremost mystery writer. It is known to be a pseudonym, and no one knows his actual name. Bishop and City Editor George Clark begin putting together the story, although a bit suspicious that it could just be a publicity stunt. Although no one knows who Zwick is, most concur he is likely one of the following:
  • Jonathan Roberts (although he died years ago from a fall)
  • Merle Hillary, a painter
  • Kermit Turner, a playwright
  • Septimus Sidney, a novelist
  • Mitchell Grove, a poet
Mary Bishop (Robin's wife) takes it upon herself to read everything by the other writers to determine if one of them is really Zwick. Bishop finds the post office box where Zwick receives his mail under the name William Nye. The mail clerk, Gordon McHaig, states he has seen him and can identify him. Bishop publishes a photo of McHaig in his story, stating that McHaig is the only person who has seen Zwick. That night a visitor to McHaig's home shoots him dead. The search for Zwick's body stops immediately and a warrant is issued for his arrest.

Review: I always enjoy stories where the investigator is a newspaper reporter, and the story includes scenes inside the newspaper offices - back in the day when they were a chaotic frenzy as competing papers fought it out on the streets in alternate editions. (I especially like those by Nancy Barr Mavity.) This one is no exception. The writer brings his previous real-life reporter experience to the story.

I had forgotten that some newspapers used to print two editions per day - the evening edition and a morning "sports" edition (with the previous night's scores), which was even printed on different colored paper!

The story builds nicely, especially with the introduction of the tall mysterious woman (note: mysterious women are always tall). A most interesting character is Peter's wife, Mary, becoming the quiet-behind-the-scenes research investigator as she peruses books by Zwick, Grove, Turner, and Sidney to discover leads to Zwick's identity, and the murderer.

The trash-talk between the reporters and detective Hallam Taylor is priceless!