Friday, October 29, 2021

Hickory Dickory Death by Agatha Christie (1955)


Major characters:
  • Mrs. Hubbard, warden (manager) of the Hickory Street Hostel
  • Mrs. Nicoletis, owner of the hostel
  • Sally Finch
  • Elizabeth Johnson
  • Patricia Lane, archeology student
  • Nigel Chapman
  • Len Bateson, medical student
  • Valerie Hobhouse
  • Celia Austin, pharmacy dispenser
  • Colin McNabb, psychology student
  • Inspector Sharpe
  • Hercule Poirot
Locale: Greater London

Synopsis: Miss Lemon, secretary to Hercule Poirot, relates how her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, is having some troubles at the hostel she manages. It sounds curious so Poirot goes to see her.

The Hickory Street Hostel (hence the title), consists of two separate buildings (one for men, one for women), joined by a common dining/lounge area. The residents are mostly students, with a few general renters thrown in.

Mrs. Hubbard manages the day-to-day operations on behalf of the owner, a rather biploar Mrs. Nicoletis, a hard-drinking Greek who alternates between screaming rage and bubbling praise.

The hostel has been plagued with a rash of strange little thefts and small vandalisms. The items stolen have no intrinsic value - cosmetics, a shoe, light bulbs, bath salts, a compact, etc. A rucksack (backpack) and a scarf had been stolen and cut up. Only one valuable item - a diamond ring - was stolen, but quickly returned. Was it taken by mistake?

Poirot finds one of the roomers, pharmacy dispenser Celia Austin, is the culprit. It appears she had been trying to attract the attention of psychology grad student Colin McNabb by assuming symptoms of kleptomania*. She confesses to the roomers and that seems to be end of it, but that night she is found dead by poison; and Poirot is convinced it is murder.

the recurrent failure to resist impulses to steal items even though the items are not needed for personal use or for their monetary value. (APA, as quoted in linked WIkipedia article)

Review: It is not a significant crime, but rather some petty thefts which attract the attention of Hercule Poirot - and not through the police, but rather his secretary. The hostel is home to a variety of personalities and backgrounds, and the mix makes for a good story. 

The list of pilfered items is a puzzle, trying to find what they may have in common. The reader would be best to consider which two of these items are not like the others? The episodes of which poison is in which bottle is quite a shell game, and I didn't attempt to follow the moves there and just took her word for it.

I thought I had the culprit in mind from the start. Then, I abandoned that choice as too obvious. Silly me, fooled by Agatha again.

Looking for my mystery reading challenges? Visit The Mystillery

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout (1935)

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)

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Nero Wolfe is approached by Andrew Hibbard and his niece Evelyn Hibbard. Andrew is in fear of his life and wants to hire Wolfe to protect him. He believes his old Harvard classmate, Paul Chapin, is out to murder him. Many years ago, Chapin was disabled in a hazing accident at Harvard, goaded on by Hibbard and his classmates - leaving Chapin without use of one leg, and dependent on a walking stick to get around. 

Hibbard and his classmates had remorse for the incident, and called themselves 'The League of Atonement', and had tried to assist Chapin in various ways ever since. Now two of the classmates, Judge William Harrison and Eugene Dreyer, have died recently - and after each death a letter came from Chapin claiming responsibility - and that more deaths will follow. No evidence has been found linking Chapin to the deaths, so the police cannot step in.

Wolfe takes on the case with all the members of the 'league' as his client. Chapin turns out to be a pleasant, but complex individual as Wolfe tries to determine if he is a killer or not. Meanwhile, Hibbard disappears without a trace.

Review: This early Wolfe story is a favorite and is good for a re-read every few years after I have forgotten the details. It is a bit unsettling in spots, dealing with the hazing incident, and hints of sexual fetishes. I was a bit overwhelmed at the listing of the members of the league in chapter IV: 29 names! How to keep track of all of them? Fortunately, only a half-dozen or so figure in the story. Paul Chapin is just creepy. His wife is even creepier.

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

Monday, October 25, 2021

Design in Diamonds by Kathleen Moore Knight (1944)


fantastic fiction

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:
  • Margot Blair, our narrator, a partner in a public relations firm
  • Felix Norman, her partner in a public relations firm
  • Corey Graham, of Public Relations
  • Adrien ter Brock, a Dutch diamond merchant
  • Katrien ter Brock, his daughter
  • Anselmo Colin, Katrien's fiancé #1
  • Dr. Dirck van Ryper, Katrien's fiancé #2
  • Piet Maartens, Katrien's old friend from Holland
  • Fritz & Ellen Prathers, owners of the Mexican casa
  • Anna Gregor, sculptress, a house guest
  • Sean O'Shane, opera singer, a house guest
  • Dr. Lewers, archeologist, a house guest
Locale: New York City and Mexico

Synopsis: The story opens in 1940's New York. The 1939 World's Fair is still open, and the winds of war are blowing over Europe. Adrien ter Brock is a Dutch diamond merchant who is exhibiting at the fair. He is returning to Holland, but does not want to bring his $3M diamond collection back, fearing confiscation by the Nazis. He arranges to leave it with his public relations firm, comprising Margot Blair and Felix Norman. He arranges a contingency plan in case he is unable to retrieve the gems later - they are to be passed to his daughter Katrien ter Brock, or anyone who possesses a certain marked lapel pin displaying the fair's signature Trylon and Perisphere.

The story then jumps to 1942. Margot and Felix are still holding the diamonds, and the US is deep into the war. They receive a call from Katrien, in Mexico. She reports her father died in a German concentration camp, and she wishes to claim the diamonds. She is unable to travel to the US, but will send her fiancé, Anselmo Colin, to collect the diamonds. Colin shows up but is attacked and hospitalized. Margot is suspicious of the whole setup.

Margot and her assistant Corey Graham go to Mexico to see Katrien. They wind up in a Fritz and Ellen Prather's casa, along with several house guests. All is not well, as Katrien suddenly drops Anselmo and rushes into a marriage with Dr. Dirck van Ryper. Margot tries to figure out who are friends and who are Nazis after the diamonds. Things get confusing when she runs into another Anselmo Colin, and this one claims Katrien is an imposter.

Review: This is an excellent Margot Blair story (the last of four). Margot is in her prime, and assistant Corey is cast as her Archie Goodwin-like assistant who does a lot of the dirty work. 

There is always a certain déjà vu: as in many of Knight's books, settings in Mexico/South/Central America always involve a "standard" two-story open-square flat-roof casa house with balconies all the way around the exterior (perfect for eavesdropping), circular stairs on each outside corner (perfect for sneaking in and out unnoticed)surrounded by dense gardens and hedges (perfect for nighttime lurking), with a patio and pool in the middle. The entire casa is surrounded by a wall with a locked door and a doorkeeper. The casa always has several random house guests in residence who have no apparent connection with the hosts or each other. The casa house is identical no matter in which country it is placed, only the inhabitants change. 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie (1942)

Major characters:
  • Jerry Burton, our narrator, recovering from a flying accident
  • Joanna Burton, his sister
  • Miss Emily Barton, who rents her house to the Burtons
  • Dr. Owen Griffith, the local doctor
  • Aimee Griffith, Owen's energetic, masculine sister
  • Dick Symmington, a lawyer
  • Mona Symmington, his wife
  • Megan Hunter,  Mona Symmington's daughter by previous marriage
  • Elsie Holland, governess to two young Symmington children
  • Mr. Pye, a decoration and antiques enthusiast
  • Agnes Wooddell, maid
  • Caleb Dane Calthrop, the vicar
  • Superintendent Nash
  • Inspector Graves of Scotland Yard
  • Miss Jane Marple
Locale: Lymstock, a small village in rural England

Synopsis: Jerry Burton is recovering from injuries received in an airplane crash. His doctor suggests some rest in the country, so he and his sister Joanna Burton rent a cottage from Miss Emily Barton in Lymstock. 

Not long after their arrival, Jerry receives an anonymous letter - created by cutting words from a book, ransom-note style. The letter wrongly asserts that Jerry and Joanna not brother and sister, implying they are lovers - living in sin. As Jerry becomes acquainted with the locals, he learns that many of the them have received anonymous letters of the same sort, all accusing the recipients of some sexual infidelity. 

Jerry becomes friends with Megan Hunter, 20-year old daughter (by previous marriage) of Mona Symmington. Megan is a sensitive loner and anti-social, but is comfortable with Jerry. Mona receives an anonymous letter, and is found dead - supposedly a suicide - by poison. Then maid Agnes Wooddell is found murdered in the house as well.

Review: This is a very enjoyable Miss Marple, although she does not appear until the end. Even with the large number of characters, I had no trouble keeping track of them. It is a tight mystery story, with a couple romantic entanglements thrown in which resolved nicely. 

I enjoyed the character of the narrator, physically limited by his injuries, as he investigates the murders - and keeps running into Superintendent Nash who always just beats him to it. He did remind me of L. B. Jeffries in Cornell Woolrich's Rear Window.  

I thought I had the murderer 'fingered' and was hoping I was wrong. I was wrong. 

I suspect the title 'Moving Finger' is an allusion to the biblical account of the moving finger and the handwriting on the wall, as recorded in Daniel 5 (details); in which a disembodied hand wrote a mysterious message; similar to the unknown hand in this story which wrote the anonymous letters.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Trial of Scotland Yard by Stuart Martin (1930)

Babylon Revisited Rare Books

About the author: I could not find any biographical information on Stuart Martin. Goodreads incorrectly combines his works with that of a contemporary author of children's books by the same name.

About the editions: This was first published as a Harper Sealed Mystery (green binding), which contained a green tissue seal over the denouément beginning on page 269; which proclaimed "...if you can resist the desire to be present at the ultimate trial of Scotland Yard, return this book to your bookseller with the seal unbroken, and your money will be refunded." It was reprinted by Collier Front Page Mysteries (red binding), as part of its 1930 third series (minus the seal). This reprint edition is more widely available.

Locale: London and environs

Synopsis: Scotland Yard has a problem. The Earl of Bowcame has received a death threat, even specifying the date and time it will occur. Seven Scotland Yard officials decide this murder will be a 'trial of Scotland Yard', and they need the best of all detectives to prevent it. They set up interviews with ten members of the Club of Hidden Clues (detection enthusiasts) to find the best one. Each applicant is invited in to tell an example of their crime solving experience, and some are tested by being assigned to current cases. 

Each interview comprises a chapter, having the title stating "The Problem of...", and the applicant's story, a subtitled "The Clue of...".

  • Chapter II (The Problem of the C.I.D): The applicant relates The Clue of the Vanished Murderer: A robber is on a train with a jeweler's assistant, who is carrying a box of jewels. The robber holds him up, and the assistant tosses the box out the train window; getting shot for his efforts. 

  • Chapter III (The Problem of Daniel Bream): The applicant relates The Clue of the Impossible Arrest: Daniel Bream, an American, is arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct in a theatre. While he sleeps it off in a cell, his neighbor, Jeremy Stalker, a jewel cutter, has been held up in his home by a thief looking for a precious red ruby. 

  • Chapter IV (The Problem of the Unofficial Detective): The applicant relates The Clue of Supressed Justice: Mr. & Mrs. Mark Belew have some valuables stolen from their home. As the thief escapes, he is accosted by neighbor Henry Lattimer, who is shot and injured for his trouble. The police find evidence against the maid, Jose Dollow, but the applicant urges the police to not serve their warrant on her. 

  • Chapter V (The Problem of the Insurance-Detective): The applicant relates The Clue of the Darkened Room: A fabulous gem, the Toltec Emerald, is believed to be cursed. It is currently owned by Sir Joseph Mulligan. During a house party, the lights go out, and the emerald stolen. The former owner of the emerald, Theodore Serrat, is found hanged. 

  • Chapter VI (The Problem of the Dumb Tramp): The applicant relates The Clue of the Dorking Raphael: Art expert Frederick Borrowdale has a rare Raphael painting, and also a fine imitation. His house is broken into and a thief seen spiriting away one of them. Borrowdale is found stabbed. A tramp found on the property is detained and questioned, but being nonverbal, can only relate his story using sign language.

  • Chapter VII (The Problem of the Flying Squad): The applicant relates The Clue on the Door Peg: Actress Ellen Tasker is in a play in which - to attract audiences - the producer has her wear a £50,000 necklace. Ellen is in a car accident and the necklace cannot be found in the burned-out car. Was it really an accident?

  • Chapter VIII (The Problem of the Inefficient Detective): The applicant relates The Clue That Was Overlooked: Stoppford Boltner and Francis Jerrold run into trouble on their way home from an illicit gambling den. Boltner is stabbed and his winnings taken, and he accuses Jerrold with his dying breath. 

  • Chapter IX (The Problem of the Big Four): The applicant relates The Clue of the Hunchbacked Beggar: Stock market worker Abraham Kirkby gets on a train and just disappears. His house is found ransacked, and the only clue is a hunchbacked beggar has been seen peeking in the windows.

  • Chapter X (The Problem of the Silent Detective): The applicant relates The Clue of the Slow Wink: A dishonest valet stages a little theft, casting himself as the hero, in order to prevent suspicion when he stages the big one yet to come. A unique twist is that the applicant never speaks to present his case.

  • Chapter XI (The Problem of the Consulting Specialist): The applicant relates The Clue of the White Red Rose: A gold-digging wife has a long-term plan. Husband #1 dies, leaving her a lavish house, husband #2 dies leaving her wealth, but when husband #3 dies, things begin to unravel.

  • Chapter XII (The Problem of the Noble Earl): subtitled The Clue of the Police Pass: All the interviews are complete and less than 24 hours remain before the threatened murder of the Earl. The Scotland Yard officials are getting organized to protect him when a new wrinkle occurs: a note stating the Earl's jewels will be stolen that very day. 
Review: This book comprises 11 independent short stories (12 if you count the Earl's death threat), all wrapped together by the Scotland Yard interview process. This is a clever way to present the stories. 

Each story has a unique twist, some of which are fresh and intriguing. Not all are murders - some are thefts or disappearances;. They remind me of the short Sherlock Holmes stories, both in length and variety.

Each chapter has a number and a "problem of ..." title, and each corresponding solution has a "clue of ..." subtitle. It would be clearer if the same title were used for both problem and solution, it is a bit confusing to relate the chapter headings titles to the individual story subtitles; and easy to get lost if you are looking for a specific story. 

It is best to read them in order, as some refer back to earlier ones; although each story has its own cast of characters.

It is interesting that the applicants are encouraged to relate a story of a failure if they wish - and indeed, several do. At least the interviewers did not resort to "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Taking a story per night, this book makes great bedtime reading for twelve nights!

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Bad for Business by Rex Stout (1940)


This is Tecumseh Fox #2 (of 3).
(#1 is Double for Death, #3 is The Broken Vase.)

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:

  • Amy Duncan, novice detective, niece of Arthur Tingley
  • Arthur Tingley, head of Tingley's Titbits
  • Philip Tingley, Arthur's adopted son
  • Gwendolyn Yates
  • Leonard Cliff, VP of P&B
  • Dol Bonner, private detective
  • Tecumseh Fox, private detective
  • Nat Collins, expensive defense lawyer
  • Inspector Damon

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Amy Duncan, a novice detective, is having an on again/off again romance with Leonard Cliff, Vice President of Provisions and Beverages Corporation ("P&B"). There is a bit of conflict of interest, as P&B is trying to buy out Tingley's Titbits ("TT") , an appetizer maker headed by Amy's uncle Arthur Tingley.  Amy had worked for TT prior to seeking a career as a detective.

Tingley's Titbits is having a crisis. Reports come in of adulterated product all over. The appetizers have been tainted with quinine water, which has no detrimental effect other than spoiling the taste. It is suspected the P&B may be behind this, in order to drive the value of the company down so they can purchase it cheaply.

In the middle of all that, Amy finds uncle Arthur Tingley stabbed to death in his office. She gets blood on her hand, and becomes the chief suspect due to her relationship with Cliff. The other big suspect is Arthur's adopted son, Philip Tingley. Philip has neither head nor heart for the business, preferring to work for a bohemian outfit called Womon (Work-Money) which promotes a revolutionary new money standard based upon labor, rather than gold.

Review: It is fun to read a story set in Nero Wolfe's version of New York, but without Wolfe and Archie. We see Rusterman's restaurant and learn they have a bar, Lieutenant Rowcliff, and even a mention of "Vollmer Aircraft" (remember Doc Vollmer?)

Tingley's Titbits is the perfect setting, in a dark, four story building which has been converted into a factory; having a maze of corridors and partitions, and cheap management that won't even put wall switches in for the pull-string lighting over the stairs. The atmosphere is perfect for this story.

Amy Duncan doesn't quite have the stomach for being a P.I. but she gives it a try. 

This story has a small cast and despite Stout's attempts to make me think a certain person was the murderer, I was wrong. So chalk this up as a great non-Wolfe Stout.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

By-line for Murder by Andrew Garve (1951)

About the author: Andrew Garve is a pseudomym of Paul Winterton. He was born in Leicester , England. He was educated at the London School of Economics and at the London University. In 1929, he became a staff member of The Economist. From 1933 to 1946, he worked for the News Chronicle. In the Second World War, he was a foreign correspondent in Moscow. He also wrote under the pseudonyms 'Roger Bax' and 'Paul Somers'. (Fantastic Fiction). 

Major characters:
  • Edgar Jessop, Assistant Foreign Editor
  • Bill Iredale, Foreign Correspondent
  • Nicholas Ede, Editor
  • Lionel Cardew, promoted
  • Dawson Munro, governor of the Outward Islands
  • Katherine Camden, reporter
  • Joe Hind, News editor
  • Inspector Haines

Locale: London

Synopsis: Edgar Jessop is a quiet, unassuming, Walter Mitty-like Assistant Foreign Editor at the Morning Call, a daily London paper. He has been working faithfully for years, eyeing the eventual position of Foreign Editor. That position becomes vacant and Jessop interviews with Editor Nicholas Ede for it, but Ede puts him down and suggests sending him to Malaya as a correspondent instead; and insists he is promoting flashy, young Lionel Cardew to the position instead. Jessop is full of resentment at being passed over and blames Ede, News Editor Joe Hind, and Cardew. 

Jessop resolves to get rid of them somehow, and rise to his deserved position. Ede, Hind, and Cardew are to lunch with Governor of the Outward Islands (and former Morning Call employee) Dawson Munro. Jessop slips into the dining room first and deposits some cyanide-laced olives on the sideboard. Hind is the unfortunate one to eat one first, and dies on the spot. This brings in Inspector Haines, who immediately calls it murder.

Review: I thought this was a conventional murder mystery, but Jessop is shown as the murderer right away, so I will call it a thriller: the mystery being will be caught? and how many others will he kill?

I always enjoy newspaper office settings for mysteries, especially in the golden age of newspapers - with competing editions and chaotic newsrooms always under deadlines. Usually a reporter is cast as the amateur detective. Not this time - the newspaperman is the villain. The character development is interesting, we like Jessop at first, and anyone who has been passed over for promotion in favor of someone young and flashy will identify - and sympathize - with him. Gradually, we see his demeanor change as he becomes bent on revenge.  

The newspaper staff know a killer is among them - and the most interesting part of the book is following the staffers as they try to figure out who it is.

A good read - with undertones of age discrimination in the workplace, which still ring true today.