Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Fate of Jane McKenzie by Nancy Barr Mavity (1933)

 

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About the author: Nancy Barr Mavity (1890 - 1959) is the author of a series of six mystery novels about crime reporter James Aloysius "Peter" PiperNancy Barr Mavity taught philosophy at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. She was a newspaper woman. She was a feature writer of the Oakland Tribune. In this capacity, she was the first woman to spend a night in Folsom State Prison, where she had gone to cover the pardon hearing of Warren K Billings. She lectured extensively and contributed to magazines. (from a Wikipedia article). You can read about her history here

This is Peter Piper #6 (of 6). The full series is:
Major characters:
  • Peter Piper, star reporter for The Herald
  • Jimmy Sears, city editor for The Herald
  • Willie Hames, police reporter for The Herald
  • Andrews, photographer for The Herald
  • Jane McKenzie, missing philanthropist
  • Verity McKenzie, her daughter
  • Betty Mason, her other daughter
  • Warren Mason, Betty's husband
  • Julia Craig, Jane's niece
  • Harold Crashaw, the McKenzie's golf instructor/landscaper
  • Douglas Howard, mystery novelist
  • Jerry O'Sullivan, bootlegger (this is prohibition times)
  • Bill Herrin, bootlegger
  • Jake "Hayseed" Maguire, 17-year old detective correspondence school graduate
  • Professor Allen, an eccentric
Locale: San Francisco

Synopsis: Peter Piper, star reporter for The Herald, is assigned to cover a solar eclipse at a prime viewpoint, the mountaintop estate of wealthy philanthropist Jane McKenzie. A crowd gathers. The eclipse is brief and in the exodus afterward, Piper's car bumps into Verity McKenzie on his way down the mountain. She is uninjured, and invites him into her home so he can phone in his story. While there, the family becomes concerned that Jane cannot be located.

With Jane still missing, a massive search begins on the mountain, with the McKenzie's golf instructor, Harold Crashaw, in charge. The McKenzies own the whole mountain, and there are a couple others living on and around it as well: Bill Herrin, who operates an illegal still along with his gangster buddy Jerry O'Sullivan, and mystery writer Douglas Howard. Eccentric Professor Allen is, frankly, hoping Jane is dead and left him money in her will for an observatory.

Peter becomes friends with 17-year old Jake "Hayseed" Maguire, an enthusiastic fan, and graduate of a correspondence school detective course. Jake turns out to be a valuable ally and assists Peter in filing reports for the paper and running down clues in his own makeshift laboratory. A ransom note arrives, demanding $1000 - but not for the return of Jane, but just information revealing her whereabouts. Jake makes the discovery that turns a missing person case into a murder case.


Review: One thing I always appreciate is when the characters are clearly introduced up front, and so it is here as Mavity lists out the family clearly the first time Peter Piper encounters them. 

A most excellent character is Jake "Hayseed" Maguire, sort of a Hardy Boys figure transplanted into the story. His enthusiasm and initiative are quite believable, as he even teaches Peter a thing of two from his correspondence school detective course.

I did get a chuckle out of a couple of incidents written such that Peter avoids violating postal laws. First, the ransom note - which is actually a ransom postcard(!) - so Peter can read it without opening an envelope. Second, a newspaper delivery to Douglas Howard - which Peter has been waiting for - is left balancing on top of the mailbox by the mailman - so Peter need not open the mailbox to look at it!

I have enjoyed all six Peter Piper titles, and each one I have considered the best. It is sad to realize there are no more. Thanks to Nancy Barr Mavity for the enjoyment of feeling The Herald building shake as the presses begin to rumble!

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Danger in the Dark by Mignon G. Eberhart (1936)

 

 
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About the author: (from Goodreads): Mignon Good (1899-1996) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1929 her first crime novel was published featuring 'Sarah Keate', a nurse and 'Lance O'Leary', a police detective. This couple appeared in another four novels. Over the next forty years she wrote a novel nearly every year. In 1971 she won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. 

Locale: St. Germain, a suburb(?) near Chicago

Synopsis: The story concerns three siblings, their children, and the family business. The siblings own the Haviland Bridge Company; following the passing of their father ("Old Rowley") who was the founder. Now an outsider, Ben Brewer, is president. The siblings are:
  • Gertrude Haviland, estranged from her husband Archie Shore. They have one son, "Young" Rowley Shore.
  • John Haviland, a widower, and his stepdaughter Daphne Haviland. 
  • Amelia Haviland, unmarried, who raised a distant nephew, Dennis Haviland
Daphne considers Rowley and Dennis as her cousins, although only so by marriage.

Dennis Haviland reads of the engagement of Daphne to coarse tough guy Ben Brewer, president of the Haviland Bridge Company. Dennis flies to Chicago to see her before the wedding can take place. They meet and she agrees her upcoming marriage is a mistake, and she will run away with Dennis instead. The ceremony is planned to be at her Aunt Amelia's home. They arrange to meet at midnight the night before the wedding, in Amelia's springhouse, and leave from there. They meet, but also find the dead body of Ben Brewer.

Dennis and cousin Rowley Shore take the death in stride, and are primarily concerned the scandal will affect the family business and decide to stage an alternate reality for the police. They place the body in Amelia's home among the wedding gifts ("Oh, a precious sterling silver tea set! Oh, a cozy down comforter! Oh, a fresh dead body!), open the window, and make it appear he was killed in a foiled burglary attempt. The police arrive, and detective Jacob Wait immediately smells a setup.

Gertrude hated having Ben Brewer, an outsider, as president of the company. Now that he is out of the way, she wants Daphne to marry her son Rowley instead. This will unite Daphne's considerable inheritance with Rowley's quest to take over as president; and again give the family a strong position in the business. Daphne is aghast, but Gertrude hints she has knowledge of the murder which will implicate Daphne and attempts to blackmail her into the marriage. Meanwhile, estranged Archie Shore appears on the scene. He tells the siblings he has knowledge of the murder, and will remain quiet if they pay him off. Now we have two blackmailers - and a second murder occurs.

Jacob Wait decides Dennis and Daphne are the guilty ones and places them under arrest.

Review: Right away we have the classic Eberhart triangle set up: the frightened young woman (Daphne) attached to Mr. Wrong (Ben Brewer) and pining for Mr. Right (Dennis Haviland). You just know Mr. Wrong will come to a bad end, and Mr. Right will get the blame. This triangle is spiced up with the presence of a second Mr. Wrong (Rowley) who wants Daphne for himself.

This is an enjoyable read and there are a couple of nice red herrings thrown in to confuse the issues. The infighting among the family - particularly between bitchy, entitled Gertrude and saintly Amelia - gives the reader a sense of schadenfreude:


I hope you know what a springhouse is. They are common in my area and generally not the first choice for a tryst, but they are dark and damp as described in the text. I have not seen any with stained glass windows, though! The dustjacket art (above) shows it just to the left of the D in Dark. My 1941 Triangle Books reprint has a nice little engraving on the front cover, even showing the 9-light stained glass window! I first thought that was a little stick figure of Daphne to the left of the springhouse, but upon closer inspection it is a little fir tree.



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Saturday, November 20, 2021

The Man Who Didn't Mind Hanging by Nancy Barr Mavity (1932)

 

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About the author: Nancy Barr Mavity (1890 - 1959) is the author of a series of six mystery novels about crime reporter James Aloysius "Peter" PiperNancy Barr Mavity taught philosophy at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. She was a newspaper woman. She was a feature writer of the Oakland Tribune. In this capacity, she was the first woman to spend a night in Folsom State Prison, where she had gone to cover the pardon hearing of Warren K Billings. She lectured extensively and contributed to magazines. (from a Wikipedia article). You can read about her history here

This is Peter Piper #5 (of 6). The full series is:
  1. The Tule Marsh Murder (1929)
  2. The Body on the Floor (1929)
  3. The Other Bullet (1930)
  4. The Case of the Missing Sandals (1930)
  5. The Man Who Didn't Mind Hanging (1932)
  6. The Fate of Jane McKenzie (1933)
Major characters:
  • Peter Piper, reporter for The Herald
  • Gabriel Jeffries, philanthropist, found stabbed
  • Christina Cameron Jeffries, his wife, a concert pianist
  • Sing Wing, his servant/cook, "the man who didn't mind hanging"
  • Mrs. Helen Dozier, his housekeeper
  • Elissa Berryman, amateur actress
  • Everett Berryman, her husband, president of Berryman Flour Mills
  • James West, rent collector
  • Sam Hardwicke, attorney
  • Fon Ng Chee, millionaire importer
  • Captain Hammersmith, captain of police detectives
  • Bert Graham, District Attorney
  • Joseph Hayward, county coroner
Locale: San Francisco

Synopsis: Philanthropist Gabriel Jeffries is found stabbed to death in his home, and the police quickly arrest his manservant/cook, Sing Wing, on finding some circumstantial evidence of his presence in the murder room. Newspaper reporter Peter Piper feels it is a rush to judgement, and approaches a leader in the Chinese community, millionaire Fon Ng Chee, to see what can be done to defend Wing. Chee hires attorney Sam Hardwicke.

Piper and Hardwicke visit Wing in jail, and find he is calmly resigned to whatever is before him, saying he doesn't mind hanging if that is his fate. 

Piper interviews Jeffries' wife, Christina Cameron, a renowned concert pianist - and she is distant and aloof, not caring much about her husband's murder. Jeffries had visitors the night of the murder: Elissa Berryman, an actress hoping to get Jeffries to support her theatre; and her husband Everett Berryman, who was against the whole idea. Jeffries' rent collector, James West, was also in.

Wing is brought up to an inquest led by coroner Joseph Hayward who is unable to keep proceedings under control. The inquest turns into a media circus and quickly devolves into chaos. Wing is bound over for trial, and Piper pins his hopes on identifying a mystery woman who is interested in the case.

Review: I love a chaotic courtroom scene and the inquest - which occupies the middle third of the book - is a doozy, far beyond Erle Stanley Gardner's worst nightmares. Wing is tarted up in a stereotypical Chinese costume, and sits observing silently as proceedings quickly fall apart. Witnesses Elissa Berryman will only talk about herself, Christina Cameron faints dead away, and James West gets hysterical on the stand. The press table reporters are passing notes around and heckling (making 'meow' sounds when a lady witness makes a 'catty' remark), while society ladies in the audience jockey for best position to be in the photos. An excerpt:

Somewhere among the spectators a woman screamed, releasing the intolerable tension. But no one noticed. For one moment Christina Cameron had stood, erect and terrible. The next, with no preliminary sign, she had fallen to the floor. The reporters leaped from their seats, stampeding for the door. They stumbled over the clerk, vainly trying to stem the engulfing tide in his quest for water. The voice of the coroner clucked agitatedly behind them, first pleading for order, and then, in view of the empty, overturned chairs at the press table, announced an adjournment until two o'clock. The reporters rushed into the hall, clamoring for telephones.

Not only do we get the inquest, but we get the trial also, later on. An excellent book complete with lots of uncontrolled anarchy in the courtroom and the usual always-frantic newspaper crew racing against a deadline. This was the best Mavity so far - and I have one more to go!

Note: For other mysteries which feature a concert pianist who has suffered a hand injury and is unable to play again, see Five Passengers From Lisbon by Mignon Eberhart (1946) and Deep Lay the Dead by Frederick C. Davis (1942).

Be sure to visit The Mystillery for my mystery reading challenges!

 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Fifth Key by George Harmon Coxe (1947)

 

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Nov 17 2021: reading now - please check back again.

About the author: George Harmon Coxe (1902-1984) began writing in the nickel and dime pulps for pennies a word. He was a particularly prolific author, writing a total of 63 novels, his last published in 1975. The Mystery Writers of America named him a Grand Master in 1964. (condensed from fantastic fiction)

Major characters:
  • Kent Murdock, photographer for The Clarion
  • Sheila Vincent, writer for radio program Sob Sister
  • Owen Faulkner, Sheila's estranged husband
  • Lois Edwards, female lead in Sob Sister, and Owen Faulkner's girlfriend
  • Dale Jordan, Sheila's secretary
  • Keith Harding, Dale's husband
  • Arthur Calvert, male lead in Sob Sister
  • Ira Bronson, agent
  • George Stark, advertising agency
  • Miriam Stark, George's wife
  • Rudy Nagle, Private investigator
  • Lt. Peter Devlin, homicide squad
Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Clarion photographer Kent Murdock (our protagonist) travels from Boston to New York to photograph production of a hit radio program, Sob Sister. The program is written by Sheila Vincent, who used to work at the Clarion

Kent attends the production and takes the photos. After the program, he takes Sheila back to her apartment and they have drinks. The drinks were drugged, and Kent passes out. When he awakes in the morning, he is on the couch with Sheila - but she is dead from strangulation. There are remnants of film packaging on the floor, suggesting someone took photos after they were out in order to frame Kent for the murder.

Kent pretends to know nothing about the murder. He gets Sheila's secretary, Dale Jordan, to accompany him back to Sheila's - where they "discover" her body together. But it is no longer on the couch - it is stuffed into the closet. Kent soon discovers that pretty much everyone had a motive to want Sheila dead.

The identity of the murderer appears limited to someone who had a key to the apartment, of which there are five; and only four are accounted for:

1. Found on a chain in Sheila's bag
2. Dale Jordan, secretary
3. Marie Waterman, the maid
4. Rudy Nagle, PI - the key with the V-notch
5. ? (I'll withhold this one)

Review: It was interesting to read of the radio production studio, which brings us back to the golden age of radio - complete with announcers, rehearsals, dramatic performers, sound effects men, and even an orchestra!

Kent Murdock turns from his photographer role into the detective role, and does a great job in classic noir style - following people, lurking in dark corners, and engaging in fisticuffs with various bad guys. This is a great read to escape to the world of the 1930's-1940's.

Be sure to visit The Mystillery for my mystery reading challenges!



Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Case of the Missing Sandals by Nancy Barr Mavity (1930)

 

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About the author:  Nancy Barr Mavity (1890 - 1959) is the author of a series of six mystery novels about crime reporter James Aloysius "Peter" PiperNancy Barr Mavity taught philosophy at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. She was a newspaper woman. She was a feature writer of the Oakland Tribune. In this capacity, she was the first woman to spend a night in Folsom State Prison, where she had gone to cover the pardon hearing of Warren K Billings. She lectured extensively and contributed to magazines. (from a Wikipedia article). You can read about her history here

This is Peter Piper #4 (of 6). The full series is:
  1. The Tule Marsh Murder (1929)
  2. The Body on the Floor (1929)
  3. The Other Bullet (1930)
  4. The Case of the Missing Sandals (1930)
  5. The Man Who Didn't Mind Hanging (1932)
  6. The Fate of Jane McKenzie (1933)
Major characters:
  • Peter Piper, reporter for The Herald
  • Jimmy Sears, city editor for The Herald
  • Willie Hames, police reporter for The Herald
  • "Luna", a witch, real name ----?- Anthony
  • Merrill Anthony, her husband
  • Earl Vincent, who wrote love letters to Luna
  • Ruth Morgan, Vincent's girlfriend
  • Albert Jackson, the blind watchman
  • Lewis Tanner, who lost $20k
  • Mrs. Tanner, a cult member
  • Oscar Miller, a cult member
  • Mrs. Russell and her son, Charlie Russell; cult members
  • Mr. Carey, a cult member
  • Inspector Oleson of the police
  • Hubert Graham, District Attorney

Locale: San Francisco and environs

Synopsis: Reporter Peter Piper gets wind of a witchcraft cult, the "Luna Colony" in the hills outside San Francisco. It sounds shaky - District Attorney Hubert Graham tells piper that a Lewis Tanner has lost $20k when his wife turned his money over to Luna, the cult leader. Piper sets out to investigate for a feature - or exposé - story. He finds a fenced compound of individual cottages guarded by watchman Albert Jackson, who is blind. He is admitted and meets and interviews Luna, a beauty who claims to be a witch. She favors wearing a tiara with a crescent moon, filmy black negligee-like gowns, and high heel sandals.

The next day, Piper gets a report of a death at the compound. Luna is dead. She was found in her cabin, stabbed and shot. In her arms are a bundle of love letters written by Earl Vincent, who supposedly has a girlfriend Ruth Morgan too. Piper prowls around and find a bank book in the name of Mr. & Mrs. Merrill Anthony - suggesting that Luna is really Mrs. Anthony. He is also puzzled that she is still wearing her black gown, but her sandals are nowhere to be found. Of more immediate importance - Earl Vincent is nowhere to be found, and he is the #1 suspect. Piper sets off on a lead to locate Vincent on a ship before the police find him.

On a parallel trail, efforts are made to find Merrill Anthony. He avoids publicity and is just a shadow. He and Luna are found to be knee-deep in a dope smuggling ring. Finally he is found, and soon after is shot - a suicide or another murder? Meanwhile, Lewis Tanner, the innocent bystander bilked of his $20k, is found dead after apparently being run over by a train.

Review: 

Another Peter Piper with great scenes of the chaotic newsroom and the tensions between the reporter (Piper) and his editor (Jimmy Sears). 

A puzzle as I was reading: at the 3/4 point through the book, the missing sandals of the title seem to have been dropped. They were mentioned briefly at the beginning but largely forgotten after that, until they reappear at the very end as a trap set for the murderer.

There are some interesting out-of-the-ordinary characters and it is pleasant to see they are treated with unusual respect and acceptance for 1930:
  • Albert Jackson - a watchman who is Black and blind. It seemed odd to have a watchman who is blind, but it is explained how is able to do so. Jackson becomes a key character in helping Piper find the murderer.
  • Charlie Russell - a young man with an unnamed disability, but the description suggests Down Syndrome (this disability was not so named in 1930).
  • Frances Hodgson, a woman who presents as a man, has masculine clothing and manner, and uses the name Frank.
This is #4 of 6 Peter Pipers, and I am fortunate in having found all six. Two more to read!

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Friday, November 5, 2021

The Other Bullet by Nancy Barr Mavity (1930)

 

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About the author:  Nancy Barr Mavity (1890 - 1959) is the author of a series of mystery novels about crime reporter James Aloysius "Peter" PiperNancy Barr Mavity taught philosophy at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. She was a newspaper woman. She was a feature writer of the Oakland Tribune. In this capacity, she was the first woman to spend a night in Folsom State Prison, where she had gone to cover the pardon hearing of Warren K Billings. She lectured extensively and contributed to magazines. (from a Wikipedia article). You can read about her history here

This is Peter Piper #3 (of 6). The full series is:
Major characters:
  • Peter Piper, reporter for The Herald
  • Barbara Piper, his wife
  • Jimmy Sears, city editor for The Herald
  • Jake Carter, hotel keeper
  • Don Mortison, ranch manager, the victim
  • Max Everett, construction manager
  • Aline Everett, his stylish wife
  • Mrs. Coak, ranch housekeeper
  • Julio, ranch herder/gardener
  • Marjorie, Aline's sister
  • Bill Simpson, sheriff
  • Emile Kurtner, criminologist
  • Jerome de la Montanya
  • David de la Montanya
  • Cousin Maria de la Montanya
Locale: Hangtown, California - ranch country

Synopsis: Reporter Peter Piper and his wife Barbara are on vacation in California's ranch country, staying in a quiet hotel run by Jake Carter. No sooner have they arrived, when Mrs. Coak, housekeeper from a nearby ranch, staggers in to report a murder. Piper and Carter go to the scene to find Don Mortison, the ranch manager, shot dead in his cabin. Stylish, high-maintenance Aline Everett immediately confesses that she shot him, in revenge for his affair with her sister Marjorie. The only hitch is that he was shot twice, by two different guns, and she is adamant she only shot him once. Who made the second shot? Was he killed by the first shot or the second? Sheriff Bill Simpson arrives and immediately jails all the players, including Aline's husband, Max Everett, citing Max's motive is that Mortison was having an affair with Aline (two sisters? oh, wow!)

Aline, having confessed to one of the shots, is brought up for trial on the murder charge, and acquitted.

Peter Piper suspects the authorities are going to let the case drop, and, like O.J., vows to find the real killer. He learns an emerald ring had been stolen from the murder room, and tracks it down with the help of his newspaper friends. This leads him to the de la Montanya family, and a cozy meeting with matriarch Cousin Maria; who provides the full story.

Review: This book consists of three distinct sections. 
  1. The murder and interviews of all concerned
  2. The courtroom trial of Aline Everett
  3. Peter Piper's search for the emerald ring, and finding the de la Montanyas
The murder setup reminded me of an Erle Stanley Gardner switcheroo - a man shot with two bullets, but who and which one killed him? I was surprised when the courtroom scene (traditionally toward the end of a novel) came in less than halfway through. Once that was over, I was pleased to find the story move into the chaotic newsroom scenes typical of the Peter Piper stories. 

Piper traces the chain of possession of the emerald ring, and the chain has way too many links. It got a bit tedious as he followed all the intermediate links - these could have reduced without affecting the story. Finally the chain gets to the de la Montanyas, and Cousin Maria is a charmer, reminiscent of Miss Jane Marple. 

These stories require a bit of suspension of disbelief, as reporter Piper gets pretty free rein in the investigation - privy to all police secrets and even being allowed to take evidence away, such as the murder gun - to make his own comparison shots. But that's part of the fun.

This is #3 of 6 Peter Pipers, and I am fortunate in having found all six. Three more to go!

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