Monday, May 23, 2016

Challenge Goal Complete: Travel the World (Year Four


I started this journey back in 2012 (for 2013).  It was originally sponsored by Stacey over at Have Books, Will Travel as the Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge.  But something happened and her blog seems to have gone away. Tanya over at Mom's Small Victories has adopted it in partnership with I’m Lost in Books and Savvy Working Gal and renamed it the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge. They have graciously allowed those of us who had started the journey with Around the World to claim the countries already "booked" and continue our trip from there.


My original commitment was five years to complete a voyage of 80 countries. I began on October 1, 2012 and my end date is September 30, 2017. And I decided to read books set in a particular country. If a book takes place in multiple countries, then I will use only one of them for the challenge. My commitment was the equivalent of 16 books each year in order to count the challenge towards that year's goal. That is to say, I must meet the following goals by the end of each year to count the challenge:
Year one = 16 books read Year two = 32 books read Year three = 48 books read Year four = 64 books read Year five = 80 books read

Additionally, I pledged to donate 80 books to my local library--pledge completed July 14, 2014.
Progress So Far:  
List of books read and location:
 
1. The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime by Michael Sims, ed (11/5/12) [England]
2. The Bone Is Pointed by Arthur W. Upfield [Australia] (11/16/12)
3. The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas  [France] (12/15/12) 
4. Plum Pudding Murder by Joanne Fluke [US] (12/19/12) 
5. The Man Who Went up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö [Hungary] (1/8/13)
6. Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards by Kit Brennan [Spain] (2/9/13)
7. The Perfect Landscape by Ragna Sigurdardottir [Iceland] (3/12/13)
8. The Lady Vanishes (aka The Wheel Spins) by Ethel Lina White [takes place on train ride through the "Balkans" which could conceivable be part of several countries. I have arbitrarily decided that the bulk of the action takes place in Bulgaria] (3/17/13) 
9. The African Queen by C. S. Forester [Tanzania] (4/6/13) 
    Death in Zanzibar by M. M. Kaye [Tanzania] (6/25/13)
10. Blood Makes Noise by Gregory Widen [Argentina] (4/30/13) 
11. The Talking Sparrow Murders by Darwin L. Teilhet [Germany] (5/6/13) 
12. Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon [Wales] (5/18/13)
13. Death at Crane's Court by Eilis Dillon [Ireland] (5/23/13) 
14. The Curse of the Bronze Lamp by Carter Dickson [Egypt] (5/27/13) 
15. Murder on Safari by Elspeth Huxley [Kenya] (6/8/13)
16. Devoured by D. E. Meredith [Malaysia (& England)] (6/22/13)

Year One Challenge Goal met!
 
17. Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov [Russia] (6/23/13)
18. The Scarlet Macaw by S. P. Hozy [Singapore] (8/10/13)
19. The Monster of Florence by Magdalen Nabb [Italy] (8/17/13)
20. Andersen's Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen [Denmark] (8/20/13)  
21. Cold Earth by Sarah Moss [Greenland] (10/18/13)
22. Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell [Sweden] (1/5/13)
23. The Xibalba Murders by Lyn Hamilton [Mexico](1/18/14)
24. Exit Actors, Dying by Margot Arnold [Turkey] (2/4/14)  
25. Murder in the Vatican by Ann Margaret Lewis [Vatican City] (3/5/14) 
26. The Poisoned Island by Lloyd Shepherd [Tahiti (French Polynesia)] (3/8/14) 
27. The Coral Princess Murders by Frances Crane [Tangier, Morocco] (4/5/14) 
28. Decoded by Mai Jia [China] (4/5/14) 
29. Gale Warning by Hammon Innes [Norway/Norwegian Sea] (4/15/14) 
30. The Lady of Sorrows by Anne Souroudi [Greece] (4/26/14) 
31. 20.12 by Dustin Thomason [Guatemala] (6/6/14) 
32. DeKok & Murder in Ecstasy [Netherlands] (6/27/14) 

Year Two Challenge Goal Met!

33. The 7 Professors of the Far North by John Fardell [Arctic Circle] (6/29/14)
34. Murder at the Villa Rose by A. E. W. Mason [Monaco] (7/14/14)
35. The Tattooed Man by Howard Pease [Panama--one of major stops/scenes of action in the sea-faring tale] (7/17/14) 
36. The Dark Ring of Murder by Misa Yamamura [Japan] (11/19/14) 
37. A Dead Man in Trieste by Michael Pearce [Austria] (1/27/15)
38. Death Over Deep Water by Simon Nash [Malta] (2/8/15)
39. Into the Valley by John Hersey [Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands] (2/28/15) 
40. The Wilberforce Legacy by Josephine Bell [Trinidad & Tobago] (4/19/15)
41. Safari by Parnell Hall [Zambia] (4/21/15) 
42. Double Cross Purposes by Ronald A. Knox [Scotland] (6/3/15)
43. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood [Canada] (8/16/15)
44. Death in Kashmir by M. M. Kaye [India] (8/25/15)
45. The Bat Flies Low by Sax Rohmer [Egypt] (9/10/15)
46. The Albert Gate Mystery by Louis Tracy [France & Italy] (9/14/15)
47. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen [Poland] (9/14/15)
48. Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich [Brazil] (9/23/15)


Year Three Challenge Goal Met!

49. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie [then--Yugoslavia in what is now present-day Croatia] 9/23/15 
50. Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters [Egypt] (9/28/15)
51. Paris in the Twentieth Century by Jules Verne [France] (10/11/15)
52. The Ghost Writer by John Harwood [Australia & England] (10/16/15)
53. In Spite of Thunder by John Dickson Carr [Switzerland] (11/7/15)
54. The Red Redmaynes by Eden Philpotts [England & Italy] (11/14/15)
55. The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth [England] (1/9/16)
56. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham [Hong Kong] (2/5/16)
57. The Bridal Bed Murders by A. E. Martin [Australia] (2/13/16)
58. The Bachelors of Broken Hill by Arthur W. Upfield [Australia] (2/22/16)
59. The Calcutta Affair by George S. Elrick [India] (2/28/16)
60. House of Darkness by Allan MacKinnon [Scotland] (3/7/16)
61. The Philomel Foundation by James Gollin [Switzerland & Germany] (3/11/16)
62. The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas [France] (4/21/16)
63. Death in Cyprus by M. M. Kaye [Cyprus] (4/22/16)
64. The Family Tomb by Michael Gilbert [Italy] (5/10/16)

Year Four Goal Met!

Good Blood: Review

Good Blood (2004) by Aaron Elkins is the eleventh book to feature the "Skeleton Detective," Gideon Oliver. This time Oliver and his wife, Julie, are headed to Italy for a bit of R&R. Gideon plans to stay in the nicely civilized hotels while Julie joins their friend Phil Boyajian on one of his "On the Cheap" tours which involves far too many primitive stays in tents for Gideon's tastes. Phil also uses the time in Italy to drop in on his relatives--which he does once or twice a year (more than enough for him). His cousin just happens to be the Padrone Vincenzo de Grazia, latest heir in a long aristocratic lineage. Just prior to their arrival, the Padrone's only son is kidnapped in a violent undertaking that leaves the family's chauffeur and one of the kidnappers dead.

Phil recommends his friend Oliver to the local police official, Colonnello Tullio Caravale, but the policeman isn't too eager for outside help. At least not until the skeletal remains show up on a building site owned by de Grazia's company--then Gideon's expertise is welcomed. Welcomed by almost everyone. When the bones are identified as Dominico de Grazia, Vincenzo's father who was believed drowned in a boating accident, someone doesn't want Oliver to spend much time looking over the remains. An attempt is made to steal the bones and when that goes awry, Oliver himself is attacked. But when Oliver finally gets a chance to examine the bones closely he can't understand what all the fuss was about--there's nothing out of the ordinary beyond the evidence of damage to Dominico's femur (but everyone knew he limped and used a cane--so what good is that?) and that the family's patriarch was murdered by a kitchen knife. These facts doesn't seem to point towards anyone in particular. Oliver feels sure that he's missed something--but what? In the meantime, a ransom is paid, the kidnapped boy is returned, and there are clues that seem to lead to someone close to the de Grazia family. There are also pointers to a deep secret in the family's past--Caravale's detective work and Oliver's bone study come together for a surprise ending to this tale of murder and deception among Italy's upper-class.

Aaron Elkins is an author that I discovered back in the 80s when he debuted his "Skeleton Detective" series. I enjoyed the first several, but, as is the way of things, I soon got distracted by other books and other authors. Gideon Oliver is a very interesting detective--and the first forensic anthropologist that I met in fiction. Elkins is very adept at bringing in the technical terminology without overwhelming the reader and I come away feeling like I know a little bit more than I did when I started. I was also quite pleased that (due to a very personal experience *see below for explanation--but be warned, there may be a spoiler) I was able to identify the key bit of skeletal evidence before Oliver was allowed to recognize its significance. Go me! 

The setting is ideal and Elkins describes it perfectly. He also provides a cast of interesting characters--though I must say that I agree with Phil that his relatives would probably get on my nerves if I had to visit them for any length of time. Lots of tensions and reasons for murder. My only complaint lies in the fair play aspect--while the clue in the skeleton is clear for anyone with a bit of previous knowledge, there really aren't sufficient clues to determine the culprit definitely. One might have suspicions, but (unless I missed them) there aren't enough definite clues to back it up. Overall, a very enjoyable read--with interesting characters and plot and a good setting. This one earns a bit extra in the star department for that personal link I mentioned above. ★★★★

~~~~This counts for the "Forensic Specialist" category in the Mystery Reporter Challenge.


******Possible Spoiler!*********



*As mentioned above, this story took on a personal note when Oliver describes the damage to Dominico de Grazia's femur. He indicates that he believes it to be damage from a break or injury early in the patriarch's life--but as soon as I read the specifics, I thought to myself, That sounds like Perthe's Disease. Perthe's is a condition that cuts off blood flow to the hip joint--and it occurs most often in boys from the ages of 5-10 or 11. I got well-acquainted with that nasty disease when my son was diagnosed with it at the age of 10 1/2 (on the cusp of the upper-age limit). And he has that tell-tale limp described by those who knew Dominico. I can't tell you how pleased I was to have identified the proper cause of that damage before Oliver did. When I told my son (who's now 23) about it, he said, with his usual dry humor, "Well at least having the disease was good for something."

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Litmore Snatch: Review

Herbert Litmore is the rather prim owner of the local newspaper in the northeast coastal town of Harborough. Because of a youthful indiscretion of his own, he takes a rather dim view of those who aren't as scrupulous in their financial dealings and their interactions with the public as he has been since seeing the error of his ways. So, he has his editor run a series of editorials against the area's Fun Fairs. Litmore is quite sure that behind the simple, rigged games and the garish entertainments there must run a vein of organized crime and vice and he wants something done about it. This results in several anonymous letters warning Litmore that if the editorials don't stop then he will regret it.

The Chief Constable, Mr. Faidlaw, is his good friend and he asks his Superintendents to have a quiet word with the managers of the Fun Fairs in their districts. But before the officers can make much headway, danger strikes Litmore and his family. The Litmores' young son and his friend make a regular trip to watch a boxing match and about the time they are heading home it begins to rain. A man stops in a dark saloon car, calls the boys by name, says he knows their fathers, and offers them a ride home. He drops Jack Smead off as promised. But Ben doesn't make it home. 

Unfortunately, the police are hobbled by the boy's parents who fear that an overt investigation will prompt the kidnappers to hurt...or possibly kill their son. Mr. Faidlaw will regret the wasted time later, but he can't bring himself to force the frightened parents to put their son at risk. Before the kidnapper's demands are met and Ben is safely home (yay!), his officers make the most discreet inquiries they can. There are several suspects to choose from--three of the Fun Fair managers have a bit of a reputation and were very vocal (among their fellow managers) about the editorials and a cloud of suspicion also hovers over one of the police superintendents who was mysteriously unavailable the night of the kidnapping. But then there is also evidence that a woman may be involved. Faidlaw winds up calling in Scotland Yard when the suspicions surrounding Superintendent Jonnison become more public. 

The Yard's Chief Inspector Vine sets to work on the cold trail and with the aid of the local officers he soon has the perpetrator in his sights. But finding the necessary evidence may be a bit tricky. Fortunately, Vine has a trick or two up his sleeve that will suit the purpose.

Henry Wade's last mystery novel, The Litmore Snatch (1957), surprisingly does not involve a murder. I can't tell you how relieved I was for that. As soon as ten-year-old Ben Litmore was "snatched" on his way home from a boxing match, I feared the worst and I don't do well with the murders of children (or children in danger in any way, really). So I was very happy to see the ransom paid and Ben returned to his family at about the mid-point of the book. It allowed me to settle down and try to identify the culprit--but that proved to be more challenging than expected. I changed my mind several times and just barely settled on the proper culprit before the wrap-up began. Wade may have been on his last story, but he still managed to mystify in the midst of this pretty straight-forward police procedural. Highly entertaining kidnap caper. ★★★★

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With that lone slice of bacon on the cover, this counts for the "Food" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card. It is also my third offering in the 1957 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1957 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!

Semi-Charmed Summer 2016 Challenge

photo via @megtristao

After participating for a number of rounds, I missed the last few installments of the Semi-Charmed Book Challenge series. But now it's time for the Summer 2016 edition and, after checking my stacks for books that will work, I found books for most of the categories and I'm in. I'll just have to visit the library for a couple of titles.  The challenge starts on June 1 and runs through August 31. If you'd like to join in, hop on the link for full details and to sign up. 


Here are the categories and the books I intend to read (subject to change). I will confirm with a review link and a date once I've read them.


5 points: Freebie! Read any book that is at least 150 pages long. To Be Determined

10 points: Read a collection of short stories or essays. They may all be written by the same author, or the book may be an anthology from different writers; your choice! Bodies & Souls edited by Dann Herr & Joel Wells

10 points: Read an adult fiction book written by an author who normally writes books for children. Examples: J. K. Rowlinhttps, Judy Blume, Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, etc. - Submitted by SCWBC15 finisher Kelly E. The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne

15 points: Read a book set in Appalachia. - Submitted by SCWBC15 finisher Ericka B. (Try this list or this one for inspiration. And here’s a map if you have a book in mind and want to know if it fits the setting.) Midnight in Lonesome Hollow by Kathleen Ernst
15 points: Don’t judge a book by its cover! Read a book with a cover you personally find unappealing. To Be Determined (I'll have to see what unappealing covers I have on the stacks.)

20 points: Read a book that you have previously only seen the film (movie) of. - Submitted by SCWBC15 finisher Bevchen. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

25 points: Read a book with a punny title. The title can be a play on another book title, movie title or a common expression. Examples of such titles include Southern Discomfort, We'll Always Have Parrots or Bonefire of the Vanities. - Submitted by SCWBC15 finisher Jamie G. High Rhymes & Misdemeanors by Diana Killian

30 points: Read a microhistory. (Try this list or this one for ideas.) The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

30 points: Read one book with a good word in the title, and one with a bad word. Note: This category is reeeeeeeally open-ended! Maybe you like turtles, so The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is a title with a "good" word. Similarly, the "bad" word could be a swear word or a literally negative word like “not” or “none,” or it could just be something you don’t like. Have fun with it! (Remember, you must read both books to get 30 points; this category is not worth 15 points per book.) Too Good to Be True by J. F. Hutton OR Good Blood by Aaron Elkins OR How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar and Bad For Business by Rex Stout OR The Devil in Bellminster by David Holland

40 points: Read two books that contain the same word in the title, but once in the singular and once in the plural. For example: Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter and The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer, or Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. (Remember, you must read both books to get 40 points; this category is not worth 20 points per book.)  The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman and A Rattling of Old Bones by Jonathan Ross
 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Murder at the Savoy: Review

Murder at the Savoy (1970) is the sixth novel in Martin Beck series of Swedish police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. In this installment, Viktor Palmgren, a wealthy and powerful industrialist is shot while delivering an after-dinner speech in the Savoy Hotel dining room in the small coastal town of Malmö. The killer walks calmly into the room, shoots Palmgren, and exits via the nearby window. No one really paid attention to him as he walked into the dining room and by the time everyone realizes that the subdued "pop" was actually a gunshot and the reason Palmgren is now facedown in his mashed potatoes is because a bullet is lodged beneath his ear the man is gone. The witnesses can only provide vague descriptions of a medium tall, average-looking guy in a suit jacket with mismatched pants and a light-colored shirt. Not much for the police to go on.

When it is discovered that Palmgren had international connections, some high-level folks get a case of anxiety and Chief Inspector Martin Beck is sent to take over the investigation. He finds that Palmgren was a pretty despicable individual whom nobody really liked, but Beck has difficulty finding a motive big enough to incite murder. By the time he sifts through what few clues he and the police team he marshals can gather and interviews all the witnesses and suspects, Beck has more sympathy for the murderer than he does for the victim. As usual, Beck gets his man (or woman, as the case may be), but this particular arrest doesn't provide quite the satisfaction of past cases.

This is a more sombre entry in the Beck series. The murderer's life is a bleak one and Palmgren is morally responsible. It is difficult not to sympathize with the killer even though taking another's life should never be an option. Beck wrestles with his own sympathies for the killer and there are also developments in Beck's personal life that provide more depth to the character. A book that encourages the reader to think about actions and the repercussions that take place--both the obvious results and those that might not be anticipated.
 

Sjöwall and Wahlöö write pure police procedurals. We follow the detectives as they investigate and know exactly what they find and what they think about those discoveries. There are no red herrings to mystify the reader while the detective smugly gathers clues and the denouement is not a surprise. Just a solid story of police work, crime and consequences.   ★★

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This counts for the "Food" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Gownsman's Gallows: Review

A body is discovered in a haystack near Oxford and Inspector Ringwood of Scotland Yard, a former Oxford man himself, is sent to to look into the matter. Not only was the body in a haystack, but the hay had been set on fire and only the man's feet and socks escaped unscathed. Following up the clue of a laundry mark, it is first thought that the man might be a certain Clandon of Pentecost. But Clandon is found alive and well--so what are Clandon's socks doing on the feet of the dead man? Ringwood brings along his trusty bloodhound and traces the body back to a missing Frenchman. The trail also leads to an Oxford undergraduate's ancient car. Tim Dawson-Gower, said undergraduate, has disappeared--supposedly withdrawn from classes due to health--and his elder brother's story of specialists doesn't quite hold up under scrutiny. His brother, Nigel, was a hero with the Resistance in occupied France during the war, but has his thirst for adventure led him to commit murder? The only thing missing is a motive. 

Then Nigel Dawson-Gower pulls a disappearing act as well and Ringwood follows the trail to France where he finds that there are motives that reach back to the days of the Resistance as well as modern-day for the Frenchman's death. Additional murders give the Scotland Yard man and his French counterparts more clues to follow up and eventually those clues point Ringwood to the culprit.

Gownsman's Gallows (1957) by Katharine Farrer is hailed on the front cover as "An Oxford murder mystery." I suppose, strictly speaking, that this is true. But nearly all of the action takes place in France and has very little to do with the halls of academe. For those of us who enjoy a good academic mystery, it starts off very promising. Tim and his brother Nigel are coming back to Oxford in Tim's ancient car, traveling along a seldom frequented road when Tim runs over a body. The man is already dead, but Tim is absolutely convinced that he'll be found at fault and very likely lose his place at Oxford. The brothers then set off on their merry little bout of deception and disappearance. Meanwhile, we meet the apparently absent-minded and somewhat dotty head of Pentecost College. He's all an academic in these stories ought to be--with a streak of shrewdness underneath. I was all set to settle down for a nice bit of mysterious academic shenanigans. 

And then...we go traipsing off to France and we drift into neo-Resistance plots and pseudo-plots. Not that it isn't all good fun and a nice mystery to boot. But I really wanted a straight academic mystery when I picked this up and it was a bit disappointing to find that the Oxford connection was slim and the academic setting not really used at all. I also found the French police methods to be a bit distracting and the Frenchmen's attitudes towards policing confusing. Ringwood is a much better policeman and I would expect a story that focused more fully on his character and his investigations to be excellent. As it is, this is a solid mystery with a promising beginning, well-drawn characters, and lively dialogue. The shift in locale to France keeps this story at a middle-range ★★ .

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This counts for the "Car/Truck" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.
This is also my second offering in the 1957 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1957 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!

[Actually finished on 5/14/16]

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Bobbsey Twins at London Tower

The Bobbsey Twins at London Tower (1959) by Laura Lee Hope (aka ghostwriters) sees the Bobbsey kids take a trip to...you guessed it...Great Britain and in the middle of a mystery that stretches from their hometown of Lakeport all the way to the Tower of London. The adventure begins in Lakeport--the Bobbseys are working on a castle playhouse which they plan on donating to the Castle Hospital's children's ward. Once the playhouse is complete, they want to furnish it with miniature furniture, suits of armor, etc. A local toymaker who deals in miniatures is robbed soon after the kids visit his store and they get enough of a glimpse of the thief that the police identify the man as "Silver Smitty," a thief know for taking silver pieces and who now shows an interest in miniatures.

Soon Mr. Bobbsey needs to go to London to represent his lumber company and he takes the entire family with him. The kids plan to search for more realistic miniatures in the country which has far more castles than the United States and they learn that Smitty has also come to London when a rash of burglaries featuring miniatures takes place. Once again, the Bobbsey twins are able to help the police--British bobbies this time--to track down the bad guys.

As I mentioned in the review for the first Bobbsey Twins mystery I read, these books have a great many coincidences in them. It seems incredible that Smitty would take the same ship as the Bobbseys (especially in the late fifties when air travel was more convenient). It also seems incredible that Smitty and his confederates would keep crossing paths with the Bobbseys. The books have nice, simple mysteries that reflect a much simpler time. The kids are constantly running off (especially the younger set of twins) and the parents are mighty indulgent about it. I'm not an advocate for helicopter parenting, but I do find it a stretch of the imagination to believe that parents would not be concerned when their six-year-olds disappear in a strange big city. The kids wandered off repeatedly in New York City in the last book and do it again here in London. Mr. and Mrs. Bobbsey react pretty much with a finger shake and a "don't do it again"--but we all know they will.

The books were obviously intended for a young readership and the simple, straight-forward mysteries would certainly appeal to kids of an earlier time. The stories are good, clean fun with characters who, although they can't stay put, are good kids--kind-hearted and ready to help anyone they can. The good guys always win and the bad guys say things at the end that remind you of Scooby Doo villains: If it wasn't for those pesky kids....

★★ for a pleasant read.


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With the Tower itself on the cover, this counts for the "Building" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card. It also counts for the "protagonist under the age of 18" category in the Mystery Reporter Challenge.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Running Blind: Review

"It'll be simple," his contact had said. "You'll be a messenger, that's all."

Ex-British Intelligence agent Alan Stewart foolishly thought he had retired from the game and was safely hidden away among the plentiful Stewarts found in Scotland. But when his old boss needs a courier for a top-secret package, he blackmails Stewart into playing the game one more time. It's supposed to be an easy hand-off in Iceland, no problem at all for Stewart who speaks the language like a native and who has the cover of a girlfriend in the country and regular fishing trips to Iceland to mask his real purpose. 

Stewart isn't buying the purported cakewalk nature of the job, though, and his instincts prove correct when less than an hour after he lands in Iceland he finds himself on a lonely road standing over the body of a man who had ambushed him and planned to make off with the booty. Stewart is reassured to know that his instincts are still sound and his reflexes as sharp as ever. What bothers him is the fact that he thought nobody but his own team knew he had traveled to Keflavik International Airport. It soon becomes apparent that not only his position is compromised, but so is the safety of Elin, the girl he loves. The two of them become embroiled in a cross-country race for their lives with a fairly violent denouement in store, made all the more difficult because Stewart no longer knows whom he can trust. 

Running Blind (1970) by Desmond Bagley is far less a mystery than a spy action thriller with definite ties to the time period. Not that it's so dated that it loses much of its entertainment factor. Bagley writes a quality spy thriller with lots of action, lots of killing, but a solid story surrounding our hero and the reasons for his adventures. It's a good taste of the Cold War days with the MI6 good guys teaming up with those CIA yanks and taking on those Russian KGB thugs. There are spies and counterspies, and double-agents all mixed in with a good piece of misdirection and misinformation. The only drawback is the rather longish, extended chase through the mid-section of the book--that got to be just a bit too much. Otherwise, a good solid espionage story ringing in at ★★ and a half.

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This counts for the "Body of Water" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Family Tomb: Review

In Michael Gilbert's The Family Tomb (1969; aka The Estrucan Net) British expatriate Robert Broke finds himself in the middle of a far-reaching web of intrigue which has at its center the eccentric Professor Bronzini and Estrucan art. Broke left England behind when the British judicial system allowed the lorry driver who killed his wife and unborn child to get off with a mild fine for "dangerous driving" and has since spent his time running a rare book store in Florence. Broke is also something of an expert on Estrucan artifacts, having written a book on the subject himself. 

His involvement in the intrigue begins innocently enough when he accompanies his friend Commander Comber to home of Professor Bronzini for a modified Estrucan orgy--a night filled with wine, food, art, and, for those who taken themselves discreetly away, possibly other pleasures. Professor Bronzini invites Broke to come and look over the Estrucan tombs found on his property...tombs that the professors employees are currently involved in excavating. Broke takes him up on his offer and manages to spy what looks like a remarkable find in one of the rooms he's not encouraged to look into. Then an elderly craftsman by the name of Milo Zecchi who does work for both Broke and the professor becomes unaccountably worried. His assistant spies on him and two unsavory characters arrive on  the fast train from Rome at Florence station. Both are dressed in charcoal grey suits, carry bulging suitcases, and, although it is a warm summer evening, they are wearing gloves.

Zecchi finally summons enough courage to arrange to speak to Broke about what is on his mind, but he is fearful of being followed. So he makes an appointment to meet the Englishman where he believes they will be unobserved. But he never arrives. Before he knows what has happened Broke is arrested and charged with having run the old man down in his car. He knows he didn't do it and his friends rally round, but the evidence piles up against him. It's obvious he's being framed--but by whom? Why was the old man prevented from talking to him? And, since he didn't get a chance to hear what was on Zecchi's mind, why is still necessary to get Broke out of the way? 

Finding the police efforts to be entirely engaged in proving Broke's guilt, Commander Comber, Broke's housekeeper (and, incidentally, Zecchi's daughter) Tina, The British Consul, and his daughter Elizabeth (who incidentally has her eye on Broke) come together to discover the real killer of Zecchi and the plot behind the murder of an innocent old man and the framing of another innocent. Comber's investigations find connections from every quarter leading to the professor. But is Bronzini the real mastermind? Or is someone else using him as a blind?

The real delight in this book is the characters--particularly the women. There is Miss Plant, who is "in every sense of the word, the leading lady of the English colony in Florence." She is a throwback to an earlier era, when ladies went about with retinues who smoothed the way and saw that every need was met and every wish anticipated. She had been in Italy since the beginning of the century.

The accident that Italy had happened to be on the wrong side in the Second World War had not incommoded her at all....It was true that the Italian authorities, badgered beyond endurance by the Germans, and after exhausting every excuse for delay, had eventually agreed to take Miss Plant into custody as an enemy alien. The experiment had not been a success. She had allowed herself to be driven to the Questura, and had sat there upright, unmoving, and unspeaking, during the remainder of the day and the night following, acknowledging the arrival of evening only by elevating the umbrella she had brought with her. She had refused all food and drink. The thought that Miss Plant might actually starve to death, under umbrella, in his outer office had so unnerved the Questore that he had preferred to brave the wrath of the Germans, and had returned her to her villa under very nominal house arrest.

There is also Robert Broke's sister, Felicia who arrives on the scene to provide funds for a proper defense, having already arranged things with the Governor of the Bank of England--"Five minutes talk and the thing was fixed. I have found that men of intelligence usually see my points quite quickly." She assumes charge of proceedings "in the brisk way in which, Elizabeth felt sure, she had chaired countless Women's Institutes and Mothers' Unions." She also has set the British Consul straight on where his duty lies and when he starts quoting procedure and laws to her, tells him that she never thought she'd see the day that a British Consul would extol the virtues of Italian law. Commander Comber is awed by her decisive actions and the whirlwind methods of getting her way.

Put her in charge of the Navy, thought the Commander, and we might still have a few aircraft carriers.

And then there's Tina, who isn't about to let a couple Mafia-backed thugs get in her way when it comes to helping Signore Roberto and avenging her father. When she and Mercurio, Professor Bronzini's adopted son, are confronted by the men in a diner, she leaps into the battle with a pool cue. She "swung it carefully, like a golfer addressing a drive, and hit the stout man very hard on the back of the head, just above the point where his neck joined his skull." She is fearless and willing to do whatever necessary to free Broke and get to the bottom of the plot that killed her father. Gilbert has loaded this book with strong female characters who don't need a man to get things done. Not that Mercurio didn't hold his own in that fight--but it was not a case of him saving the damsel in distress.

The mystery plot is good, if a tad intricate and not quite as mysterious one might like in a crime novel. The real question is not who did it but how will his friends prove to the authorities that Broke is innocent...and, incidentally, provide evidence of the real crime in the process. The strength of the characters and the Italian setting really drive the star rating up to ★★★★ that would have been five if the plot had been a little less obvious.

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With brown shoes on the cover, this counts for the "Object of Any Other Color" on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Throw Mama [or Anyone Else] From the Train!


The Tuesday Night Bloggers have decided to take a little different tack for the upcoming months...instead of featuring a particular author and their works each month, we're going to invest some time examining themes. This month's theme is Travel...murders while on holiday, murders on planes and trains and boats, murders by the seaside and murder in the mountains. However you might imagine a mystery taking place while traveling will be up for examination whether it be a trip to the islands, Britain's watering holes, or just a cross-country train journey.  Curtis over at The Passing Tramp has once again offered to host our weekly gatherings. Come and join us!

Last year, I did a feature on trains in vintage mysteries for Noah's October 8 Challenge. I'm going to steal from that post (and revise it a bit) for my second entry in May's TNB discussions.

Trains often play an important role in Golden Age mysteries. Murderers shove their victims from rail carriages or leave them behind after exiting themselves. Sometimes an alibi or a red herring depends on a railway timetable. Of course, probably the most famous train murder mystery is the Christie classic, Murder on the Orient Express featuring a disparate group of passengers, including the great detective Hercule Poirot, all snow-bound on the luxurious train and trapped with murder in their midst. The train itself and the enclosed, almost locked-room nature of its snow-bound circumstances are central the plot and determining who had the opportunity to murder the malevolent American, Mr. Ratchett.

But the characters don't have to stay on the train for the entire course of the novel for it to

be an important element. Like another Christie novel, 4:50 from Paddington (aka What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw), Josephine Bell's Bones in the Barrow relies on what a witness sees from his train window to set the wheels of justice in motion. Terry Byrnes is making his slow way to work aboard a train to London. Progress is slow because a crippling fog has made visibility near zero. For just a moment the fog clears as the train sits and waits and Byrnes stares out the window while he contemplates how angry his boss will be over his extreme lateness. He has an unimpeded view of a row of houses along the track. The scene that unfolds before him is like a murderous silent film.

....framed in his hole in the fog, all the dirty windows of the four or five houses were empty. At the next, he saw in one of them the distorted face and frantic figure of a woman. She was in a state of extreme terror; that was clear from her fixed staring eyes and desperate snatching fingers. She was trying to throw up the window....This in absolute silence, as far as Terry was concerned, the window being shut, and the fog all round, still and deep....For a few seconds the woman fought the window. Then Terry saw a dark shape behind her in the unlighted room. She turned her head, her mouth opening in a scream as she did so. A hand struck, and she toppled forward....

By the time he understands what he's seeing, the fog closes in and the train starts moving. There's no time to make any of his fellow passengers see what he's seen. Already very late and reluctant to look foolish before the authorities, Byrnes doesn't report the incident until much later that evening. Chief Inspector Johnson is the only one who takes him seriously, but even he has difficulty finding evidence of any foul play. A number of other suspicious incidents will have to be reported before the event can be properly investigated and solved--but Johnson always comes back to that first report of violence witnessed from a train window.

Shroud of Darkness by E. C. R. Lorac also begins with a train ride through one of the worst fogs that England, and particularly London, has seen in "half a century." Riding in the same train car we have an upset young man, a psychiatrist's secretary, a large female writer with a deep voice, a businessman who looks very stockbrokerish, and an "eel-like," unsavoury young man who looks a bit like a racing tout. At journey's end the agitated young man is left for dead in the black, "monster of a fog" and the police have one monster of a mystery on their hands. After being beaten sensless, the victim's pockets are rifled and his haversack stolen and the police find themselves faced with a nameless injured man on an evening of near solid blackout when nobody could be expected to notice anybody or anything.

Once again, the police have to start with very little information beyond what the victim's fellow-travelers can tell them. Fortunately, the secretary and the businessman both prove to be excellent witnesses and Inspector MacDonald identifies the young man fairly quickly as Richard Greville. But discovering who he is doesn't answer all the questions and MacDonald still needs to find out what about that train journey resulted in the attack on the man. Did Greville recognize someone from his past? Or did something else happen? There are other clues to follow, but MacDonald keeps that train journey in mind throughout the book.

As might be suspected by the title, a train trip also plays an important part in Night Train to Paris by Manning Coles. Edward Logan is a stuffy, predictable, highly respectable businessman who just happens to get himself mixed up with secret plans and Russian spies and is killed when he tries to keep out their way by planning an unexpected trip to his brother Laurence in Paris.

Laurence is baffled by the odd request. Every time his brother has visited, it has been arranged long in advance, down to the last detail. His brother never does anything on the spur of the moment. Edward is very mysterious and will only tell him that it's a matter of life and death and that all will be explained when he sees Laurence. Laurence's bewilderment increases when he arrives at the station late to find an almost empty train and no sign of his brother. He heads to Edward's compartment and finds his luggage, passport, tickets, and hotel reservations laid out for custom inspection but Edward has vanished without a trace! Before he can decide what to do, the conductor comes and addresses him as Mr. Edward Logan.

Laurence spends the rest of the book masquerading as his brother and trying to determine what happened before and during that fateful train journey. We know--because we watched Edward from the entrance of the Russian spies to his last moments on the train--but it is still highly entertaining to watch Laurence puzzle things out and, assisted by Britain's master spy Tommy Hambledon, outwit the Russians in the end. Given the reader's knowledge, the focus of this book on the train journey is slightly different from those previously highlighted. In Night Train, the reader isn't trying to figure out what happened to whom (along with the detective), but are waiting to see what Laurence and Tommy must do to solve Edward's disappearance and how soon they will figure it out.


And finally we have The Two Tickets Puzzle by J. J. Connington. which combines several of the "murder by train" features. We have the dead body left behind by the murderer. A manufacturer, by the name of Preston is found dead under the seat of a railway carriage, wounded in several places. When the autopsy is complete, it is revealed that he was shot with bullets of two different calibres. Somebody made quick work of it--taking advantage of one of two uninterrupted stretches of the train journey. There are several likely suspects--from Preston's doctor, who is rumored to be carrying on with Preston's wife to his wife who married for money but didn't bargain on the type of man she was really marrying to the clerk from his factory, recently dismissed and mysteriously in possession of bank notes which Preston had just gotten from the bank that morning. We also have alibis that depend on the train schedule...and there is the little matter of the titular two tickets to resolve.

I think it is safe to say that travel by train in the Golden Age was a pretty iffy proposition--especially if you had managed to tick off a relative or two or inadvertently gotten mixed up in a bit of espionage.

Other train-related vintage mysteries/espionage for your reading pleasure (links are my reviews except where noted):
Novels
Death on the Last Train by George Bellairs
Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton
The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene 
Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes
I Married a Dead Man by William Irish
Obelists En Route by C. Daly King (very difficult to find!)
Great Black Kanba by Constance & Gwenyth Little
The Ticker Tape Murders by Milton Propper
Tragedy on the Line by John Rhode
The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Wheel Spins (aka The Lady Vanishes) by Ethel Lina White 
Thrilling Stories of the Railway by Victor L. Whitechurch [courtesy of John at Pretty Sinister Books]
The Passenger from Scotland Yard by H. Freeman Wood

Short stories
"Beware of the Trains" by Edmund Crispin
"The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
"The Lost Special" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

Please feel free to comment below with any vintage (for my purposes, pre-1960) train-related mysteries that you see that I've missed.

 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Dead Man's Riddle: Review

Dead Man's Riddle by Mary Kelly (1957) is the second of her Inspector Brett Nightingale mysteries. Here, Nightingale is in Edinburgh on holiday for the purpose of spending time with his wife Christina and hearing her song recital. Christina is an opera singer who works in Germany, so the couple spends very little time together. But Nightingale no sooner arrives than he finds himself on a busman's holiday and at odds with his wife, who is none too pleased that his work may ruin their holiday together. He stops in to see a friend at the local station who introduces him--as a "matter of courtesy"--to Inspector Gower. Gower is in charge of the university town's latest crime--the murder of Dr. Seiffert, a visiting Professor of German at Edinburgh University.

Gower sees Nightingale as Scotland Yard's answer to prayer and Nightingale can't help but be intrigued. The case is a difficult one and Gower has just been thinking that he would need to ask for official assistance. The murder had taken place during the school's Rectoral election, a night when students run amok dressed in animal heads, divided into factions, dumping water on one another, setting fire to anything of little value that might be hanging about, throwing fish at each other (???), and generally causing mass confusion throughout the university grounds. Who's to say that the murderer didn't take advantage of the melee, don a red fox head or a blue boar head and sneak into the library where the dead man was found? 

There are few clues to be had, though there are a few. There's the missing key (really an iron bar of sorts) to one of the water tanks, the strange rune symbols among the dead man's papers, the man's connections with Germany, and the rumors of his affair with another man's wife. There is also the recurring theme of the red fox and the blue boar. But none of these clues seem to lead anywhere until Nightingale sees a connection between symbols and Germany and his friend Alec sees a connection between Christina's music and a code. There is more at at stake than any of them guesses and for Nightingale it may cost him the woman he loves most.

There are several things to like about this book. First, and foremost for me, is the academic connection. Kelly does an excellent job setting the academic scene. The opening chapter with the students in full cry during their Rectoral revels makes vivid use of the university setting and the undergraduate climate of the times. The university provides an excellent backdrop and the professors--if my real-life experience of the breed is anything to go by--ring true. I do love a good academic murder...or two. And it's always a delight to discover a new one by an author I've not encountered before--which is definitely the case here. I have found very little on Mary Kelly on the web. She is a British crime novelist born in 1927 and has three novels featuring Inspector Nightingale as well seven other crime novels, including The Spoilt Kill which won the CWA's Golden Dagger Award in 1961. Her (very) brief author's blurb on the dust jacket of my edition also tells us that "her great interests are music and opera" which explains the great role of music in this story.

The mystery itself is interesting and I enjoyed watching Nightingale at work (with reservations--discussed in a moment). His deductions are sound and he works within the clues provided with perhaps one minor moment of inspiration that seems to come from nowhere. I may have missed a clue, however, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt. It's obvious that Kelly has produced a good policeman. My reservations involve Nightingale personally. He seems intent on rubbing absolutely everyone--including his wife--the wrong way. People tell him things and I can only suppose that they do so out of irritation and in hopes that he will leave them alone. It would be wrong to say that he's a horrible man--he's not. But I don't understand the motivation behind his attitude. It's possible that the background information necessary to understand what makes him tick was given in the first novel, A Cold Coming, but given how little she explains about Nightingale's relationship with the people he knows at Edinburgh, I doubt it. She seems to take for granted that the reader will understand what Nightingale means when he drops certain phrases referring to his relationship to Alec, for instance. And his relationship to his wife baffles me. I get the idea that they have been married for quite some time, but he (and she, to be honest) behaves as though he knows very little about her. It's quite odd.

Overall, a solid mystery with plenty of elements to keep the reader interested. I would like to find the other two novels in the Nightingale books to see if I can make any sense out of his personal behavior. ★★ and a half.

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This counts for the "Any Other Animal" on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card. This is also my first offering in the 1957 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1957 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!



Sunday, May 8, 2016

Bout of Books 2016

Bout of Books
I'm hoping that now that the academic year is over things will calm down and I can get a good bout of book-reading done this week (and in the weeks to come). That's why I'm signing up for the annual Bout of Books Read-a-Thon. Below is the scoop from the fine folks who organize this reading extravaganza each year. If you'd like to join us, then you need to sign up by Tuesday night.

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 9th and runs through Sunday, May 15th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 16 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team

And here is my list books read:

1.
 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

April Wrap-Up and P.O.M. Award






Just realized I hadn't done my monthly wrap-up for April yet. I'm slipping! I do enjoy tracking my reading progress and statistics for all things bookish on the Block. I also have a contribution for Kerrie's Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. Now, what happened here on the Block in April....

Total Books Read: 14
Total Pages:  3,540
Average Rating: 3.41 stars  
Top Rating: 4 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 43%

Percentage by US Authors: 43%

Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  7%
Percentage Mystery:  93% 

Percentage Fiction: 100%
Percentage written 2000+: 21%
Percentage of Rereads: 0%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's eas
y to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}    
Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 12 (40%)


AND, as mentioned above,
Kerrie had us all set up for another year of Crime Fiction Favorites. What she was looking for is our Top Mystery Read for each month. April was another big month for mysteries with all but one coming from that field--for a total of 13 out of the total 14. Here are the books read:


The Third Encounter by Sara Woods (3.5 stars)
Death in Profile by Guy Fraser-Sampson (4 stars)
The Jade Venus by George Harmon Coxe (3.5 stars) 

The Indigo Necklace Murders by France Crane (2.5 stars)
The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde by Erle Stanley Gardner (3 stars) 

The Limehouse Text by Will Thomas (3.5 stars) 
One Foot in the Grave by Peter Dickinson (3.5 stars) 
The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas (4 stars) 
Death in Cyprus by M. M. Kaye (4 stars) 
Death by Hoax by Lionel Black (3 stars) 
Chili Con Corpses by J. B. Stanley (3 stars) 
Line Up for Murder by Marion Babson (4 stars)
Our Jubilee Is Death by Leo Bruce (3.25 stars)


While this month did not see any five stars handed out or any run-away winners like last month, I did have a nice crop of four-star winners. There was The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas (a previous winner of the coveted P.O.M.). The book introduces readers to a new character, the quirky and thoroughly unorthodox Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg who has just recently been appointed to his post in Paris. The characters she introduces are memorable as well--from Adamsberg to an odd marine biologist to the blind man she befriends and brings to live in the flats she rents out to the Chalk Man himself. You leave this world feeling as though you have really met and followed these folks around for the duration of the case. There was also Death in Cyprus by M. M. Kaye where once again, Kaye has used her own experiences to inform her novel. In 1949, she and a friend spent a painting holiday in Cyprus, stayed in "an enchanting house in Kyrenia" which she uses in the story, and "the plot was practically handed to [her] on a plate by a series of curious incidents that occurred during [their] stay." The vivid portrayal of the places and experiences could only come from first-hand knowledge. And our last runner-up, Marion Babson's Line Up for Murder which is gentle mystery. Full of charm--it was a delight to read. There is very little action in the generally accepted mystery sense of the word, but Babson draws such vivid characters and sets the scene so expertly that one doesn't really notice. The big mystery is finding out exactly what the plot is, who's behind it, and who is the intended target.

Which leaves us with this month's P.O.M. Award Winner....




Guy Fraser-Sampson's Death in Profile. He has created a company of very interesting characters. Characters who are at once likeable and compelling with imperfections that we can all understand and relate to. He has also, as noted on the novel's back cover, put together a "love letter to the detective novel." A notation that should come as no surprise to those of us who love the Golden Age Detective novel and who are fellow members of a GAD group online, because I would add that it is a love letter to the classic detective novel. The references to various writers from the Golden Age and their creations as well as the most obvious tribute to Dorothy L. Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey are quite delightful. Fraser-Sampson pulled me into the story from the outset and I enjoyed the investigation quite a lot. I also enjoyed the various tensions developed in the story--from the tensions between older and newer methods of police work to the tensions between various members of the team to the tensions involved with bringing in the profiler.