Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Murder in Any Language

It doesn't matter if you call it moord (Dutch) or assassiner (French), crimă (Romanian) or cinayet(Turkish), it all translates as the murder of the apparently charming, but oh-so-despicable blackmailing Spanish teacher Gerald Stewart in Murder in Any Language (1948) by Kelley Roos. Haila Troy has no idea that a few weeks worth of free Spanish lessons will land her and her husband Jeff in the middle of yet another murder mystery. After all, who would expect her charming instructor to be found stabbed to death at the very respectable Randall School of Languages? 

That's what happens after Haila receives a phone call from the ebullient Mary Connors. Miss Connors asks Haila if she would mind switching lesson days and times--just this once--so Miss Connor can brush up on a funny story in Spanish to share with her date that evening. Haila is happy to oblige and help the cause of true love...

Mary Connors would be forever happy because I had given her the opportunity to take that last crucial lesson. I was Mrs. Santa Clause. I was Dan Cupid's little helper.

But Haila has to go to the school anyway. Jeff was supposed to meet her there after her lesson and she is unable to get hold of him by telephone to call it off (isn't it amazing how cell phones have changed things?) She arrives early--just in time to be on hand when the body of Gerald Stewart is found with a knife in his chest (unlike the illustration on the cover of the book...). It looks like Mary Connors wanted that lesson time slot for more than just a brush-up on her Spanish. But who is Mary Connors? And did she even really exist? Jeff and Haila will track down several clues in an effort to help Lieutenant Hankins get to the bottom of the mystery--from the diamond and emerald pin that appears and disappears at regular intervals to the dead man's closet chock-full of negligees and stockings...and a very special hunter green and gold embroidered jacket. Other clues include two sets of hairpins, a torn up photograph, a bandaged foot, the need for $5,000 which ceases to exist once Stewart is dead, and a railway time table.

Jeff and Haila Troy are another edition of the husband and wife detective team that includes such examples as Pam & Jerry North; Nick & Nora Charles; and Pat & Jean Abbott, among others. The story is told from Haila's point of view and we get quite a bit of her insights and here inner monologue--which is quite funny. In my recent readings, I find that I enjoy the couple's wit and interactions a great deal more than the Abbots. Haila notices Jeff noticing other women, but she doesn't have the same insecurities and jealousies that Jean Abbott does. The couple make a good team and Haila often spots little clues that help move the plot along.

As the Tuesday Night Bloggers focus on academic mysteries this month, I particularly noticed the theme of respectability. In so many of these academically-inclined books, the headmaster or dean or university president or what-have-you seems more concerned with the school's reputation than the fact that someone has been killed. We must save the good name of the school at all costs! Leonard Randall is the head of the language school. He's 40% businessman and 60% Puritan...and 100% certain that there mustn't be a whisper of scandal in connection with the school's good name. Lieutenant Hankins soon teaches him a thing or two about the course of justice. 

It was a very pleasant reading experience to combine my favorite mystery sub-genre (academic mysteries) with the entertaining adventures of the Troys. ★★ and 3/4. 

This counts for the "Knife" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Pop Quiz Answers & More

School may be getting out for the summer, but the Tuesday Night Bloggers are donning their academic robes and enrolling in a month of sinister summer school. Throughout the month of June our group of Golden Age Detective aficionados will be taking our examinations and writing papers on the dastardly deeds of academe. Academic mysteries are one of my favorite sub-genres of the field and so I will be collecting the papers here at the Block. If you'd like to join us for a month of academic mysteries, please stop by every Tuesday for group discussion and I'll add your posts to the list. We focus on the Golden Age of crime fiction--generally accepted as published between the World Wars, but everyone seems to have a slightly different definition and we're pretty flexible.

This week's Star Pupils and their essays:

Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog: "Letter to Teacher: Learning About Shin Honkaku"
Moira at Clothes in Books: "Visiting Academics & a Venture to America"
Kate at crossexaminingcrime: "Death in the Quadrangle (1956) by Eilís Dillon"
JJ at The Invisible Event: "The Light & Shade of Gervase Fen"
Helen at Your Freedom & Ours: "Gervase Fen Makes His Appearance"
Bev at My Reader's Block: "Murder in Any Language"

For Review:  
Week One Essays
Week Two Essays

Pop Quiz Answers

Red Herring # 1: Gownsman's Gallows Katharine Farrer
  Bonus Common Theme: Three academic mysteries with theatrical ties
Red Herring #2: Spotted Hemlock by Gladys Mitchell
 Bonus Common Theme: Three mysteries written by pseudonymous authors (Leslie Ford = Zenith Brown; Edward Candy = Dr. Barbara Boodson Neville; Michael Innes = J. I. M. Stewart)
Red Herring #3: Corpses at Indian Stones by Philip Wylie
 Bonus Common Theme: Three mysteries written by two or more people
Red Herring #4: Darkness at Pemberley by T. H. White
 Bonus Common Theme: Three Oxford mysteries
Red Herring #5: A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake
 Bonus Common Theme: Three academic mysteries with a Professor as detective that do NOT take place at a school or university. The Blake book does take place at a school, but Nigel Strangeways is not a professor.

Red Herring #6: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie
 Bonus Common Theme: Three academic mysteries that do not include a murder. [I realized after the quiz was posted that I had misread Moira's review of The Clue in the Castle. I thought the only death involved there was manslaughter. I have therefore decided to award full credit to anyone who chose a different title and who submitted a bonus point common theme explanation.]
Match Game
1. Hildegarde Withers = The Puzzle of the Red Stallion
2. Gervase Fen = Holy Disorders
3. Adam Ludlow = Death over Deep Water
4. Professor John Stubbs = Unholy Dying
5. R. V. Davie = Death's Bright Dart
6. Ed "Jupiter" Jones = Harvard Has a Homicide
7. Hilary Tamar = The Sirens Sang of Murder
8. Andrew Basnett = A Murder Too Many

I had seven pupils show up for class and complete the pop quiz. The average score out of a possible 20 points (including full bonus points) was 9 with a range from 6 correct to 15. Perhaps your instructor made the quiz a bit too challenging....

Top of the Class
John @ Pretty Sinister Books (15 points)
Moira @ Clothes in Books (14 points)

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Eagle Has Landed: Review

I've pretty much decided that nearly all of my favorite war movies* (not that war movies is my favorite genre...) have either Michael Caine or Donald Sutherland in them...and sometimes both. I've seen a fair number in my day...particularly World War II and/or John Wayne war movies due to my dad's television-viewing interests when I was growing up. I didn't see The Eagle Has Landed until long after leaving home sometime in the mid to late 1990s, I believe. I was on a Donald Sutherland binge that had taken me from The Great Train Robbery to Kelly's Heroes to The Eagle Has Landed (with, possibly, a few other stops along the way). Now that I have read the book upon which the film was based I find, if memory serves, that the movie doesn't veer too far from the original material--but I think another viewing may be in order just to be sure.

The Eagle Has Landed (1975) by Jack Higgins presents the reader with the premise that on November 6, 1943 a group of German paratroopers land in Norfolk where the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is rumored to be headed for a weekend's relaxation at a country house near Studley Constable. The mission? To kidnap Churchill if at all possible and to kill him if it's not. The central story is framed with more recent events. Higgins inserts himself into the narrative and describes how he discovered the story while in a Studley Constable graveyard, looking for the grave of a sea captain by the name of Charles Gascigne. He uncovers a concealed grave containing thirteen German paratroopers. What on earth are those men doing in an English graveyard. The villagers won't talk to him--and are even quite menacing when they tell him to move along and not come back. But Higgins is used to asking awkward questions and following leads into dangerous territory when he catches the scent of a story. After a year's research, he puts together the tale described in the book.

When Hitler's men manage to free his ally Benito Mussolini and bring him to Germany, Hitler is inspired to demand that a similar operation be developed to kidnap his enemy Churchill. With Himmler's enthusiastic support of the plan, he orders Admiral Wilhelm Canaris to investigate the possibility and Canaris gives the task to Oberst Radl--asking him to make it look good (to keep the Fuhrer happy) but to be ready with good reasons why it won't work. The further Radl digs into the plan, the more convinced he becomes that it really could work. But when he submits his final study to Canaris, he's told to forget it--unless asked for it. 

He's asked sooner than anticipated--by Himmler himself, who is delighted with the findings and gives Radl the power necessary to put together a team. He brings together Liam Devlin, an IRA radical who is willing to do just about anything in the cause against England, and the disgraced Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Steiner and his crack team of paratroopers to prepare to land in England. Meanwhile, in Studley Constable, a bitter woman by the name of Joanna Grey, an Afrikaner woman and longtime counter-intelligence agent, has been sending information about Churchill's schedule, the terrain for the landing, and other details that makes it seem that every little thing is working together to ensure success....

This is an action-packed book and it moves fairly quickly to the finish--especially when you consider how much of the book is spent on the build-up. We follow the plan from its inception through the gathering of Devlin and Steiner to the training and preparation of the paratrooper team and their landing in Norfolk. What keeps the story from dragging is the way that Higgins brings his characters to life. Despite the fact that we know we shouldn't be rooting for the Germans and those who are working for them, Higgins makes these men (and woman) very real and complex. Just as the villagers learn (once "The Eagle is Blown" and they know that Germans are among them), German men can be just as human as they are--they can make sacrifices and choose to do good even when in the midst of performing duties that make them the enemy. As one of the characters says of Steiner towards the end of the book: Whatever else may be said, he was a fine soldier and a brave man. And so he was. ★★★★ for a fine read. I would (if I were rating it) give the movie five stars--simply because the actors bring the characters even more fully to life.
  *Two notable exceptions to this maxim are The Bridge on the River Kwai and Gettysburg.

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

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Seven Wonders of Crime: Review

I was really looking forward to The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997) by Paul Halter. I got my hands on this book after reading reviews of his work over at the Puzzle Doctor's In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. Halter has been compared to John Dickson Carr for his abilities with locked room or impossible crime novel--and that made me quite giddy. I always enjoy a good impossible crime. I have to confess that I was pretty disappointed by Wonders. The premise is quite interesting. An "artist of crime"--so dubbed by our hero Owen Burns, whose vanity and opinion of himself puts Holmes to shame--has set out to commit the titular seven wonders of crime. The murderer has concocted seven impossible crimes based on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, so their artistry is two-fold: by creating the appearance of impossibility, whether it be the war-hardened soldier who dies of thirst with a glass of water right in front of him or the stabbing death of a man in a pergola surrounded by mud that shows no footprints but his own or the woman killed by a flowerpot apparently hurling itself off a high arch and landing on her head; and also by replicating in some form the details of the seven wonders. That's really quite an interesting premise for a crime novel.

My difficulties with the novel are several. Owen Burns is really quite insufferable. He is more full of himself than Sherlock Holmes. He goes on and on about his brilliance, how incompetent the police are, and what a dim bulb his friend (and chronicler) Achilles Stock is. In the Holmes novels, there are moments of warmth from the Great Detective--moments when the reader can tell that there really is some affection between the two friends. The few times Burns makes comments that are, I believe, supposed to indicate how valuable Stock's comments are (in the line of Holmes to Watson:  “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.” ), the compliments still come across as much more backhanded. I can't for the life of me figure out what keeps Stock hanging out with Burns--he says several times that Burns has "crossed the line" with a comment and, yet, he keeps coming back presumably because, like a moth with a flame, he can't stay away from the illumination. 

Except...to my mind Burns isn't particularly brilliant in this outing. Seven people die--quite horribly. Burns immediately spots what's going on, that is--the link to the seven wonders. But that seems to be the extent of his brilliance. He meets the possible suspects (and there aren't a whole lot of them to choose from...) and still has difficulty pinpointing the culprit and putting a stop to the killing. He couldn't figure out where the sixth murder was going to happen even though I (and, quite honestly, even though I read mysteries by the score, I still miss clues all over the place and don't make connections that many of my more learned friends out here in the internet do)--I spotted where it was going to happen as soon as the taunting message showed up and I had my eye on the culprit quite early on. And, finally, he seems genuinely shocked when the culprit admits their crimes and the purpose behind them. ("Owen deathly pale by now, waited a long time before turning his gaze from the setting sun." AND "...[the] words echoed strangely in Owen's ears. They had the ring of truth, yet his heart rejected them. His brain felt as if it were boiling, like the sea touched by the sun."). If he really had solved the crimes, then he should have had a nice sit-down session with Stock and explained the whole thing to his dim-witted friend. Instead he seeks out the culprit and, apparently, has details of the crime explained to him. There are moments when Holmes berates himself for being slow-witted, but I seriously think he would have figured this one out long before Burns and possibly saved a few lives in the process.

From what I gather from friends and other reviews on the internet, this isn't Halter's best work and that there are much better examples of his expertise with the impossible crime. The premise here was intriguing enough for me to give his work another try and to warrant giving the book ★★. I hope to enjoy my next taste a bit more. And would love to hear what you think is the best of his work to give me an idea of what might suit me better.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Certain Sleep: Review

In Certain Sleep (1961) by Helen Reilly we have an uncertain case of murder where a "certain sleep" has been employed to bring about the death of Hester Lancing. Witnesses had seen the familiar yellow-scarfed head behind the wheel of her fast-running Duesenberg, so when she was found dead behind the wheel the next morning in the grounds of the Manor House Inn--smelling of alcohol and with the car backed into an earthen embankment so that the exhaust fumes had flooded the car. It looked at first glance like accident or suicide. But Inspector McKee of the New York Homicide is on hand (having come down on other police business the day before) and he immediately spots evidence that makes him think of murder.

The local man on the spot, Captain Baker, is an inefficient cop with an axe to grind and when circumstantial evidence points to Hester's husband, he's more than happy to consider Bob Lancing as suspect #1. But there are plenty of people who would have been glad to rid the small Connecticut town of the predatory, ruthless woman who taunted her easy-going husband and made life difficult for everyone around her. There was the sister-in-law who wanted to protect her brother. And her husband's spurned fiancee. There was the shady character who claimed he had only come to Connecticut to set up a trip for Hester--a trip that would end in divorce and part Bob Lancing from any hope of a share of Hester's recently inherited wealth. There are the neighbors--who don't seem to have a motive, but are acting suspicions all the same. And then there are the missing jewels. Was this a case of robbery after all? Inspector McKee, his colleague Detective Todhunter, and Lieutenant Sullivan of the State Police will get to the truth long before Captain Baker.

This is Helen Reilly's penultimate McKee book. While it is fairly entertaining, it is not her best work. The characters are fairly well-drawn and the Connecticut setting is used to full advantage. The mystery plot is serviceable, but not too complicated--if one were given all the clues. Unfortunately, McKee keeps a few things close to the chest and a vital clue isn't revealed at all--Hester is cut off well before she can drop the hint she plans to. A decent mystery, easily read in one sitting. ★★

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Academic Pop Quiz

School may be getting out for the summer, but the Tuesday Night Bloggers are donning their academic robes and enrolling in a month of sinister summer school. Throughout the month of June our group of Golden Age Detective aficionados will be taking our examinations and writing papers on the dastardly deeds of academe. Academic mysteries are one of my favorite sub-genres of the field and so I will be collecting the papers here at the Block. If you'd like to join us for a month of academic mysteries, please stop by every Tuesday for group discussion and I'll add your posts to the list. We focus on the Golden Age of crime fiction--generally accepted as published between the World Wars, but everyone seems to have a slightly different definition and we're pretty flexible.

This week's Star Pupils and their essays:
Kate at crossexaminingcrime: "Six Reasons Writers Have Used the Academic Milieu and/or Academic Sleuths"
JJ at The Invisible Event: "Life Imitating Art in 'The Day the Children Vanished' (1958) by Hugh Pentecost"
Moira at Clothes in Books: "Oxford vs. Cambridge"
Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog: "Man Proposes, Miss Pym Disposes"
John at Pretty Sinister Books: "Death & the Professors -Kathleen Sproul"
Curtis at The Passing Tramp: "Down These Mean Lanes a Librarian Must Go"
Helen at Your Freedom & Ours: "Is This Where It All Started?"

For Review: Last Week's Essays

Okay, class, today's session will begin with a pop quiz. Put your books away and close down your search engines. Let's see how much time you've spent with your suggested readings list and looking over the essays from our last meeting. In part one, each question has four entries--three entries share a common theme, setting, authorial characteristic, etc. beyond the common thread of "academic mystery." Your job is to identify the imposter. Extra credit for correctly identifying the common denominator--especially if it matches the common denominator your instructor has in mind. Other common denominators will be considered for half credit. 
In part two, please match the academic detective to the appropriate title.
Pencils ready? Please click the link below to begin. Please be sure to enter your name if you would like credit for correct answers.
Tuesday Night Bloggers: Academic Pop Quiz

Answers to the Pop Quiz will be announced with next week's TNB post.

20 Books of Summer


Thanks to the Puzzle Doctor over at In Search of the Classic Mystery I have discovered another Reading Challenge that doesn't interfere with my "Read from the TBR" plan for 2016. It originates at the 746 Books blog – and it shouldn't prove too difficult. The challenge is to read twenty books over the summer (technically the 1st of June to 5th September). And last year I managed to squeeze in 39 books over that same time period--so here's hoping there is no reading slump in my immediate future. Cathy has graciously allowed me to count books read since June 1 even though I'm late out of the gate for signing up. It also looks like we're supposed to plan ahead and give a reading list--but like Cathy, I reserve the right to change my mind if needed.

Here we go:

1. Murder in Amsterdam by A. J. Baantjer (6/3/16) 
2. Midnight in Lonesome Hollow by Kathleen Ernst (6/4/15) 
3. The Cinnamon Murders by Frances Crane (6/6/16)   
4. A Is For Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup (6/8/16)
5. The Mystery Woman by J. U. Giesy & Junius B. Smith (6/12/16)   
6. The Silent Women by Margaret Page Hood (6/13/16)
7. Certain Sleep by Helen Reilly (6/16/16)
8. The Seven Wonders of Crime by Paul Halter (6/19/16)
9. The Ticking Clock by Richard Lockridge
10. How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar
11. Murder in Any Language by Kelley Roos (6/21/16)
12. Bodies & Souls edited by Dann Herr & Joel Wells
13. High Rhymes & Misdemeanors by Diana Killian
14. The Devil in Bellminster by David Holland
15. The Red House by A. A. Milne
16. Bodies & Souls edited by Dann Herr & Joel Wells
17. The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins (6/19/16)
18. A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow
19. The Poet's Funeral by John M. Daniel
20. The North's Meet Murder by Frances & Richard Lockridge

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Silent Women: Review

In The Silent Women (1953) by Margaret Page Hood, finds young Gil Donan, the recently appointed deputy sheriff from Fox Island, sent to Spruce Island, a near-by sparsely inhabited place off the Maine coast. The island is shrouded in a brooding fog which ideally matches the mood of the inhabitants. John Brown, whose original Italian name is Giovanni, has sent a message asking for help. He claims his beautiful and fiery daughter Gina had returned from the mainland only to be murdered. But there is no body and the island women, whose grapevine knows all the gossip and doings on the island--almost before they happen, claim that Gina has never returned.

They represent Giovanni as a lonely father whose loss of his wife followed by the desertion of his daughter has made him delusional. When Gil investigates and finds women's clothes--all of recent fashion--in the young woman's bedroom, Martha, a shopkeeper and leader of the island women, tells him that Giovanni would order gifts for Gina just as though she were still living with him. After that, the women go as silent as the fog that engulfs them. Finally, when the men of the island (fishermen who spend little time at home) arrive after their latest sailing journey, a plausible account of Gina's arrival and apparent departure is given. Gil decides to change his wild goose chase into a successful duck hunt before returning home. But when he goes into the underbrush after a wounded bird, he finds more than he bargained for. Gina did come home one last time...but she didn't leave.

Hood manages in this short book (192 pages) to completely transport the reader to this secluded island. The brooding fog and the insular characters provides an atmosphere of  seclusion, mistrust of outsiders, and secrecy that creates the foundation for the tragic story. She also gives her characters a lot of depth--providing substantial background and cultivating sympathy for both Giovanni and the culprit. A suspenseful story with solid clues. Gil makes for an interesting detective--and one who develops over the course of the story. I would definitely be interested in getting my hands on The Scarlet Thread and In the Dark Night to see his further development. ★★ and a half.

With the woman's blue skirt, this counts as the "Blue Object" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Mystery Woman: Review

The Mystery Woman (1929) by John Ulrich Giesy & Junius B. Smith

"The Mystery Woman" is name given to a woman who is found dead in small country town. It appears at first that she is the victim of a "machine" accident (as the characters in the book repeatedly refer to automobiles) and the only question is whether Dr. Arthur Nixon is the one who ran her down and is now trying to cover up his complicity or if, as he and his companion (a nurse who seems to be on a bit more than a professional footing with him) state, he found her along the road and merely brought her to the Hospital as any good Samaritan would. Inspector James Kirk* arrives on the scene ready to mark it down as an accident, but both Dr. Nixon and the hospital surgeon believe there is more to it than meets the eye. The wound on the woman's head is inconsistent with a motoring accident and it is soon proven that she was struck down before being run over--and it wasn't the doctor's car who drove over her body. With very little to go on--just a few burdock thorns, bits of grass and leaves, and an instinct for the irregular, Kirk convinces Gordon, one of the local newspaper men to play up the story to create interest in and mystery around the victim. When she dies from her injuries, it becomes a murder case and Kirk is even more determined to find the person who left her to die. He discovers that she had traveled from Iowa in a search of someone. Did she find that person? And was that person so unwilling to be found that she or he struck down the pursuer to protect themselves? Kirk builds his case piece by piece until he can prove who "The Mystery Woman" came to see...and who it was that was responsible for her death.

This is a fairly good American mystery from the 1920s with an interesting plot revolving around the police procedures of the time. The clues are fairly displayed--the reader learns everything that the inspector learns as the information is found. There is perhaps a bit of melodrama surrounding the "Mystery Woman's" story and her reasons for coming to a strange town, but it's not over-the-top and, given the period the story was written, the motives are perfectly sound.

The primary complaint that I have with the writing is the amount of time we spend following the detective's thoughts. It's one thing to let the reader in on the detective's thought processes. It's another to be beaten over the head with them. He is told various details by experts or witnesses and then we follow him (repeatedly) thinking over these details and musing over what they mean. We don't just get new theories, but he goes through the whole thing again. Short example: tiny bits of vegetation are found on the victims clothes and each time he thinks about these clues we are told again: "the nurse thought those were burdock-spines and I thought the grass was wild. They are burdock-spines; the grass is wild. Therefore, the woman was hit over the head somewhere else and put in the road. Hmmmm. What could that mean?" Insert new theory. Rinse and repeat for each phase of the investigation. 

However, beyond the overly introspective interludes, the characters are solid and I definitely enjoyed the interactions between Kirk and Gordon. They make a good team and it's a shame that there weren't more books featuring them. Given time, I think they could have been developed into a solid series. It was also interesting to see the attitudes of midwesterners/easterners (location not quite definite) towards those new-fangled "machines" invading the roadways and causing accidents right and left. A decent mystery and a nice step into an earlier time period. ★★

*Did anyone who knows my background as a Classic Trek fan suppose that I could resist an Inspector by the name of James Kirk?


This counts for the "Green Object" (her shirt) on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card as well as my first offering in the 1929 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1929 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!