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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Trains & Murder in the Golden Age

 
image from Dover edition of The Passenger from Scotland Yard


Trains often play an important in Golden Age mysteries. Murderers shove their victims from rail carriages or leave them behind after exiting themselves. Sometimes an alibi 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.

This is my fourth offering in Noah's October 8 Challenge. Noah is a Golden Age Detection (GAD) aficionado and one of my Vintage Mystery Challengers and he's put together a Bingo-style Golden Age mystery essay challenge of his own. It's beginning to look like I just might get that Bingo after all...one more square to go!

  

Challenge Complete: Cloak & Dagger



January 1, 2015 – December 31, 2015

Amy at A Bookish Girl is resurrectied her 2013 mystery reading challenge under a new name--the Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge.* The rules remained fairly straight-forward...just read mysteries--which, given my preferences, is a slam-dunk for me. I aimed straight for the top level: Sherlock Holmes (40 books). I just turned into Holmes this past week and technically completed the challenge--but I'm quite sure that I'll read more mysteries before the year is up, so I'll keep on posting reviews.

*Unfortunately not long into 2015 Amy found herself with a lot going on and decided to take a break from blogging. She gave permission for Elizabeth at Thoughts from an Evil Overlord to take over as host. Click on the new link to join or post reviews.

My list:
1. Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes (1/3/15)
2. The Case of the Painted Girl by Frank King (1/6/15)
3. Police Procedurals by Martin H. Greenberg & Bill Pronzini, eds (1/9/15)
4. Mother Finds a Body by Gypsy Rose Lee (1/12/15)
5. A Dead Man in Istanbul by Michael Pearce (1/14/15)
6. Death of a Dwarf by Harold Kemp (1/25/15)
7. The Golden Slipper & Other Problems for Violet Strange by Anna Katharine Green (1/26/15)
8. A Dead Man in Trieste by Michael Pearce (1/27/15)
9. Death of a Tall Man by Frances & Richard Lockridge (1/31/15)
10. One Touch of Blood by Samm Sinclair Baker (2/5/15)
11. Death Over Deep Water by Simon Nash (2/8/15)
12. Caught Dead in Philadelphia by Gillian Roberts (2/11/15)
13. 13 Steps Down by Ruth Rendell (2/15/15)
14. A Stitch in Time by Emma Lathen (2/17/15)
15. Panic by Helen McCloy (2/22/15)
16. The Secret of Magnolia Manor by Helen Wells (2/24/15)
17. The World's Best 100 Detective Stories by Eugene Thwing, ed (2/26/15)
18. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (3/2/15)
19. Death & Mr. Prettyman by Kenneth Giles (3/6/15)
20. Top of the Heap by A. A. Fair (3/11/15)
21. Night Train to Paris by Manning Coles (3/14/15)
22. The Underdog & Other Stories by Agatha Christie (3/17/15)
23. Playground of Death by John Buxton Hilton (3/18/15)
24. Malice Domestic by Sara Woods (3/26/15)
25. Murder Fantastical by Patricia Moyes (3/29/15)
26. Dine & Be Dead by Gwendoline Butler (3/29/15)
27. The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey (4/1/15)
28. Poison Jasmine by Clyde B. Clason (4/5/15)
29. Murder in the Wind by John D. MacDonald (4/13/15)
30. The Ringmaster's Secret by Carolyn Keene (4/16/15)
31. The Cavalier in White by Marcia Muller (4/18/15)
32. The Wilberforce Legacy by Josephine Bell (4/19/15)
33. The Smiler with the Knife by Nicholas Blake (4/21/15)
34. Safari by Parnell Hall (4/21/15)
35. Call for Michael Shayne by Brett Halliday (4/22/15)
36. The Case of Colonel Marchand by E. C. R. Lorac (4/27/15)
37. The Eye in the Museum by J. J. Connington (5/8/15)
38. Dead Lion by John & Emery Bonett (5/13/15)
39. The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest (5/15/15)
40. The Three Fears by Jonathan Stagge (5/17/15) 41. Gods of Gold by Chris Nickson (5/23/15) Challenge Complete!

Monday, May 25, 2015

1930s Detective Fiction: October 8 Challenge Square #3

Here comes a third entry in my friend Noah's October 8 Challenge. Noah is a Golden Age Detection (GAD) aficionado and one of my Vintage Mystery Challengers and he's put together a Bingo-style Golden Age mystery essay challenge of his own. I'm still not entirely sure that I'm going to meet my goal of one Bingo. Especially since it looks like I'm hopping around the board rather than making a straight line. But...it is looking a bit more promising. AND Noah has dangled a possible prize in front of me that makes me all the more eager to fill in more squares.

Today's entry is a round-up of detective fiction from the 1930s. So far this year, I've read five novels from that decade: The Case of the Painted Girl by Frank King (1931); The Case of Colonel Marchand by E. C. R. Lorac (1933); The Murder of Sir Edmund by John Dickson Carr (1936); Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938) and The Smiler with the Knife by Nicholas Blake (1939). And what these books tell me is that there definitely wasn't just one kind of detective novel to be had at this time.

The Case of the Painted Girl and The Smiler with Knife are the two most closely related. Each of these novels are very thriller-esque and have a bit of the old serials that used to play at the theaters before the feature film. Just when you think the heroes in the the first
have discovered an answer and are getting close to capturing the criminals, up pops another little mystery and they're off on another adventure. And just when you think the heroine in the second has escaped the bad guys once and for all, up they pop again to give chase. Both novels are great fun and require little detective work on the part of the reader. All that's necessary is a sense of adventure and a willingness to sit back and enjoy the ride.
 
The Case of Colonel Marchand is novel in the classic mystery tradition. Lorac (aka Edith Caroline Rivett) makes good use of a standard mystery trope and pulls it off with aplomb and fair play. She displays the clues for the reader and, really, as a long-time reader of Golden Age mysteries, I'm well enough acquainted with the customs of the times that I should have recognized the primary clues paraded under my nose. But I didn't--and that makes it all the more fun. It is a nicely plotted, fairly clued, highly recommended entry in Lorac's mystery offerings.

The last two novels are definitely something a little different. Brighton Rock has a definite edge--no comfy village mystery, no quirky amateur detective, no adventurous cloak and dagger spy thriller. It is obvious why it is a classic in the field. It provides terrific snapshot of the pop culture of the day and shows the reader the wicked underbelly of Brighton and the racetrack nearby. But an enjoyable book it is not. It is bleak and there are few appealing characters. Even Ida, whom we feel that we must root for, is a bit frightening in her single-minded quest. Yes, we do want to see Hale's killer brought to justice, but the advancement of justice is such an unrelenting process. By the end of the book, I felt ground down by the weight of Ida's quest and burdened with Pinkie's guilt and horrible treatment of everyone he comes in contact with--from his gang members to Rose, the girl who loves him. It is novel that crime aficionados really should read to understand its place in history of the genre, but it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea.

And Carr's The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey is an early example of that field which has lately grown to have a wide following and numerous practitioners--the historical mystery. In Carr's case, the work is heavy on history and not quite as fictionalized as most modern historical mysteries. The book tells the very real story of the murder of a high-profile, well-known London magistrate named Sir Edmund Godrey in 1678. Carr examines the historical evidence and the theories of various historians and other interested parties to weave a fictionalized account of the crime. It is a superbly researched book and he not only gives us what he believes to be the solution to the ultimate questions--Who killed Sir Edmund Godfrey and Why--but he also supplies the reader with eleven other possible solutions complete with historical details that might lead one to at least consider them if not actually believe them. The historical detail accurately brings to life a bawdy, brutal time period full of plots and counter-plots.

So, no matter what kind of detective novel you like--adventure, thriller, classic detective puzzle, historical...or a peek at the realistic (for me, that reads as "bleak") novels yet to come--the thirties would seem to have you covered. And, of course, there are other varieties that I haven't even touched this year.
 

Deep Lake Mystery: Review

my actual copy--no DJ
Deep Lake Mystery (1928) by Carolyn Wells is set in the lake region of Wisconsin. Our narrator Gray Norris is invited to join his old friend, the detective Keeley Moore, and his new wife at their vacation cottage at Deep Lake, Wisconsin for a relaxing month of fishing, swimming, boating, and just getting away from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast.That goes by the wayside when one of the Moore's neighbors is killed under bizarre circumstances behind a locked door. The only way the killer could have escaped the room was by diving from a third story window into the dangerous water below--avoiding hidden rocks and currents that could drag a swimmer under for good. 

Adding to the bizarre nature of the crime is a sprinkling of flowers across the forehead and across the chest of the victim, a crucifix, an orange, a chiffon scarf tucked in around the body here and there like a frame, two crackers, a handkerchief, and a red feather duster emerging from behind the head like a crown. And a nail. Oh, and add one more item to the strange array of paraphenalia - a watch in a water pitcher by the bedside. Almost as intriguing to the detectives are the missing items--two silk waistcoats and a small gilt-edged plate which originally held the orange and cracker.

Norris immediately falls head over heels in love with the victim's niece Alma, a pretty young woman who will inherit the bulk of Sampson Tracy's estate and who, naturally, is a prime suspect. Despite his knowledge of Moore's talents, fairness, and ability to go beyond the obvious, Norris throws all kinds of roadblocks in the way of justice in the crusade to prevent his lady-love from harassment over a murder he just knows she could never have committed. Norris wastes a lot of time and energy playing the complete fool even after it becomes apparent that Moore and the police already know all about Alma...and, in fact, know even more about her than Norris.

This mystery starts out so promising with the bizarre items and the locked room, but it soon turned into a mediocre detective novel. Norris is, quite frankly, annoying. It doesn't even help that he acknowledges, repeatedly, that's he's a fool. Moore could, I think, be a quite interesting detective if his character were developed a bit more fully--unfortunately, that doesn't happen here. And the solution turns on two rather hackneyed devices of detective fiction--which I will refrain from mentioning in case you'd like to give Wells a try yourself. And, of course, it's always possible that a reader fresh to the genre may not be as bothered by the conclusion.

Most frustrating for me is how little importance all the interesting items found surrounding the victim wind up having. The watch dunked in the water pitcher becomes the primary clue--but not for your average mystery reader. You'll need some specialized knowledge about the reactions of those under the influence of certain psychological problems to understand that one....An author such as Ellery Queen would have managed to assign real importance to each of the items--with every one of them revealing a nugget of information about the killer or his/her motive. My reading experience could have been raised by at least one whole star if the promise of the clues had been fulfilled. As it is, ★★ for a fair read of a 1920s mystery.

For more insight on Carolyn Wells and the Deep Lake Mystery in particular, please visit John's blog post over at Pretty Sinister Books. Be warned, John's post is fairly spoilerish because of the nature of his discussion of her work.

This fulfills the "Locked Room/Impossible Crime" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Gods of Gold: Mini Review

Gods of Gold is the debut novel in Chris Nickson's historical mystery series set in 1890s England. It introduces the reader to Detective Inspector Tom Harper who must juggle an investigation into the disappearance of eight-year-old Martha Parkinson, the murder of her father Col Parkinson, and an assignment to help quell the violence expected in connection with the striking gas workers. 

The constable who has taken over Harper's old beat comes to the Inspector with his worries over the missing girl. Her mother is in prison (again) and her father claims he has sent the girl to stay with his sister. A sister that no one ever knew he had. The constable doesn't buy the man's story and neither does Harper once he interviews the man. Before they can make many inquiries, Col Parkinson is found dead the next morning. The description of a couple of toughs who called upon the dead man during the time period when Martha vanished cause Harper to believe that Martha has been sold. But to whom? And for what purpose.

Pressure from above forces Harper's superior to pull him from the local investigation to provide protection for the "black legs" who have been brought in to cross the picket lines and keep the gas works going. Things take a turn for the worse when one of the replacements is stabbed and killed outside the Town Hall and Harper will have to work twice as hard to solve both mysteries before the gas strike violence makes it impossible.

This is a fairly solid beginning to a new historical series. Good background and interesting set-up. I have personal difficulties with children in danger, but, fortunately, there isn't a lot of graphic detail about what happened to the missing girl. Harper and his sergeant, Billy Reed, have the makings of a good team--a little more depth to the characters, which hopefully will come as the series progresses, will add much to the story. The most finely drawn character, even though she isn't in the foreground throughout, is Harper's bride-to-be Annabelle. Perhaps this is because she is based on stories from Chris Nickson's father about a distant relative. ★★ for a promising beginning.
 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Strange Wine: Review

What can I say about Harlan Ellison that I haven't already said in other reviews of other books? This extraordinary author writes with a burning luminosity that most authors only dream of. His writing has an energy and compelling tone that pulls the reader in and sweeps her along with the force of the story. He writes everything from straight science fiction to dark humor to bone-chilling horror. He is hard-hitting and pulls no punches. He parades ideas before the reader, disguising them as fables and stories that seem at first glance to be mere throw-away lines, but they are packed with everything that Ellison expects the reader to know and feel...and ultimately do something about. Whether it is making a change in yourself or getting angry enough about what's going on in the world today (whether that's the today of 1978 when it was written or the today of now) to try and make a broader change in the way things are.

As I've said before, Harlan Ellison is not for everyone. He's not for the squeamish. Or the prudish. You want your fiction all neat and tidy and full of rainbows and sunshine and happily-ever-afters. Ellison is not your man. That's not to say he can't write a happy ending. He can. He does in this collection. But it's not your everyday, fairy tale happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after....and getting there may be a bit more painful than you'd like. His horror isn't based on the non-human, but on the worst behaviors and twisted desires of very human people. He shows us ourselves at our weakest and ugliest and then tells us that we are better than that. That he believes that we could be better than that (who would think it of one of the crankiest, old so-and-sos in science fiction) if we'd only want it badly enough.

Each of the stories in this collection is a winner--making for another ★★★★ outing from an excellent author. If you want a few highlights, then "In Fear of K," "Hitler Painted Roses," "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and the titular "Strange Wine" are not to be missed.

*********
Harlan Ellison was born on May 27, 1934, so his book counts as my May entry for the Birthday Month Reading Challenge.




Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Three Fears: Review

The Three Fears by Jonathan Stagge (aka Richard Webb & Hugh Wheeler) (1949) is the last novel by the duo to feature Dr. Hugh Westlake. Westlake has been invited by his wartime friend, Dr. Macdonald "Don" Lockwood, and his wife Tansy to spend a month at their home in the Massachusetts resort of Bittern Bay. There will even be entertainment on hand in the form of two rival  acresses--Daphne Winters, with her "five sweet symphonies", budding actresses to whom she gives summer tutelage, and Lucy Millken, ""America's Most Beloved Actress"", one time understudy to the Divine Daphne, now her bitter rival. They expect fireworks and maybe even a cat fight or two, but no one expects murderous attempts to made on Daphne. 

Someone very clever is using the atmosphere to make attempt after attempt on Daphne's life and sanity--using knowledge of her three fears: fear of poison, fear of being closed in, and fear of fire against her. The culprit is relentless and doesn't even seem to mind that innocent victims are collected along the way. Two of Daphne's Symphonies are caught in the killer's web. The first intercepts a poisoned capsule meant for Daphne while they are at tea at the Milliken's house and the second dies in a fire in the summerhouse. Westlake, having previous experience with murders, joins the police in the search for the murderer, but they run into blank wall after blank wall. It isn't until one of the Symphonies makes an urgent phone call to Westlake that he begins to see the intricate plot behind it all.

Of all the pen names taken up by Webb and Wheeler as well as Martha Kelley and Mary Aswell (Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick, and Jonathan Stagge), I think I enjoy the Stagge books with Dr. Westlake the best. This one has a nifty puzzle plot with a nice juicy clue dangled right before the reader's eyes in the opening chapter. I don't think that's a spoiler--most people still aren't going to get it. I know I zoomed right over it. Westlake is a good amateur detective. He's not infallible by any means and the way he works through the twists and turns of the mystery is very realistic. Solid characters--the police chief is perhaps a little bit too inept, but overall the characters are very well done. The rivalry between the actresses adds just the right about of spice and spite to the mix. ★★★★  for a lovely vintage mystery.

Since the first death occurs over tea and cake, this counts for the "Eat, Drink & Be Merry" Square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card--and collects two more Bingos. This is also my second entry for Curt's Crimes of the Century feature. This month is focused on crime fiction from 1949.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Great Dinosaur Robbery: Review

The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest (1970) reads like it was written with a movie deal in mind. Which is convenient because Disney made a movie from the book (One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing) in 1975. I've never seen this particular Disney film with Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov, but the novel's plot reminds a great deal of another Disney film, The North Street Irregulars. As in Irregulars, we have a group of ladies (middle-aged church parishioners in Irregulars and various-aged British-born nannies in Robbery) taking on a group of down-right baddies. 


In the records of crime there have been many great robberies--The Great Train Robbery, for instance--but never has there been a robbery like the The Great Dinosaur Robbery. Five very British nannies who are taking care of their charges in New York City find themselves plotting the biggest heist of them all...the lifting of a 200,000,000-old brontosaurus skeleton from the American Museum. It all begins when one of Nanny Hettie MacPhish's charges falls dead at her feet in the middle of the museum. His last words:

W-W-World security...avoid t-t-total destruction...m-m-museum...the m-m-message..microdot...room th-thirteen...largest beast...don't t-t-trust anyone...Get it to...to...G-G-God save the Q-Q-Queen.

After leaving the nursery, Lord Quincey de Bapeau Charmaine-Bott had become a very important person indeed...a member of the British Foreign Office and the most reliable, trustworthy, discreet, and fearless wearer of the Silver Greyhound, the insignia of the Queen's Couriers. 

The 25th Earl carried word of a top-secret plot by the Red Chinese under Mao Tse-tung to conquer England (and the rest of the world) using the Great Leap Downward plan. He had intended to pass the information (via microdot) on to his contact under guise as a British tourist. But his fellow Courier had not arrived and Mao Tse-tung's minions had pursued him through the museum. In a moment's respite from the gang, the British lord had stashed the secret in one of the museum's displays before collapsing at his former Nanny's feet. It's up to Nanny Hettie and her band of loyal caregivers to find the microdot before England's enemies. But who would have thought it would require stealing an entire dinosaur?

This is a very silly--but fun--take on the caper crime. I mean, after all, can you really call it a crime when a bunch of British nannies are stealing a whole dinosaur in the name of Queen and Country? Not terribly realistic and definitely not a puzzle plot, but I did enjoy myself. I'm pretty sure the Disney movie has toned it down though--there are a few adult scenes (one of the nannies has a lover!) and informational bits that I just can't see making it into a 1975 Disney film. Park your realism expectations at the front cover and settle in for a fun ride with Nanny Hettie and company.... ★★

"You can drive a lorry, Nanny Emily?" 
"I drove a caterpillar tractor during the war..." 
"We heard about that," said Hettie. "At the Land Army Club they said it was the longest furrow ever ploughed....You nearly cut of Devon and Cornwall"

 This counts for the "Made into a Movie" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card as well as making up Clue #2 in the Super Book Password Challenge. The key word is "Dinosaur."



 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Dead Lion: Review

Murder only interests me when I feel I could have done it myself. (Miss Pritchard; p.102)

Cyprian Druse was a well-known literary critic who excelled in skewering lesser mortals (known as authors) and revealing their shortcoming to the reading public. No one's work was exempt from literary geniuses to mystery authors to poets. Druse was a self-made expert on it all and considered none of it to be much good. But Cyprian Druse alive was also a world-class cad. He delighted in making women fall in love with him and then turning their emotions into a subtle weapon against them because as he told the radio audience on his last recorded session of "The National Quiz Team": Love does not exist. 

Cyprian Druse dead was a problem. Not for the police or anyone the least bit official--his death is conveniently ruled an accident resulting from an insecure window sash. But his American nephew Simon Crane arrives at his flat ready to meet his British uncle for the first time, hoping for an introduction to the British literary world, only to find Druse's dead body. After the police have gone away, Simon begins finding little bits of evidence which lead him to believe that someone has gotten away with murder--from a torn bit of The New Statesman to a decorative earring to a set of six very unusual records among Druse's famous collection.

The more Simon learns about his uncle the less he regrets his death, but having fallen head over heels in love with one of the women involved he has to know who did it. When Professor Mandrake, one of Druse's fellow panel members on the Quiz Team, comes to the apartment later that night, he is also convinced that Druse has been murdered and is as eager as a bloodhound hot on the scent. Simon initially welcomes the professor's help, but he soon realizes that he doesn't want the amateur detective investigating his new-found love. The two men spend the rest of the book working at cross-purposes--Mandrake is determined to take full advantage of this golden opportunity to solve a real crime. He says to Simon:

Do you mean to tell me you've had this information [previously mentioned bits of evidence] in your hands since...seven o'clock, and now it's nearly midnight, and you haven't mentioned it to a soul except me....But how perfectly wonderful. I'd almost given up hoping that something like this could happen to me.

And Simon is equally determined to A. find out if the woman he's fallen in love with is his uncle's murderer and B. keep Mandrake from finding out about her. He doesn't really care if the lady is the killer--he just has to know. He exerts a great deal of energy sending Mandrake off on other trails and keeping back vital clues.

Neither of the men are true detectives in the classic sense. There isn't much detecting going on, not many clues [beyond the initial display] are discovered, and there isn't much interrogation of suspects. Mandrake does a lot of scribbling in his notebook and muttering to himself about the murder, but the mystery seems to solve itself. Although this is not a traditional crime puzzle, it does provide us with a very interesting examination of the emotions and several views on what love is. While I like Simon very much, I'm not entirely convinced about his fall into love. It seems a bit incredible that a voice on a record could so firmly ensnare him. A good solid read at ★★ and a half. And I look forward to the two other Bonett titles sitting on my shelf. I hope that Professor Mandrake develops quite a bit as an amateur detective.

Dead Lion by John and Emery Bonett [aka husband & wife team of John Coulson and Felicity Winifred Carter] (1949) is my first entry for Curt's Crimes of the Century feature. This month is focused on crime fiction from 1949.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Spock, Messiah!: Review


Spock, Messiah! by Theodore R. Cogswell and Charles A. Spano, Jr. is the all-time worst Star Trek novel that I've read. Previously that "honor" was held by The Prometheus Design (torture theme and Spock being extraordinarily un-Spock-like). This is another "let's make Spock [and all the other crew members of the Enterprise while we're at it] as unlike himself as we possibly can" story. It is also a very early Star Trek novel (the second original novel published) and, unfortunately, the authors seem to have a very tiny (Spock could give you the exact percentage--like maybe .0000000000000001%) understanding of the Star Trek world and characters. According to the blurb in the back of the first edition (which I just happen to have right here) Charles Spano, Jr. was "a devoted Star Trek follower and an authority on all the characters, events, and background of the series." If that was true (which I quite frankly doubt), then apparently Spock came back in time and did that whole Vulcan memory-wipe thing (like he did for Kirk when Rayna died) because he doesn't seem to use any of his Star Trek knowledge beyond the fact that he (and Cogswell) get character names right and they know they're aboard the Enterprise. For the record....Sulu was born in San Francisco not on "Alpha Mensa Five" (whatever the heck that is) and Scotty does NOT have red hair nor does Chekov have bushy black hair. 

Of course, little matters like getting the Trek world right isn't going to bother these guys. They've got more important things to take care of....like turning one of the female crew members into a "sexpot" stripper and having Kirk, McCoy and the rest of the men make lewd jokes about her. As far as I can tell the whole point of the plot was to make it possible for straight-laced Ensign George to implant herself with a hook-up to every straight man's fantasy--a beautiful woman who wants to dance naked and get it on with anybody who's willing (and they're all willing). Oh, sure, they say that the plot is all about how Spock gets implanted with a hook-up to a crazy guy with a Messiah complex--but that's just a cover for their teen-age boy fantasy fulfillment.

Maybe if I had read this when I first got it (back in the 80s) I might have appreciated just having a new Trek story to read and could have overlooked the incredibly bad characterizations and the sexism. Maybe. But I certainly can't now--there are too many good Trek stories out there. Take my advice and go read them (any of them--they're all better than this). If I could give less than a star on Goodreads and have it register I would. Here on the block...No stars. None.

The Eye in the Museum: Review

In The Eye in the Museum by J. J. Connington (pen name of Alfred Walter Stewart), the terms of her father's will ties Joyce Hazelmere to her odious, whiskey-swilling, gambling Aunt Evelyn until she turns 25. If she doesn't stay with the old battle-axe or leave with her blessing, then all the money reverts to Evelyn. It's not bad enough that Evelyn treats her horribly--spewing abuse every time she has a whiskey or two too many--but the older woman is also terribly jealous of her lovely young niece and is determined to stand in the way of young love when Evelyn meets the handsome Leslie Seaforth and wants to marry him. After a particularly acrimonious exchange with her aunt, Joyce tells Leslie that all their problems would be solved if only an accident would happen to Evelyn. After all, her aunt has a bit of heart trouble and it's just possible that a bit of excitement might bring on a particularly deadly attack.

You're a lawyer, Leslie. What would happen...suppose I lost my temper and struck back, and she...well, if her heart failed under the strain? They couldn't do anything to me, could they? It would just be an accident, wouldn't it?

And,then, as if her words had some sort of magic power, it seems like that very thing happens. That evening Joyce and Leslie go for a night-time canoe ride and when Joyce returns home she finds her aunt dead in the drawing-room. She calls out to Leslie (who's down by the canoe) who comes to help. There is no sign of violence or disturbance so it would seem that Joyce's wish for freedom has come true. All that remains is to call in Evelyn's doctor, get him to sign the death certificate, and all will be lovely in the garden....

Except Dr. Platt won't sign. He doesn't like the "atmosphere" between the two young people and he insists that although Evelyn's heart wasn't strong there wasn't any reason for her to die suddenly. By the time the postmortem results are in and the inquest is done there are hints of attempted poisoning, a definite death by pressure on the vagus nerve and carotid artery (a lovely method that required medical know-how or special training), and a verdict of "murder by person or persons unknown."

Superintendent Ross is called in to sort out the suspects and hunt for clues. He has to follow a trail strewn with forgery, gambling debts, digitalis, mysterious comings and goings in the dead woman's garden, stories of grudges past and jealousies present, and a view through an all-seeing eye. The harassed niece and her fiance aren't the only suspects. There are several to choose from--from the dead woman's estranged husband who wanted a divorce to marry his lady-love (Evelyn naturally couldn't possibly allow that) to Dr. Hyndford who wasn't Evelyn's doctor but may have had a different sort of bed-side manner to Watchet, Aunt Evelyn's estate agent who may have been cooking the books. Ross will get his villain in the end--after an adventurous chase down the river--and, as in all good vintage mysteries, all the clues will be displayed and the good detective's reasoning will be revealed in a final wrap-up scene.

Connington provides a very nice English countryside murder that is fairly-clued and complete with a red herring or two. Engaging characters--particularly Ross and a lawyer's clerk who turns out to be something of an expert in graphology--and the adventurous ending all make for an interesting reading experience. Quite enjoyable-- ★★ and a half.

With Superintendent Ross investigating, this counts for the "Professional Detective" Square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card. This is also my first entry in the Super Book Password "Movie Title" category...the clue is "Museum."


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Partners In Crime Tour: The Golden Age of Murder


The Golden Age of Murder


by Martin Edwards


on Tour April 28 - May 31, 2015





Book Details:
Genre: Biography, Mystery, Classic Crime  
Published by: HarperCollins  
Publication Date: May 7th 2015  
Number of Pages: 512  
ISBN: 0008105960 (ISBN13: 9780008105969)

Purchase Links:



 

Synopsis:

A real-life detective story, investigating how Agatha Christie and colleagues in a mysterious literary club transformed crime fiction, writing books casting new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets.
 

This is the first book about the Detection Club, the world’s most famous and most mysterious social network of crime writers. Drawing on years of in-depth research, it reveals the astonishing story of how members such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers reinvented detective fiction.
 

Detective stories from the so-called “Golden Age” between the wars are often dismissed as cosily conventional. Nothing could be further from the truth: some explore forensic pathology and shocking serial murders, others delve into police brutality and miscarriages of justice; occasionally the innocent are hanged, or murderers get away scot-free. Their authors faced up to the Slump and the rise of Hitler during years of economic misery and political upheaval, and wrote books agonising over guilt and innocence, good and evil, and explored whether killing a fellow human being was ever justified. Though the stories included no graphic sex scenes, sexual passions of all kinds seethed just beneath the surface.
 

Attracting feminists, gay and lesbian writers, Socialists and Marxist sympathisers, the Detection Club authors were young, ambitious and at the cutting edge of popular culture – some had sex lives as bizarre as their mystery plots. Fascinated by real life crimes, they cracked unsolved cases and threw down challenges to Scotland Yard, using their fiction to take revenge on people who hurt them, to conduct covert relationships, and even as an outlet for homicidal fantasy. Their books anticipated not only CSI, Jack Reacher and Gone Girl, but also Lord of the Flies. The Club occupies a unique place in Britain’s cultural history, and its influence on storytelling in fiction, film and television throughout the world continues to this day.
 

The Golden Age of Murder rewrites the story of crime fiction with unique authority, transforming our understanding of detective stories and the brilliant but tormented men and women who wrote them.

My Review:


Fantastic and fascinating book that is an absolute must-have for anyone with interest in the Golden Age of mysteries, crime, and detection. The Golden Age is one of my favorite periods for detective novels and it was an absolute delight to get an inside view of the Detection Club. It is just a real shame that the Club did not have an Archivist before Martin Edwards and that the Minute Book and other materials from the time of the Club's inception through the Blitz have disappeared. What a treasure trove of information that would have been. Edwards gives us a detailed look at the original members of the Club--tracing their careers and investigating certain mysterious circumstances in their lives. And even though many of the authors' mysteries were already familiar to me (as a long-time reader of Golden Age crime fiction), Edwards managed to discover new and interesting tidbits about even the most well-known of the Golden Age writers. Pacing is just a tad slow in places and there's a tendency to revisit some of the key events (Christie's disappearance and Sayers' secret shame, for instance), but overall a definite winner that all mystery lovers need to have on their reference shelf. ★★★★ and a half.

[Disclaimer: My review policy is posted on my blog, but just to reiterate....The book was offered to me for impartial review  and I have received no payment of any kind. All comments in this section are entirely my own honest opinion.]   

Author Bio:

Martin Edwards was educated in Northwich and at Balliol College, Oxford University, taking a first class honours degree in law. He trained as a solicitor in Leeds and moved to Liverpool on qualifying in 1980. He published his first legal article at the age of 25 and become a partner in the firm of Mace and Jones in 1984.

He is married to Helena with two children (Jonathan and Catherine) and lives in Lymm. Martin is a member of the Murder Squad collective of crime writers, and is chairman of the nominations sub-committee for the CWA Diamond Dagger (crime writing's most prestigious award). In 2007 he was appointed the Archivist of the Crime Writers Association.


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Giveaway:

This is a giveaway hosted by Partners In Crime Virtual Book Tours for Martin Edwards & Harper Collins. There will be one winner of 1 physical copy of The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards to a US recipient. The giveaway begins on April 28th, 2015 and runs through June 3rd, 2015
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