Showing posts with label Death by Gaslight. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death by Gaslight. Show all posts

Monday, November 5, 2012

Challenge Complete: Death by Gaslight

1 January 2012 - 31 December 2012

For the Death by Gaslight Reading Challenge, I set myself up for Level #3 Burke and Hare, Body Snatchers with a bonus challenge: The Great Detective: Read 5 (or more) books featuring Sherlock Holmes, at least one of which must be an original story by Arthur Conan Doyle. All present and accounted for as of today.  I've still got almost two months left in the year and there are a few more books sitting on this year's TBR stacks that can count towards one of these I may be adding a few more titles.  But my declared challenge is all done.
This has been a lot of fun.  I'm so glad that Jenn C put this together.

Here are my reading lists:

Burke and Hare, Body Snatchers:
1. The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux (1907/French; 1908/English) [3/19/12]
The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1909) [5/16/12]
3. File No. 113 by Emile Gaboriau (1867) [7/11/12]
4. The House of a Thousand Candles by Meredith Nicholson (1906) [6/17/12] 
5. The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin (set in1903) [9/7/12]
6. Mrs. Jeffries Stands Corrected by Emily Brightwell (Victorian series) [8/19/12]

7. A Spark of Death by Bernadette Pajer (1901 Seattle) [2/19/12]
8. Death's Pale Horse by James Sherburne (Saratoga, 1890s) [8/27/12]

9. The Fleet Street Murders by Charles Finch (England, 1866) [9/1/12]
10. The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories by Michael Sims (ed & intro) [5/12/12]
11. Fatal Induction by Bernadette Pajer (1901 Seattle) [7/4/12] 
12. Murder at the Portland Variety by M. J. Zellnik (1890s Portland, OR) [7/29/12] 
13. Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas (set in Victorian London) [10/27/12]
14. The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes (set in Victorian England) [9/16/12]
15. The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime by Michael Sims (ed) [Victorian mystery short stories]

16. Ashworth Hall by Anne Perry (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)
17. Murder, Mrs. Hudson by Sydney Hoiser (featuring the Great Detective's housekeeper)

Burke & Hare Completed 11/5/12

The Great Detective:

1. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna (4/8/12)
2. The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man by Daniel Stashower (10/16/12)
3. Sherlock Holmes & the Treasure Train by Frank Thomas (10/6/12)
4. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (2/5/12)

5. The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (10/21/12)

Holmes portion finished on 10/21/12.

The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Review

It is very difficult for me to rate The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime (edited by Michael Sims).  The stories represent a  nice selection of early detective fiction--particularly those that feature female protagonists.  They are all interesting and well-written.  And I certainly recommend the anthology to anyone interested in this era of detective fiction.  My difficulty?  Well, Michael Sims makes a point of saying that he has made an effort to include stories that have not been reprinted--or that have not been reprinted as much as other stories by the same authors.  It's odd then that of the eleven stories here, only four are new to me--I don't count the excerpt from Anna Katherine Green's longer work.  And I've read all of the others within the last two years.  I was looking forward to some fresh stories and I guess the disappointment of that expectation has somewhat colored my response to this anthology.  If you haven't read much of the early works of detective fiction, then you're in for a treat.  As for me, I'm giving the collection a solid three star rating.

Here's a run-down of the stories:

"The Mysterious Countess" (1864, possibly 1861) by W. S. Hayward.  This is the first story to feature a female professional detective--Mrs. Paschal.  She is adept at putting herself into any role requested.  In this one she poses as a servant so she might discover the source of the Countess of Vervaine's seemingly endless supply of money....despite the lack of visible signs of support.  Mrs. Paschal braves underground tunnels and has to track her quarry down in a distant village before she gets to the bottom of the mystery.

"The Unknown Weapon" (1864) by Andrew Forrester. It is about the death of the son of a miserly old man who is killed while apparently in the the process of breaking into his own father's house. He has been stabbed with a weapon that no seems to be able to identify. This story has the honor of being quite probably the first novel about the Metropolitan Police (formed in 1829) , the first modern detective novel, and the first novel featuring a professional female detective. She is absolutely unnamed in this particular outing, but in other stories by Forrester, she is referred to as Mrs. G---- of the Metropolitan Police. She makes reference to herself and another female officer as constables...and I find it interesting to have references to female constables at this early date. Mrs. G---- is a thoroughly scientific detective, reminding the reader of Holmes. Had she the advantages of his training at university, I'm sure she would have examined her own bits of fluff under the microscope rather than sending them off in a tin box and directing "it to the gentleman who is good enough to control these kind of investigations." She faithfully takes up every piece of evidence, giving it a more thorough going-over than the local constable, looks over the scene of the crime, and thinks the problem through with logic that Holmes could not fault. There is no "feminine intuition" at work; it is a thoughtful, orderly investigation. The grand finale is a bit of a let-down--but over all a very good early detective story.

"Drawn Daggers" by C. L. Pirkis (1893).   Starring Loveday Brooke--the first known female detective created by a female author. Miss Brooke is presented as not only an intelligent and independent young woman, but as a woman who has taken up the profession because she is good at it. She's not supporting a sister or a disabled husband. She's not ultra-feminine to make up for her brains. She's just a good detective.   I have long had The Experiences of Loveday Brooks, Lady Detective on my list of books to look for. "Daggers Drawn" pays homage to Sherlock Holmes and I find Miss Brooks' way of keeping clues to herself very much in the Holmes style. Very feminist characterization for the time period.

"The Long Arm" by Mary Wilkins (1895).  Not really a female detective.  Sarah Fairbanks finds herself suspected of her father's murder--because her father disapproved of the man she loved.  There are other suspects--and several clues, like where are her father's overalls and where did the yellow ribbon come from?

The Affair Next Door, Ch. 1 (1897) by Anna Katherine Green. I'm a bit disappointed with this one--not in the writing itself, but that our editor chose to include a chapter of a longer work.  It doesn't really give us a feel for Amelia Butterworth and since it's not a self-contained story, it leaves me unsatisfied.

"The Man with the Wild Eyes" by George Robert Sims (1897). Starring Dorcas Dene, a former actress who seems adept at assuming any role.  In this one she masquerades as a private nurse in order to find out why a man's daughter claims to have had a fainting fit when it's obvious she's been attacked--and nearly strangled at that.

"The Adventure of the Cantankerous Old Lady" by Grant Allen (1899). This one features Lois Cayley, a recent graduate of Girton College, and down to her last two pence.  She agrees to be the companion to a rather cantankerous old lady--saving the lady's jewelry in the process.  Not a strict mystery, but a lovely period piece showing the "New Woman" of the late Victorian era--and one of the few stories I hadn't encountered before.

"How He Cut His Stick" by M. McDonnell Bodkin (1900). Starring Dora Myrl, a glamorous professional detective known at the time her stories came out as "A Sherlock Holmes in petticoats."  She is no-nonsense and definitely know how the stick got cut in this tale of the missing 5,000 British pounds.  

"The Man Who Cut Off My Hair" by Richard Marsh [aka Richard Bernard Heldmann] (1912).  Judith Lee is a young girl who has the gift of reading lips.  This gift and her fierce anger when the man cuts off her hair allow her to help the police bring a gang of jewel and precious metal thieves to justice.

"The Man With Nine Lives' by Hugh C. Weir (1914). Madelyn Mack, an "ordinary working detective" who is very Holmes-like--complete with a faithful Watson in the form of a female reporter and an addiction of her own (to a cola stimulant that helps her go without sleep and almost without food while on a case).  A man sends a letter to Miss Mack claiming that eight attempts have been made on his life and he fears that a ninth will be made--successfully.  He begs her to hurry to aid him.  She does, but too late, and finds herself searching for an apparent madman as the culprit.

"The Second Bullet" by Anna Katherine Green (1915).  This one features Green's other female detective, Violet Strange.  Miss Strange is the most upper-crust of all the detectives in this anthology.  She is a society girl for the most part who takes on cases that suit her so she can earn money to help a sister who was unjustly disinherited.  "The Second Bullet" is the most tragic of the stories included...Miss Strange must prove that a woman's husband did not commit suicide--a death that resulted in the loss of her child as well.  To do so, she must discover what happened to the second bullet.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Some Danger Involved: Review

Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas is one of the most engaging historical mysteries set in Victorian England that I have read in a long time.  Very atmospheric and informative--informative without being pedantic.  The story begins with Thomas Llewelyn, a down-on-his-luck ex-Oxford man and ex-prisoner.  Llewelyn has found it very difficult to get employment after spending time in Oxford prison for a very small crime.  He is nearly ready to end his suffering--permanently--when he sees an advertisement in The Times:

Assistant to prominent enquiry agent. Typing and shorthand required. Some danger involved in performance of duties. Salary commensurate with ability. 7 Craig's Court.

He goes to Craig's Court on the first day, but the line is so long he quickly gives up the wait.  When the advertisement is still running for a fourth day, he decides to give it one more try...and if he doesn't get this job, then he will be seeking out the river.

Fortunately for him, Cyrus Barker, the enquiry agent in question, sees something in this downtrodden man that makes him give Llewelyn a chance.  The Welshman has barely had time to settle in to his new establishment--which serves as home as well as work--when Barker is called in by prominent men in the Jewish community to investigate the horrible murder of a young scholar in the Jewish quarter.  It is Barker's job to determine if this was a private feud or if this represents a violent outbreak of the unrest which is sweeping England with the influx of Jewish refugees. Neither Barker nor Lord Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore want to see an English version of the pogroms. The trail takes Barker and Llewelyn from the meanest streets of the Jewish ghetto to the lair of the early Italian mafia to the churches of London. There will be another murder and Llewelyn will come close to being a third victim before he and his employer can close the case.

Thomas gives us a new look at the Holmes and Watson/Wolfe and Goodwin detective team.  Lots more action than most of the Holmes stories and Barker is far more mobile and physically involved than Nero Wolfe generally is.  I thoroughly enjoyed this new addition to the ranks.  The characters are interesting and I particularly like the interaction between Barker and Llewelyn.  They have the chemistry necessary to create a duo to follow in such auspicious footsteps.  We learn a lot about Llewelyn background, but there is still plenty to be revealed about his employer.  The other members of Barker's staff from Mac the butler and general factotum to Dummolard, his French chef, are also well-drawn.  And I hope to see more of Inspector Poole of the C.I.D.   I also enjoyed the historical information that Thomas works into the narrative.  I appreciate learning something when I pick up a historical novel without being beaten over the head with scholarship.  Thomas weaves knowledge about the Jewish population in England into the story without overburdening it.  He gives us enough to know why this was such a hot topic without sounding like a text book.

This is an interesting and entertaining beginning to a fairly new historical mystery series.  I look forward to future installments.  Five stars.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Review

When The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was first published, it had long been established that the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's celebrated sleuth Sherlock Holmes was made up of fifty-six short stories and four novels. There had also long been rumors of various other materials by Doyle that had never been collected and published in one volume.  Peter Haining hunted down some of the most elusive items and brought them all together in this book.  And what we have is a grand mish-mash of early stories, plays, poems, and essays about Holmes--all written by Doyle.  Well, purportedly in some cases.

I am quite sure that I've read some of these pieces before....probably re-collected in other places once Haining had done the leg-work of hunting them down for first time.  I can't say that any of the stories or other pieces are particularly earth-shatteringly great, but the pieces are interesting for anyone who has more than a passing interest in all things Holmes.  We are given everything from "The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy's Household" which is a clear precursor to The Study in Scarlet to Doyle's own explanation of how he came to kill off his most famous literary offspring.  There is also the list of Doyle's favorite stories--Holmes fans can see how their own favorites match up.  

The dust jacket blurb says that this volume "will undoubtedly be welcomed by every Holmes enthusiast and find a place of honour in Sherlockian Libraries throughout the world...."  Well, maybe there was great joy in Holmes-ville when this was first published, but coming to it now I would say that it's a decent collection of early and obscure material on Holmes.  Three stars.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man: Review

The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man by Daniel Stashower is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that relates an adventure that brings together the world's greatest consulting detective and Harry Houdini, the world's greatest escape artist. Houdini is accused of stealing important letters that could cause trouble for the Prince of Wales.  The letters were kept in room sealed tighter than the vaults of the Bank of England.  Houdini was present ta the house where the letters were kept.  Lestrade decides that since only a Houdini could have gotten in and out of such a room, that the escape artist must be the thief.  It's up to Sherlock Holmes to prove Lestrade wrong--by discovering the real villain, someone who could do what even Houdini says is impossible.

This is a decent read, but it's not serious Holmes.  Holmes is larger than his usual larger-than-life self and Watson is a bigger dolt than usual (not quite on a Nigel Bruce as Watson level, but still).  That said, the adventure is fun, there's lots of action, there's a mysterious Countess, Holmes goes in disguise, Watson gets to save his life, and Lestrade gets proven wrong, again (of course).  And who knew that Holmes could fly a plane?  Three stars.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sherlock Holmes & the Treasure Train: Review

Frank Thomas is, according to Wikipedia, an American actor, author, and bridge-strategy expert who became fascinated with the character of Sherlock Holmes after watching William Gillette perform the part during his farewell tour.  This led him to pen nine Holmes novels, including Sherlock Holmes and the Treasure Train. This is Thomas's fourth effort....and may I just say I don't think I'll be seeking out any of the others.  To quote Inspector MacDonald, "...there's something about it that just doesn't sit comfortable....[T]he taste isn't right."  This is a case of an American enthusiast trying way too hard to write a British story.  And not just any British story, but a novel about Holmes.  There are plenty of American authors who can pull this off pretty well.  Thomas, unfortunately, is not one of them.  

You'd think a Holmes enthusiast might actually have immersed himself in the works of Conan Doyle, the better to imitate his style.  And the better to capture Watson's voice as narrator.  Yeah, no.  The rhythm and cadence and word choice doesn't remind me of Conan Doyle--except briefly in very spotty patches  He sprinkles his work with Americanisms--often putting them in the mouth of Holmes and trying to make it okay by having Holmes say, "As our American cousins would say...." Why the heck do we need to know what the American cousins would say?  It's not as if the client is American.  BUT, just to remind us that this IS a British story, he also has Holmes throwing about "old chap" or "good chap"  and "old fellows" like a bad English impersonator.  AND, to remind us just who we're dealing with here, Watson--our jolly narrator, what ho--tells us every other page that we're reading about "the great detective," "the world's only consulting detective," "the sleuth," etc.  The only time Watson isn't calling him by one of these designations is when he's calling Holmes "my intimate friend" in the most awkward way.  Not just once--repeatedly.  Seriously?  A solid, British man of the Victorian age blatantly claiming intimacy in front of the reading public?

So, what about the story? Well, here we go...another battered tin dispatch box crammed with papers has come to light--this time found by Thomas who was in Charing Cross avoiding bombs during the Blitz.  Whew.  By my reckoning, Dr. Watson must have stashed about 50 boxes of case notes.  This particular Holmes pastiche revolves around a Great Train Robbery...rivaling the story told by Michael Crichton ten years earlier.  Oops, does that seem like a coincidence to you?  Here we have a half million pounds of gold disappearing from an armored train that is bound for a meeting with French authorities and a golden trip across the Channel.  The case involves sharpshooters, men of high finance, undercover agents, and cold blooded murder.  Before it's all over, Watson will be kidnapped and will have earned the title "The Fastest Gun on Baker Street."  And Holmes will discover how the gold could disappear before it was ever stolen.   Such a fun-sounding adventure....that just doesn't quite deliver.  The mystery itself is fairly decent.  It has enough twists and turns at the end to keep the reader guessing.  But it's just not enough to make the story successful in the Holmes tradition.  Two stars.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Somnambulist: Review

[Sits. Blinks. Shakes head.] 

Last night, at midnight (how appropriate), I completed the final scheduled book for the R.I.P. VII event--The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes.  Now I need to write up a review.  Um. Okay.  [Blinks some more.] 

Yeah.  It's one of those books.  The kind where you finish and you just don't know what to say.  The only thing that really occurs right off the bat is: Man, that was one weird little book.  And I do mean weird.  But I guess weird is good when you're working on a book for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril.  Did I like it?  I don't know. Yes and no.  Maybe.  I like the writing--Jonathan Barnes has a grasp of narration that pulls you from the very beginning:

Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.

Yet I cannot be held wholly accountable for its failings. I have good reason for presenting you with so sensational and unlikely an account.

It is all true.

Stop reading after that.  Just try it.  I couldn' eyes strayed down the page, eager to find out what came next.  And even when I was confused beyond belief, I just couldn't stop.  A writer that can induce that kind of compulsive reading in his audience has got something.  Even when he has a detective that makes you wonder how he got such an impressive reputation.  'Cause impressive Edward Moon ain't.  

But let's take this from the top and see if I can make some sense out of things while I try to tell you about them.  Edward Moon is an illusionist (for lack of a better word) of some sort.  For years he had been the toast of Victorian society--amazing and confounding everyone up to and including minor royals.  His act includes a giant of a man--the Somnambulist.  A man who never speaks, whose face is impassive--even when stabbed repeatedly with sharp knives.  And who never bleeds no matter where he's stabbed.  But Moon's act never changes, and society has begun to search for other entertainments. 

To keep himself from boredom, Moon has involved himself in various criminal cases.  We're given a laundry list of earlier crimes (a la Sherlock Holmes rattling off his unpublished cases) and meant to believe that he's been brilliant at unraveling them.  Despite the fact that the Clapham case keeps getting mentioned as though it wasn't exactly a success. 

When the story opens Moon is getting bored again and, what a happy coincidence, things are getting weird in London.  A disreputable actor is killed by some sort of creature that can climb up walls.  This is followed by a similar murder.  The theatre where Moon performs (and lives) is burnt to the ground.  A strange man who claims to live backwards in time keeps popping in and out of Moon's life.  A clairvoyant madam gives warning that some sort of secret society is going to take over London in about a week.  There are all sorts of creepy people wandering about.  Can Moon figure it out and stop the society from destroying London civilization?

Well...can he?  Most of the novel, it doesn't seem like he's gonna be too successful at that.  He runs round in circles, demanding answers from people who refuse to cooperate and finding out just enough to move the story along.  Barely.  And when he finally does get to the bottom of things the reader (at least this reader) is left scratching her head and wondering, "What the heck?" and "Seriously? That's what it was all about?"

The two redeeming bits for me:  

The narrator.  He made the book for least until the big reveal at the end.  I can't tell you much about that or I'll spoil the story.  But let's just say that he gets WAY too smug once the reveal is over.

The Prefects.  Two for-hire killers who are modeled on British public school boys.  Sure, they're quite evil, but it's all in good fun.  What ho?

Okay.  That's it.  Sorry, I can't give you a more indepth review than that....but I'm still blinking and shaking my head.  If I think of something more profound, I come back and let you know.  For now--three stars.  Middle of the road kind of read.

****You know, I've thought this over a bit.  This book reminds me of the Vincent Price revenge movies...The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood, etc.  But I think Price played it much better than Barnes wrote it.  It needs that "almost too far over the top" feel to it that works better visually than it does on paper.  

There's something oddly comforting about discovering all one's worst suspicions to be true. [Edward Moon, p. 119)

EM: In the past few days I've seen things I know shouldn't be true, things against the order of the world. Things that have no place in a rational universe.
S: May I offer some advice? You should do as I do whenever I'm confronted by the weird, by the uncanny, by the unexplained.
EM: What's that?
S: My job.
[Edward Moon; Skimpole, pp. 149-50)

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Necropolis Railway: Review

The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin is first book in a series starring railway man Jim Stringer.  It is billed on its cover as "an ingenious and atmospheric thriller" (Daily Express, London) and "a masterful novel about a mad, clanking fog-bound world (Simon Winchester, author of The Professor & the Madman), but quite honestly ingenious, thriller and masterful aren't the words that come to mind. I will admit that it's got plenty of that.  There are bits where the atmosphere is perfect--the reader is plopped down in Edwardian England and it feels right.  But then there's that dream-like, misty-edged, through-the-looking-glass atmosphere that makes the reader stop and flip back through several pages, look up, and say to oneself, "What the heck just happened there?"  It doesn't help that all sorts of unfamiliar terms (mostly railway, but not all) are thrown about like everyone knows an encyclopedia's worth of railway jargon.

The story is, on the surface, an interesting and inventive one.  It's 1903 and Jim Stringer, a butcher's son from Yorkshire, dreams of being an express driver--he do love him some speed.  His dad would prefer that he follow in his footsteps, but sees the trains in his son's eyes and agrees to railway a porter.  But Stringer meets Rowland Smith, a man with connections to the London and South Western company, and it looks like he's on his way to fulfilling his dream.

He heads to London where he meets nothing but trouble.  He isn't assigned to the section of the railway he expects.  Instead, he's going to be serving on engines that transports coffins along the "graveyard line."  And his railway mates aren't--matey, that is.  He's not sure if they just don't like him because he seems to have an "in" with the bosses or if they think he's there to spy on them or because he's come from the country and doesn't fit in with their ways.  And then he discovers that his predecessor just disappeared....and there seem to be an unusual amount of railway deaths related to the Necropolis Railway.  The more he hears about his predecessor, the more he wants to find out what happened to him....and his questions and investigations soon put his life in danger.  Will he find out the truth before he receives his own one-way ticket on the graveyard train?

When I saw this book at the Friends of the Library Bookstore and I read the synopsis, I was instantly intrigued.  I wish I could say that the book lived up to its promise--but it didn't.  The best parts were the atmosphere (the good, historical atmosphere) and the last-minute twist at the end.  And the few good quotes I was able to glean.  The negatives: 1) Jim Stringer really isn't a character that I ever got terribly interested in.  I kept reading because I wanted to finish the book, not because I just had to know what happened.  2) I hate ambiguous endings.  Yes, we find out who did it.  But will justice be served?  Who knows.  What's in store for Stringer?  Beats me.  3) Railway jargon out the wazoo.  Unfamiliar terms are okay as long as they're explained--either overtly or through context--and the reader's not inundated with them.  

Overall: Decent mystery buried in the weird, dream-like atmosphere and excessive railway terms.  Okay, but not terrific for two and a half stars.

I would soon learn that in London they are never happy to just do a thing once. (p. 4)

As we pulled away, I leant out of the cab and watched the Bug [a train] disappearing into the complications of the down-main with a great sense of desolation in me; of being a very small person in a very great city, where everything hurtled at too great a rate, and people moved from station to station, life to death, all in the blinking of an eye, with nobody to notice or care, or say that the world had been lost to madness, because the madness had by degrees become the normal thing. (p. 68)

I could've carried on stumbling all day: one direction is just as good as another when everybody about you is dead. (p. 111)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Fleet Street Murders: Review

The Fleet Street Murders is the third novel in Charles Finch's  series of Victorian-era mysteries starring gentleman detective Charles Lenox. The story begins on Christmas in 1866.  It's a pleasant day for Lenox who is still basking in the glow of having recently become engaged to his long-time friend and love of his life, Lady Jane Grey.  But the day is not a pleasant one for two journalists across town.  Within minutes of each other, Winston Carruthers and Simon Pierce are stabbed and shot (respectively).  The police quickly track down suspects, but Lenox and his assistant Dallington believe there must be more to the story than what the police have found so far.  Soon, one of the suspects is dead by hanging--meant to appear a suicide, but proved to be murder--and then the investigating officer is killed as well.  Lenox becomes convinced that someone is directing the action from behind the scenes--someone with a bigger motive than just removing two bothersome journalists.

The investigation is made difficult for Lenox by several "distractions" in his life.  Worries about his betrothal, Lady Jane repeatedly assures him that she does want to marry him--but needs time.  Time for what?  Worries about his friend Thomas and his wife Toto who have recently lost their unborn child.  And worries about his run for Parliament in the northern town of Stirrington.  He's got a lot on his mind--and feels guilty taking time for any of his obligations in lieu of any of the others.

And the distractions tell a bit.  This story doesn't seem to run quite as smoothly as the first two and it's definitely not as good as the second novel in the series. Finch does have a very firm grasp of characterization and he gives every character from Lenox down to the pub owner in Stirrington their due.  You definitely feel like these folks are real people.  It makes it a lot easier to overlook the flaws in the mystery plot.  Not obvious holes--just the lack of smoothness (with all the rushing about from London to Stirrington and around Stirrington and then back to London) and the slightly disjointed method of story-telling.  But an interesting mystery and a good, solid three star outing.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Death's Pale Horse: Review

I don't have a lot to say about this one. I expected Death's Pale Horse by James Sherburne to have all the elements I look for in a good historical mystery.  Setting: late 1800s (one of my favorite time periods) among the Saratoga horse racing scene.  Interesting and somewhat unsual protagonist: sportswriter Paddy Moretti.  Story revolves around Moretti trying to clear the first black jockey to ever ride at Saratoga of the murder charge--sounded like an exciting hook for the reader.  But I just could not get into the story.  It was very slow moving even though Paddy is scurrying hither and yon looking for a story that will get his editor off his back and secure his job.  Bodies appear (one in the dumbwaiter at the hotel!) and Paddy tries to solve the murders while he also tries to avoid thugs who are on his heels and the police who are angry that he has spilled the beans about the murders at the racetrack (we don't want to scare off anyone who might drop some cash in the town).  The denouement isn't all that exciting and I knew who the culprit was early on.  One star for a fairly disappointing read.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mrs. Jeffries Stands Corrected: Review

Mrs. Jeffries Stands Corrected is the ninth installment of the Victorian era cozy mystery series by Emily Brightwell.  Mrs. Jeffries is the housekeeper for Inspector Witherspoon of the Yard.  Little does he know how much his domestic staff helps him in his least usually.  This particular novel could just as easily be called "Mrs. Jeffries Is Locked Out"--not locked out of the house, but locked out of the case.  She's been telling Inspector Witherspoon all along (as she feeds him clues that the servants have gathered on his behalf) that all he needs to do is listen to his "inner voice."  So, that's what he decides to do....and not share any details over sherry like she's become accustomed to him doing.  He's being all secretive and the servants are hard-pressed to to come up with information on their own.

And what are they investigating?  Well....Haydon Dapeers is the much disliked owner of several pubs in London and the book begins with the grand opening of his newest establishment.  It's also his birthday, so it's quite an event--with all sorts of people milling about.  All sorts of people who had a reason to wish Dapeers dead.  And before the evening is over, he is--knocked on the head and then fatally stabbed in the back.  While Mrs. Jeffries and the other servants are investigating the possibility of murdering ministers, brutal barmaids, wicked wives, or lethal lawyers (who happen to be up to their eyes in gambling debt), Inspector Witherspoon is following his inner voice on a path of his own. Witherspoon's servants are worried that his inner voice (which is not his housekeeper's this time) will lead him back to the records room where he was a clerk before he brilliantly solved his first murder. They become especially alarmed when he announces that he has a plan to catch the villain.  Will they discover the murderer in time--or has the inspector really solved this one on his own?

This is a fun, cozy series--sort of like brain candy.  Not a lot of heavy duty thinking, but it's just the thing when you want something comfortable and light.  It's always fun watching the servants scramble around to hunt up clues and sneak the information to Witherspoon without him noticing.  This one has an interesting twist though--with Witherspoon going out on his own.  That was fun too--watching the servants be all upset about not having the inside track.  And does Witherspoon out-investigate them?  Well, you'll just have to read it and see.  Three stars for a nice comfy read.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Murder at the Portland Variety: Review

Took a little ride in a time machine this weekend--back to the 1890s in Portland, Oregon. That's the setting for M. J. Zellnik's Murder at the Portland Variety. The Portland Variety is a theater house where vaudeville acts made up of beautiful dancing girls, magicians, and recycled opera singers entertain Portland audiences.  Libby Seale is a seamstress who works backstage to keep the vaudeville players properly dressed.  Libby has come to Portland from New York City--escaping a past that she wants to forget and that she hopes to keep secret.  She hasn't been at the theater long before the magician's assistant, Vera Carabella, is found murdered in the tunnels that run underneath the city.

Libby is disappointed when the police chalk Vera's death up to the white slave trade and refuse to waste time investigating.  She feels she owes it to her friend to try an find out what really happened.  Libby makes another friend of Peter Eberle, a young reporter with the local newspaper.  Between the two of them, the investigation will reach from the brothels and dockside bars to the house of Portland's mayoral candidate. The clues they find will lead them to one of the key players in the white slave industry, a chase through the underground tunnels, and a surprise confession at a society wedding.

This is a very promising beginning to a new historical mystery series.  The characters are solid and have plenty of depth.  The period detail is just enough to support the story without overwhelming the reader with minutia.  The mystery is fairly well-clued and is generally well-plotted, although it is not an extraordinary page-turner.  I enjoyed the development of the partnerships and relationship between Libby and Peter and look forward to seeing how things progress in future books.  Libby is very clever and a bit forward-thinking for the time period--hopefully Peter will continue to put up with her unorthodox (for the time period) ways.  Three stars for a good, solid mystery.


With Libby, he never had to search for words, and she seemed to understand what he was going to say before he said it. (p. 70)

She was a good friend of mine...perhaps not a close friend, but a good one....I hadn't known her long, but sometimes acquaintance of short-standing can be more intense for its brevity, rather than less. [Libby Seale] (p. 151)

One can't right all the wrongs of the world, child. There will always be crime, and there will always be innocent victims. [Hatty Matthews] (p. 185)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

File No. 113: Review

If you stick with the detective, Lecoq, and the main action of this mystery, then File No. 113 by Émile Gaboriau beats The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux hands down in the category of French detective novels.  Not nearly as well-known as the ground-breaking locked room mystery of Leroux, File No. 113 features a likeable detective, Monsieur Lecoq, who is as adept at the art of disguise as Holmes and more connected with human emotion than his British counterpart. (And I say that as a fan of Holmes, mind you.)

The story seems to be a simple puzzle.  The banking-house of Andre Fauvel has been robbed of 350,000 francs.  Only two men had the key and the secret word that would open the safe where it was kept.  One is Andre Fauvel and the other is his trusted head cashier Prosper Bertomy.  Both protest their innocence and, naturally, the police would never dream of suspecting the respectable Monsieur Fauvel, so the culprit must be the cashier.  Fortunately for Prosper, the great detective Monsieur Lecoq believes him to be innocent and is ready to go to great lengths to prove his theory.  Lecoq dons disguises and marshals all the officers he can to discover how the money could have disappeared if neither the banker nor the cashier is guilty.
In the end, he traces the plot to the past--a story of young lovers, separated by fate, whose actions will have repercussions in the present.  And he discovers the guilt of two evil, grasping men who use their knowledge of those actions to try and ruin Prosper and his young love, Madeleine.

As I mention at the beginning of this review, the present story of the bank robbery and the actual descriptions of the Lecoq's detective work are terrific.  I thoroughly enjoyed Gaboriau's narrative in those sections and my rating for this story rests completely on those portions.  Where it bogs down is in the middle section where Gaboriau describes the past love affair and how it has built up to the present situation.  Quite simply, that goes on WAY too long.  The length completely distracts from the events we're supposed to be concentrating on--the robbery and who is framing Prosper, even though it explains the whole set up.  It goes on for so long that I began to feel like I had wandered into a completely different story--one of star-crossed lovers and unhappy endings.  I would have upped my rating if Gaboriau had found a more succinct way to relay that information.  As it is--three and 3/4 stars for a very good mystery with romance interruptions.

Alas! we must suffer ourselves before we can feel for others. [Nina Gipsy] (p. 21)

I have watched him as only a woman can watch a man upon whom her fate depends, but it has always been in vain. [Nina Gipsy] (p. 21)

There are some people who must be saved without warning, and against their will. [Nina Gipsy] (p. 22)

A father is the one friend upon whom we can always rely. In the hour of need, when all else fails, we remember him upon whose knees we sat when children, and who soothed our sorrows; and even though he may be unable to assist us, his mere presence serves to comfort and strengthen us. (p. 33)

As to acknowledging that he was about to obtain a triumph with the ideas of another man, he never thought of such a thing. It is generally in perfect good faith that the jackdaw struts about in the peacock's feathers. (p. 55)

Excessive suffering brings with it a kind of dull insensibility and stupor.... (p. 60)

Like those imperceptible insects which, having once penetrated the root of a tree devour it in a single night, suspicion, when it invades our minds, soon develops itself and destroys our firmest beliefs. (p. 75)

Vengeance is a delicious fruit, which must be allowed to ripen in order that it may be fully enjoyed. [M. Verduret {Lecoq}] (p. 85)

You say she loves him? No one but a coward would be defrauded of the woman he loved and who loved him. Ah, if I had once felt Madeleine's hand tremble in mine, if her rosy lips had pressed a kiss upon my brow, the whole world could not take her from me. [Louis, the Marquis de Clameran] (p. 189)

It is at the family fireside, often under the shelter of the law itself, that the real tragedies of life are acted; in these days traitors wear gloves, scoundrels cloak themselves in public esteem, and their victims die broken-hearted, but smiling to the last.  What I have just related to you is almost an every-day occurrence; and yet you profess astonishment. [M. Verduret {Lecoq}] (p. 214)

...chance is sometimes a wonderful accomplice in crime. [M. Verduret {Lecoq}}] (p. 219)

...a statement from you is more convincing than all the proofs in the world. [Joseph] (p. 223)

 He was as yet not sufficiently experienced in ruffianism to know that one villain always sacrifices another to advance his own project; he was credulous enough to believe in the old adage of "honor amongst thieves." (p. 236)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fatal Induction: Review

Bernadette Pajer has done it again.  In Fatal Induction, she has once more swept us back in time to the Seattle of 1901.  And she does it with such deft simplicity that we don't even feel the whoosh of the years as we travel back in time. Her details are perfect and there is no trouble at all in believing that we are walking the streets of turn-of-the-century Seattle with Professor Benjamin Bradshaw. The believability doesn't stop with the time and the setting.  Her characters are becoming more and more real--and this is just the second book in her supremely enjoyable historical mystery series.  

Ben Bradshaw is a delightful character.  He is the absorbed, somewhat absent-minded professor who is also passionately devoted to his son and very loyal to his friends.  He can't resist helping someone who's in trouble.  And when a peddler's wagon is abandoned behind his house and it becomes apparent that the peddler's daughter Emily disappeared after witnessing her father's murder, Bradshaw cannot leave the mystery alone.  He is willing to search for the girl anywhere--including the far from savory world of bars, dance halls, and brothels.  His investigations cause his friends to worry for his safety and he eventually steps on enough toes that he receives a threatening note.  But his sense of justice and concern for the girl won't rest until her father's killer is caught and the girl is safe.

Ben is also an inventor and while the mystery is swirling he is at work on a contest entry for a device that will deliver the music from the Seattle Grand Theater by phone to Seattle homes.  It occurs to him that not only does he have a contest winner on his hands, but that it could also be adapted to help trap the villain.  Devoting hours in his workshop, he puts his health at risk as he tries to complete the device to catch the killer.  But will he be in time to save Emily?

This exciting installment in the Bradshaw mysteries not only gives us more of his character, but we get to know Mrs. Prouty, the housekeeper, and his son, Justin, better.  Justin proves himself to be his father's son when it comes to compassion--hiding the girl for a while....right under his father's and Mrs. Prouty's noses.  It was also enjoyable to see the friendship between Bradshaw and Detective O'Brien grow and be tested.  It gives a very authentic feel to the story.  I do have to admit to being just a little bit frustrated with Bradshaw and his feelings for Missouri.  Although I do understand his reluctance, I just want to give him a giant shove and say, "Get on with it, already!"

All-in-all, a very satisfying historical mystery. I have fallen in love with this series and look forward with great anticipation to the next installment.  Four stars.

*Note: I won my copy of this book in a contest sponsored by the author.  The review, however, is entirely my own idea--complete with my honest opinion--and I have received no compensation for either the book or the review.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The House of a Thousand Candles: Review

There are several reasons why I grabbed up The House of a Thousand Candles by Meredith Nicholsoan from the local library Friends of the Library Bookstore a couple years ago: it's a vintage mystery (written in 1905); it takes place in Indiana (that's where I'm from and where I am); and it  promised a "classic romantic thriller" with "all the elements of a good mystery story."  There were lots of reasons to read it now (or at least this year): my very own Vintage Mystery Challenge (for the number in the title); the What's in a Name Challenge (a kind of house); the Death by Gaslight Challenge (Victorian era mysteries); the A-Z Mystery Authors Challenge (letter "N"); the Criminal Plots Challenge (book written by an author from where I live); and the adult summer reading challenge from my local library (a book with an Indiana connection).  As you can see, it's all about the challenges.

The story line really did seem to promise a great deal. John Glenarm has been wandering around through Europe and Africa, blithely spending the inheritance left him by his father--getting into scrapes and having all sorts of adventures.  He's just come to the end of his finances and determined to settle down and practice his profession (engineering) when he receives word that his grandfather has died and he must return home to learn the contents of the will.  He is dismayed to find his old classmate and rival, Arthur Pickering, is the executor of his grandfather's will and holds sway over his inheritance.  The old gentleman's final wishes are simple: In order to inherit, John must go to live in Glenarm House in Indiana for a period of one year and live a quiet and sober life.  If he doesn't then the inheritance will go to one Marian Devereaux....someone of whom John has never heard.  There is also and odd clause which states that if John and Marian happen to marry within a five-year period of John's agreeing to the terms of the will then the entire fortune will be given to a local school.

John determines that since he had been such a ne'er-do-well while his grandfather was living, he will do his best to live up to the gentleman's wishes after death.  He settles into the house in Indiana and that's when the fun begins.  During his tenancy, John is shot at, hears mysterious noises in the house, has run-ins with intruders and ghostly sightings, discovers secret passages, and begins to fall in love with a girl who seems to treat the house as her own.  And before it's over, he will suspect nearly everyone of being in league against him and there will be an old-fashioned shoot-out.  

There are many reasons why this story should have been a success--lots of action and intrigue--but it fell a little flat for me. I wasn't very invested in the main character.  Quite often when you have a hero who is represented as a bad boy, you find that he is really a lovable rogue.  I felt like John was supposed to be....but he just didn't quite cut it for me.  My favorite character was actually Stoddard, the battling minister who stands by his side in the final assault on the house.  One thing I will say for John, I totally sympathize with him over feeling betrayed.  And I don't quite get why a certain young woman can't understand why he might think she was working against him.  If you refuse to explain your actions, what else is a poor guy to do? On the surface, the evidence is very much in favor of his interpretation.

This was a decent read from the turn of last century.  It does have an interesting twist at the end and it's always satisfying to see the villain of the piece get what's coming to him. Not quite as exciting as anticipated, but a solid three star outing.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Dead Witness: Review

The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories by Michael Sims (ed) jumped right off the library "New Arrivals" shelf and into my hands.  Like I needed another book to read right now.  Like I don't have two-thirds of a Mount TBR pile of my own books to read for challenges this year.  Like I could really resist this combination: Victorian (Vintage!)--Mysteries!  The collection gathers some of the best stories about private investigators and police detectives from the mid-19th to the early 20th Century.  It includes well-known stories like Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" as well as rare gems like "The Secret Cell" by William E. Burton--a story that sees print for the first time since its initial appearance in 1837.  The tales take us from France to London to the Outback in Australia to high-society New York and the backwoods of Canada. 

Here's a run-down of the stories and some thoughts:

"The Secret Cell" by Burton: Quite well-done for an early detective story.  L-- (the only name given the detective) uses the art of disguise and chatting up pub regulars and innkeepers.  There is a highspeed chase (well--as high speed as one can get in horse-drawn carriages) and fisticuffs.  And there is even the use of a dog to track down the missing woman.  Realistic detective work--with an investigator who is not quite the eccentric that Dupin and Holmes will be.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe: The classic story credited with starting the whole detective ball rolling.  Dupin is a moody, night-loving character.  He uses an investigative method--observing everything and discounting nothing...until it can be proven irrelevant or impossible.  Definitely a forerunner of Holmes's method: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

"On Duty with Inspector Field" by Charles Dickens: This is a very uninteresting and confusing "true" story of life on the beat with a policeman.  It just did absolutely nothing for me.

"The Diary of Anne Rodway" by Wilkie Collins: Anne cannot bear to think that her friend Mary has been foully murdered and the culprit will get away.  The verdict at the inquest is accident--Mary has died of a blow to the head that could have occurred in a fall. Anne is convinced that Mary was struck down on her way home.  A piece of a man's cravat clutched in her friend's hand is the only clue to be had.  The diary reveals Anne's journey to find the truth of Mary's death.  Very enjoyable!

"You Are Not Human, Monsieur d'Artagnan" by Alexandre Dumas: A selection from the larger work The Vicomte de Bragelonne, this very short work is pretty matter-of-fact and leaves no mystery for the reader to try and unravel.  D'Artagnan goes and investigates the scene--which is not described to the reader at the time--and then lays his deductions before the king one by one.  No suspense, no mystery.  Interesting only for its place in the development of detective stories.

"Arrested on Suspicion" by Andrew Forrester, Jr.: Another very short piece--notable for the early use of the now time-worn trick of the "mysterious double." Also a fairly good example of a forerunner of today's police procedural.

"The Dead Witness" by "W. W." (Mary Fortune): The first known detective short story by a woman.  Published as an entry in a series featuring the "Memoirs of an Australian Police Officer."  Provides an interesting and slightly shocking surprise at the end--a convenient way to get the culprit to fully confess.

"The Mysterious Human Leg" by "James McGovan" (William Crawford Honeyman): From another series of articles purported to be the experiences of the workaday life of a metropolitan detective.  This one follows McGovan as he tracks down the body belonging to the mysterious leg.

"The Little Old Man of Batignolles" by Emile Gaboriau: This one features a shrewd but compassionate policeman named Mechinet.  We have a Watson-like companion--a 23 year old health officer who lives in the same tenant house as Mechinet.  The story opens with their meeting--and our narrator's attempts to discover what kind of man his neighbor is.  He realizes he has become friends with a detective when Mechinet is called out to investigate the death of a wealthy old man.  Everything points to the man's nephew--but our narrator is the first to call attention to a clue that will lead Mechinet to the truth of the matter.

"The Science of Deduction" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The opening chapters of The Study in Scarlet.  Chapters which give us the one of the most famous meetings of detective story history: "Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said Stamford, introducing us.  "How are you?" he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly give him credit.  "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."

"The Whitechapel Mystery": No fictional short story here.  Just an account of the very first of the attributed Jack the Ripper murders--from a newspaper article in the Evening News to the Daily Telegraph's transcript of the first day of the inquest.

"The Assassin's Natal Autograph" by Mark Twain: the opening of Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, this excerpt shows lawyer David Wilson securing the release of an innocent man (and identification of the guilty party) based on fingerprints--well before the first legal conviction using fingerprint evidence which took place in 1902.  A bit long-winded in build-up, but a very nice little synopsis of courtroom antics.

"The Murder at Troyte's Hill" by C. L. Pirkis: Starring Loveday Brooke--the first known female detective created by a female author.  Miss Brooke is presented as not only an intelligent and independent young woman, but as a woman who has taken up the profession because she is good at it.  She's not supporting a sister or a disabled husband.  She's not ultra-feminine to make up for her brains.  She's just a good detective. In this one, she gets to the bottom of the mystery of who killed Alexander "Sandy" Henderson, lodge-keeper to Mr. Craven of Troyte's Hill.  The police have fastened on to the son of the house, but Miss Brooke has reason's to doubt the official reading of the case.

"The Haverstock Hill Murder" by George R. Sims.  This features another female detective of the era--Dorcas Dene.  Dorcas is a former actress--which makes her particularly adept at the art of disguise.  And she puts her art to good use in helping Inspector Swanage discover who murdered Mrs. Hannasford of Haverstock Hill.

"The Stolen Cigar Case" by Bret Harte: Billed as one of the best Holmes parodies (of which there have been many, I have to say that this very short send-up of Holmes and Watson didn't do a whole lot for me.

"The Absent-Minded Coterie" by Robert Barr: Barr wrote short stories which featured a French predecessor to Christie's Hercule Poirot by the name of Eugene Valmont.  Valmont has a superior intellect as well as superior vanity to go along with it.  Considering that the fact is revealed in the very first paragraph, I don't feel bad about telling you that I'm a bit disappointed to find that the bad guys get away at the end of this story.  Valmont is very clever about discovering that Inpsector Hale's quarry is indeed up to no good--albeit not at the crime the English detective suspects.  But his vanity and belief in the superiority of French ways enables the culprits to escape with no fear of capture.  At least not for this crime.

"The Hammer of God" by G. K. Chesterton:  To my mind, a well-known Father Brown story.  At least I have seen it reproduced in several collections.  But it is a clever short story and shows off Chesterton's detective to good effect as he solves the mystery of how such a staggering blow could be delivered by such a small hammer.

"The Angel of the Lord" by Melville Devisson Post: Uncle Abner is another detective with a religious bent.  He is not a clergyman, but he is still very interested in sin and retribution.  Abner follows a man and proves how he disposed of both his partner and his horse.  I have to say that Uncle Abner's style of speech isn't one that just reaches out and draws me in.  Not a very long story, but I couldn't tell that in the reading of it....

"The Crime at Big Tree Portage" by Hesketh Pritchard:  November Joe is a regular backwoods Sherlock Holmes.  Using methods familiar to anyone who has read the Holmes stories, Joe covers the campsite at Big Tree Portage and holds up clues for his "Watson" Quaritch to see and be mystified by.  It's the small indications that lead Joe to the killer of Henry Lyon.

"The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage" by Ernest Bramah: Starring Max Carrados, a blind detective who has hyperacute senses which allow him to unravel an intricate plot--involving a kite, a plate of metal and a few pebbles at a window.  He prevents a murder, but is unable to prevent the suicide.

"The Case of Padages Palmer" by Harvey O'Higgins: This features Barney Cook, one of the youngest detectives of the era.  Barney begins as a telegram delivery boy and winds up being taken on by Walter Babbing and his detective agency.  In Barney's first "case" he helps Babbing track down a man using a very simple clue--the length of his cigar.

"The Intangible Clue" by Anna Katharine Green: One of a set of short stories starring Violet Strange--a young society woman who assists Mr. Driscoll with cases that involve the strata of society where she can move freely.  This story involves Miss Strange in a "sordid" murder case--something she never intended to be part of.  But...without her observations in the needlewoman's home, the perpetrator would never have been caught.

This is a pretty good collection of early detective stories.  Age of course will tell and there are several plots and twists that will seem old hat to regular readers of detective fiction.  It's good to keep in mind that some of these stories are showing off these plots and twists for the first time and to try and imagine how mystified the readers in the Victorian age must have been.  Three and a half stars for the entire collection.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: The White Chapel Horrors

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna plays at "What If?" What if Sherlock Holmes were a real person? (Gasp! Who could doubt it?) And what if he had investigated the horrible murders committed by Jack the Ripper? For surely, the Great Detective would have been called in on such a notorious case.

There is no doubt that Hanna knew his Holmes. He was a long-time Holmes buff and a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. And he most definitely had done his research in Ripper lore. Though a work of fiction, the novel is meticulously footnoted. Those who are well-acquainted with the Holmes canon may say, too much footnoting--he chooses to footnote material that anyone who knows the least bit about Holmes and Watson should know--but better too much than not enough. Hanna has used the Holmes canon and the facts of the terrible murders in 1888 and blended them into a dandy little tale. And it is very interesting to follow Holmes on the track of one of the most notorious killers of all time.

Almost 500 pages long, the book flies by (I finished it in a little over the day) and I didn't want to put it down until I got to the end. Hanna gets almost everything right. Almost. I quibble with bits of his portrayal of Watson--I maintain that the doctor is too good-hearted to espouse some of the derogatory comments and prejudicial beliefs Hanna attributes to him. Yes, some of the comments about the poor and certain races living in London were true of the day--but surely Hanna could have presented those details without putting them in the mouth of the good doctor. Watson does in a lot of ways represent the stalwart British man of his time, but not in all ways.

My other quibble is the ending--or rather the lack thereof. It is very disquieting to follow Holmes throughout the story and be left hanging at the end. We aren't told who the Great Detective believes Jack the Ripper to be and we are supposed to believe that at the end of the day Holmes doesn't even know. That Holmes is no more enlightened than the police. That is not the Holmes we know.

Overall, a good tale. Hanna makes it very believable that Holmes could have investigated this case. And the blend of fact and fiction is very good. An enjoyable read worth three stars.


For one thing, life's affairs all too often did not come to a conclusion, satisfactory or otherwise. They simply stopped--abruptly, artlessly, without a shrug of apology. All too often there was no proper finish, no clear resolution or sense of finality, no ending at all; merely a cessation of activity. All too often there lacked that indispensable element of drama, that sense of wonderment, discovery, and surprise--those essential twists and delightfully serpentine turns leading inescapably to the neat and tidy ending the reader of fiction had come to expect (p. 391)

I suppose you can say that he warned me....

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Mystery of the Yellow Room: Review

Synopsis: A series of inexplicable events involving Mademoiselle Stangerson, her father, and their household pit the famous detective Frederic Larsan against the amazing young journalist Joseph Rouletabille. Mlle. Stangerson is attacked one evening after she has retired to bed. She has firmly locked and bolted the door behind her. Not too long after, there are cries of "Murder!' and gun shots and the sound of a scuffle--but no one can get in to help her. When her father and a servant manage to break in the door, they find her badly hurt and bleeding--but there is no one else in the room! And the only other means of escape is a window that is closed and barred--fastened on the inside as well.

Both Larsan and Rouletabille (aided by his trusty side-kick & the main narrator of the piece, Sinclair--a young barrister) are hot on the trail, looking for clues inside and out. Larsan quickly fastens on Mlle. Stangerson's fiance, Robert Darzac, as the culprit. But Rouletabille disagrees. There are further attacks, another mysterious disappearance of the villain and eventually a murder before Rouletabille provides the murder in a last-minute deposition to the court. A court all set to find Robert Darzac guilty!

The Mystery of the Yellow Room
by Gaston Leroux is hailed as one of the first locked room crime novels. It has been named by some as the third best locked room mystery of all time. John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room and impossible crime himself, has sung its praises. And it is credited with inspiring Agatha Christie to try her hand at her very first mystery. So--what do I, a mere book-blogger, have to say about it? Well, it's a decent mystery. It's got some interesting elements. But I can't say that it knocked my socks off--it may have done so a hundred years ago. But I've read too many more recent novels for that. I see other detectives and stories in it. There is the shadow of Holmes--the intelligent, rational amateur taking on the established detective. There is the scrambling of the Holmes-like detective all over the scene of the crime--making patterns of footprints. There is the insistence (of Larsan) that the assailant was not wounded in the hand, but was bleeding from the nose (reminiscent of A Study in Scarlet). There is the echo of Lord Peter Wimsey--rushing into the court room at the eleventh hour to save an innocent man (Clouds of Witness, anyone?). And, yes, I suppose I should say that Wimsey reminds me of Rouletabille and not the other way 'round. But, you see, I read Sayers first. And, truth be told, I find Lord Peter to be a much more engaging character than Joseph Rouletabille.

The book starts out strong. Leroux sets up everything very nicely--explaining how our narrator and Rouletabille become involved in the mystery. The descriptions of the attack on Mlle. Stangerson, the mystery of the locked room and the investigations immediately following are wonderful. In fact, everything perks along quite nicely until Leroux abandons Sinclair as our narrator for a time and presents certain events through the lens of Rouletabille's journal entries. Rouletabille's voice does not ring true in those entries and the switch in narrative voice was a bit jarring. And when our familiar narrator picks up again, the rhythm never quite gets back on track.

One last quibble--although the explanation given for the locked room does work--it seems a bit contrived. As if Leroux had painted himself into a corner and he couldn't provide a more clever explanation. I don't think John Dickson Carr would have resorted to such a convenient solution.
Over all, a quite decent mystery from the time period. I would have liked to have liked the characters more...that would have pushed this three star outing into the four star range.

Favorite Quote:

Coincidences are the worst enemies to truth. (Rouletabille, p. 87)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Spark of Death: Review

Set in the Seattle of 1901, A Spark of Death by Bernadette Pajer, feeds two of my mystery habits--historical and academic. And I must say thank you to Steve, aka The Puzzle Doctor, over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel for bringing this one to my attention. He has been adding to my TBR pile on a regular basis since I started following his blog. If you like mysteries and don't already know Steve then you should definitely head on over to his site. You won't be disappointed!

The novel takes place at the turn of the century when electric power is just beginning to be widely used and the common man is still a little suspicious of this new-fangled power. The Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Washington has designed a Faraday Cage of the Electrical Machine with plans to display its powers when President McKinley comes to campus for a visit. Before the town hears that the President's trip has been cancelled, tragedy strikes--great enough that it might have prevented the President from coming anyway.

Professor Benjamin Bradshaw makes the discovery. His despised colleague, Professor Oglethorpe, is sitting in the Cage, dead from electrocution. The police quickly fasten on the rivalry and dislike between the two men and Bradshaw becomes suspect number one. Fortunately for Bradshaw, there isn't enough evidence to hold him and he is left free to do a bit of detective work on his own. He feels that he must--to clear his name and protect his son.

While the police shout murder and the good citizens howl for his arrest, Bradshaw begins to unearth clues that reveal several motives. But the real question is--was Oglethorpe the intended victim or did he die in a trap laid for the President? Was personal vengeance or public anarchy at the bottom of it?

Pajer has done a terrific job with this debut novel of what promises to be a wonderful historical mystery series. She's obviously done her research and expertly evokes the time and setting of early 20th Century Seattle. But the research is not overdone. She doesn't burden the reader with so much information that all you see is "It's a historical novel! Look it's 1901!" The setting is important, but only to support the story. And the characterization of Professor Bradshaw
is marvelous. He is a character with depth and I can't wait to see where the next novel takes us. Other characters can use some fleshing out--but I'm quite sure that Pajer will take care of that as the series develops. Over all, a wonderful beginning. I will definitely be on the lookout for more Bradshaw adventures. Four stars.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Review

Since I've been struggling with my reading (and as a by-product, my blogging) lately, I decided to go back to something tried and true--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sherlock Holmes never lets me down. Give me a good old Victorian mystery set on the moors of England and watch the reading doldrums fade away.

This is the classic story of Sir Henry Baskerville and legend of the giant hound that haunts his family. Is it really true that a spectral dog hunts down all the Baskerville men as retribution for Sir Hugo's dastardly deeds in the 18th Century. Sherlock Holmes is unwilling to believe it until he can rule out all possibility of human involvement, but recent events have Dr. Mortimer, a man of science, thinking it may true.

The tale really starts with Sir Charles Baskerville, Henry's uncle. Sir Charles had returned to Baskerville Hall only two years ago having made his fortune abroad. He settled down to the life of country squire and was spreading his wealth amongst the less-fortunate around him. There seemed to be reason for anyone to wish him harm. Then the rumors start flying that a giant hound has been seen and heard on the moor. Sir Charles, who has a weak heart, becomes anxious and dies one night near the moor--of "natural causes." Dr. Mortimer, the attending physician, is uneasy. There are no marks of violence on the body, but there is every reason to believe that Sir Charles was literally scared to death. He approaches Holmes with the legend of hound, the facts as he knows them of Sir Charles's death, and asks his advice about what to do with Sir Henry--the new baronet.

Holmes is quite sure that there is, indeed, evil abroad and sends Watson to Baskerville Hall to guard the new baronet and send reports about all that happens and all who are interested in Sir Charles. Watson gathers clues while Holmes works mysteriously in the background until the story reaches a climax on the foggy, lonely moor. A night when Sir Henry, Holmes and Watson will see the Hound of the Baskervilles for themselves....

It was nice to breeze through a book again--and not just because I've read it before. But because Doyle writes so darn well. There are plenty of Victorian-era descriptions, but not so much that the reader gets bogged down. And there's plenty of action to keep the story moving--with mysterious strangers following Sir Henry through London, the mystery of the disappearing boots, the escaped criminal out on the moors, the tall man who watches from the craggy heights, and what in the world is Barrymore, the Baskerville butler, up to at night? Great fun! And reading Holmes was like coming home. Five stars.


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. (p. 8)

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes. (p. 31)

The devil’s agents may be of flesh and blood, may they not? (p. 32)

The setting is a worthy one, if the devil did desire to have a hand in the affairs of men. (p. 32)

There's a light in a woman's eyes that speaks louder than words. (p. 94)

Evil indeed is the man who has not one woman to mourn him. (p. 143)