Thursday, June 24, 2021

Mrs. Jeffries On the Ball


 Mrs. Jeffries On the Ball (1994) by Emily Brightwell (Cheryl Lanham)

In the fifth Mrs. Jeffries mystery set in Victorian England, our detective housekeeper and the rest of the servants in the home of Inspector Witherspoon are drawn into another murder when Inspector Witherspoon attends a society ball during Queen Victoria's Jubilee. The ball, hosted by the Hyde Park Literary Circle. was to feature a literary contest with poems focused on the Queen and the awarding of prizes. But the poems never get read. One of the Circle's members, Hannah Greenwood, is stabbed and then shoved off a balcony before the first word is read. Since the inspector was on the spot, the case is given to him and his faithful staff start doing what they do best--tracking down clues among the servant class that will lead to a society arrest.

Hannah Greenwood was not a popular lady. She was judgmental and apt to stir up gossip about those she disliked. She had threatened several of the Literary Circle's members with scandalous revelations...so the suspect list is as long as the membership subscription. The deeper the investigators dig, the more motives they find...but the difficulty is to find a suspect with the opportunity. It isn't until Mrs. Jeffries witnesses an unrelated action that she realizes that they have been looking at the puzzle from the wrong angle and all the pieces begin to fit together.

For those of us who like historical mysteries set in the Victorian period, the Mrs. Jeffries series offers cozy, comfortable bits of fluff with a lovable set of characters. The mysteries aren't terribly complicated and I knew who and why pretty much from the beginning. But I don't really read these books for the puzzles. I read for the setting and for the people who make up Inspector Witherspoon's household. They're a fun bunch with each member bringing certain talents to the table--enabling them all to participate in the investigations without giving the sense that there are "too many cooks" stirring the pot. Given the rather formulaic plots, this isn't a series that I can read one after the other. But they are pleasant to dip into every once in a while--when I'm looking for something soothing and easy to read. ★★

First line: The woman was no better than a common streetwalker!

Lucinda Marlow could be a danger to him, and he'd best remember that. She was the one who'd started the group. Unlike most females of his acquaintance, she actually read books. Worse, the poem she had written and read to the circle at their last meeting hadn't been half-bad. (p,2)

Last line: This is the last time I'm going to miss me a murder.

****************

Deaths: 3 (one stabbed; one hit by train; one natural)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Fantastic Civil War


 The Fantastic Civil War (1991) by Frank McSherry, Jr. (ed)

A collection of nine short stories and one novella featuring answers to the question "What If" as it is applied to the Civil War. What if time travelers from the future brought advanced warfare to the American conflict? What if an entire regiment of modern (1940s modern, that is) U.S. soldiers suddenly found themselves at a key battle of the Civil War? What if a mountain man from Virginia called upon arcane powers to help the Confederate army win the war? What would the country look like if the war ended a bit sooner and the Union had still won? Talented historians and science fiction writers examine these questions and more.

As with all collections, there are strong stories mixed with those that are less so. My favorites inclue "The Chronicle of the 656th" which features (as mentioned above) the 656th Regimental Combat Team on training maneuvers in Tennessee in preparation for deployment in World War II. Through inexplicable means they are transported back to a key battle towards the end of the Civil War. I also enjoyed "The Valley Was Still," a story that shows what might happen if arcane powers are called upon to aid the cause of the Confederacy AND a story that examines what Lee would have done with assistance from the future in "Quarks at Appomattox." A close fourth and fifth are "The Avenging Angel"--which has a slightly different twist on the premise of outside assistance for the Confederate army--and "Time's Arrow," a story which examines whether time travelers would even be allowed by the time continuum and, if so, what the consequences might be. [Be careful what you wish for...]

Ironically, most of my favorite stories are by authors whose names are less well-known to me. All but Manley Wade Wellman ("The Valley Was Still") were new-to-me authors and their stories held the most interesting and engaging alternate histories. I was very pleased to read so many good stories from authors I'd not encountered before.  ★★

First line (of first short story, "For the Love of Barbara Allen"): My grandfather sighed and thumped wearily on his guitar, then laid it aside, the song unfinished.

Last lines (of last short story, "Time's Arrow"): Except for the TDI [TransDimensional Interface]: A stone-tipped feathered arrow jutted from its polished black metal. It had penetrated right between the mode lamps.


Why Kill the Innocent


 Why Kill the Innocent (2018) C. S. Harris

Lady Hero Devlin stumbles (quite literally) over the body of a beautiful young musician while on a socially conscious mission in the area of Clerkenwell. But what was Jane Ambrose, musical teacher to Princess Charlotte, doing in that part of town? The palace decides to hush things up--calling what is clearly manslaughter at best and quite likely murder an "unfortunate accident." Sebastian St Cyr, Lord Devlin takes up the case--for he has never paid attention to the "official" way of handling delicate affairs. He and Hero are determined to seek justice for Miss Ambrose.

The more they learn, the more intricate the plot surrounding the musician becomes. There are ties to the throne through Princess Charlotte, there are stolen letters which may put a spoke in Lord Jarvis's plans for England and Europe, and there is a plot of gold smuggling which Jane may have stumbled across. But there are also more homely matter--Jane's husband keeps a mistress and she herself was in love with another. Had she threatened to leave her husband--not only making for a scandal but also cutting off his livelihood? For Edward Ambrose's operas were not his own--his wife, barred from publishing such musical endeavors under her own name had written the works and he had taken the credit. Devlin and Hero will have to carefully investigate the international and domestic leads--dodging dangers on all sides before untangling the threads to find the one tied to the killer.

Harris delivers another excellent historical mystery. And this time I'm going to give her the coveted ★★★★ rating. I've been waiting for one that knocks it out of the park and I think she's done it. The setting is superb--the last Frost Fair in England. This is the last time the Thames was completely frozen with games on the ice and all sorts of merchandise sold. She portrays the excitement and atmosphere surrounding the events perfectly. The mystery is well-plotted with an unexpected denouement and she kept me guessing till the end. And I loved that Hero Devlin got to have more involvement in the investigation and a bit of the action herself--taking out one of the bad guys with her little muff pistol.

     “Is he dead?" 
     Alexi knelt in the snow beside the still body. "Not yet. But he will be soon."
     Hero sucked in a deep breath tainted with the stench of fresh blood and burning fur. "Good."
     Alexi looked up at her. "Your muff is on fire."
     "Drat," said Hero, dropping the flaming fur into the melting snow. "I just purchased it.”

She is truly a good match for our hero, Lord Devlin. Strong. Strong-minded. Well able to take care of herself. I said it before and I'll say it again: if Harris decides to kill Hero off in a later installment (a la Elizabeth George and her Inspector Lynley series), I won't forgive her.

First line: A howling wind flung icy snow crystals into Hero Devlin's face, stinging her cold cheeks and stealing her breath.

The truth is frequently more dangerous than a lie (Valentino Vescovi; p. 59)

[on telling the truth] I'm not convinced either of them is. Although if I had to put money on one or the other, I'd pick the Italian harpist over the decorative Dutch courtier any day. (Hero Devlin; p. 63)

We like to believe the world arcs towards justice--I suppose because it reassures us and makes us think there's some sort of order to our existence, but what if we're wrong? What if it's all meaningless chaos and chance? (Alexi Sauvage; p. 295)

Last lines: "She was an extraordinary person--steadfast, loving, and brave." [Devlin] "Yes," said Hero. "Yes, she was."

***************

Deaths =  6 (one hit on head; three stabbed; one shot; one drowned)


Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Mystery on the Isle of Skye


 Mystery on the Isle of Skye (1955) by Phyllis A. Whitney

Twelve-year-old Cathy MacLeod is going on an adventure of a lifetime...an adventure that may change her life forever. Ever since her parents had died when she was small, Cathy has lived with her grandmother. But now her grandmother is ill and Cathy will need to live with a distant cousin of Grandmother's named "Aunt Bertha." Aunt Bertha is a formidable woman and Cathy isn't sure how much she will enjoy living with her. But before she makes that move, her mother's brother Jerry invites Cathy to join their family on a trip to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Uncle Jerry is a climber and has always wanted to climb the hills and mountains of Scotland. Aunt Lila is a MacDonald and has always wanted to visit the land of her ancestors. And Grandmother thought it would be a good opportunity for Cathy to see the home of the MacLeods.

Before she leaves, Cathy's grandmother puts together a red case with wrapped surprise packages. It includes a letter that tells Cathy to open the packages according to the instructions included on each. Some of them require Cathy to perform certain tasks first and others instruct her to enlist the help of her cousins. Speaking of cousins--Punch, the younger of the two boys, takes to Cathy right away. But Don is at that stage (as her Aunt Lila tells her) "when he thinks all girls are poison." So Cathy isn't too sure that Don will want to help her with her tasks. But a series of adventures, including a scary hike on a mist-covered crag and a visit to a legendary castle, will bring Cathy the biggest surprise of all...when she least expects. Along the way she makes new friends and learns to be more sure of herself and what she wants.

I think this might have been more properly called "Magic" on the Island of Skye rather than mystery. There isn't much mystery (in the traditional genre sense) in this story. But there's a fair bit of magic--from the magic of the Island of Skye itself--the beautiful countryside, the brooding mountains, and the fog that cloak with mystical swiftness--to the magic of the little people, whom Cathy's grandmother tells her may be able to help her when she least expects it to the magic of meeting new people and making new friends. It is also a lovely coming of age story and also a good story about finding family and a place where you belong. And a place that will always belong to you--even if you can't stay there forever. ★★★★

First line: The porter, carrying Cathy's suitcase, went ahead through the doors of Idlewild International Airport.

Last lines: Always these things would be a part of her, always they would pull her back like those words Ranald had written in her album: "...the blood is strong, the heart is Highland..." Perhaps that, after all, was the strongest magic in the Isle of Skye.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Dragon's Cave


 Dragon's Cave (1940) by Clyde B. Clason

Jonas Wright is a print shop owner and collector of antique weapons--most particularly those with blades of one sort or another. He's a fair but very puritanical man and once you cross his standards, it's doubtful whether you'll ever be in his good graces again. Several of his family and employees have run afoul of his temper--his son Wellington drinks and carouses too much; his fiery-haired daughter Madeleine has a fiery temperament to match and seems to take up with the most inappropriate men; his partner Julian Carr is a married man and paying too much attention to his daughter; one of his printers Tony Corveau has been recently fired for unknown reasons; and his second son Martin likes to parade his knowledge about a little too freely. Then there's Hilda Hammer, a servant in the house. Hilda's brother is an ex-con and she's living there under a false name. She claims Wright didn't know...but is that the truth?

These facts all become relevant when Wright is found dead behind the locked door of his weapons room. It appears that he has been killed with his very own Gothic halberd. At first glance, it looks like a murder in the heat of the moment--with the killer snatching up a weapon (he had plenty of choice) and using the ax-like blade to slash Wright's throat. But as Lieutenant Johnny Mack and his friend Professor Westborough examine the body and the scene of the crime, they realize that certain clues just don't add up. The weapon was displayed on the opposite side of the room from where the murderer apparently stood, for one. There's a separate, smaller wound on the back of the victim's neck. And the bloodstains don't tell the right story. Not to mention how did the murderer get out of the locked room?

Two more deaths follow and Mack and Westborough must figure out how these murders connect to that of Jonas Wright. And few questions must be answered before they will be able to capture the culprit.. Here's a sample: Why was Wright's desk searched after the murder? Did the searcher find what they were looking for? What was in the flat package Wright brought home, put in the safe, and which has now disappeared [& was that the object of the search]? Why did Wright make all his diary entries in cipher? Will its secrets tell them who the murderer is?

~~~~~Spoiler ahead! Read at your own risk.~~~~

I'm afraid I wasn't quite as taken with this as Kate at Cross Examining Crime (see her linked review). It's a perfectly good example of classic crime fiction and I will admit that the locked room incidents were interesting. I also have to admit that murder by ancient weapon is a nice touch. Those looking for interesting elements have plenty to enjoy--from the aforementioned locked rooms to the murder methods to encrypted diaries that will reveal the motive...once Professor Westborough cracks the code. Sounds great, right? But..I just didn't enjoy it as much as my very first Clason book, The Purple Parrot. The characters didn't pull me in this time--honestly, none of the suspects appealed to me much at all--and I don't believe Clason played fair with us.

A few things bother me about the solution. First, unless I missed it, there is no adequate explanation of how our murderer was acquainted with the third victim. It certainly wasn't fair play to spring that on us at the end. Without the knowledge that those two people knew each other, there's no real reason to suspect the murderer beyond a small incident at the beginning. And it all hinges on them knowing each other. Without that relationship, the incidents that lead to the murders don't happen. Second, the first locked room mystery isn't explained. Four items disappear from the room--the first victim's billfold & watch, the key to the door, and a dagger. Three of these items show up again. But the key--that vanished into the ether apparently. And none of our detectives seem bothered about it. We're told that the victim's billfold and watch were taken to make the death look like robbery. That's nonsense. What burglar kills his victim in such a bizarre fashion and then locks the door behind him? Why create an impossible crime if you wanted it to look like robbery? 

And, finally, how did the murderer know when the second victim would make their exit from the second locked room? There's no mention that the intercepted note said anything like: "Bring me items X, Y, Z at such and such time. I plan to get out of the house at exactly 9:20 p.m." [If that's supposed to be the way the murderer found out, then Clason should have said so in the denouement, at the very least.] Was the reason the victim was leaving the house because of an appointment with the murderer? Or did they stake out the place all day?  The narrative seems to indicate that the murderer was otherwise occupied. 

Professor Westborough is entertaining as always--I do like an academic sleuth. And, if I have to choose one of the suspects as a favorite, then it would have to be Martin Wright--purely because he gets on Lieutenant Johnny Mack's nerves with his highfalutin college talk. 

First line: Julian's mocking dark face showed plainly under the porch light.

Last line: Julian inserted his forefinger into the circlet of openings at the base of the telephone.

***************

Deaths = 3 (two stabbed; one poisoned)

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Bitter Path of Death


 The Bitter Path of Death (1982) by Pierre Audemars

This is the 25th book in the Monsieur Pinaud mystery series, but it features an investigation from early in the Sûreté officer's career when, as he says, he "was young and ignorant." He was certainly a young, reckless driver (witness his excessive speed and three accidents--helped by someone sabotaging his cars, but still). But, although he claims he was young and ignorant, he had already gained a reputation for investigation and the ability to handle cases that seemed insoluble. Here his Chief asks him to investigate the stabbing death of a wealthy, celebrated jeweler named Laroche. He was found dead in his first floor office and had been stabbed in the back of the neck with a short thin knife. Nothing has been stolen and nothing in the office has been disturbed. The weapon is gone; there are no clues and no real motive to be found. It sounds like just the case for Pinaud.

He soon finds that a master watchmaker who often did work for Laroche did have an argument with him the night before the jeweler's death. It seems that Laroche had seduced his daughter and now there is a baby on the way. Monsieur Capet had demanded that Laroche do right by the girl, but Edmund Laroche had only laughed in his face. Capet had promised to return the next night, the night of the murder, to make sure that Laroche acknowledge his duty. Did he return, get turned down again, and then stab the man in anger? But would Laroche have turned his back on an angry father? What about the girl's brother? Had he gone instead of Capet and had he wielded the deadly knife? Or maybe there's more to Laroche's secretary than meets the eye? She had access to everything at the office. And then there's the odd fact that Laroche's own mother seems to think Laroche deserved what he got. Would his own mother have killed him? Pinaud discovers the answer, but still regards the case as one of his failures.

This is a decent mystery, but it feels rather unpolished--perhaps in an effort to give readers a feel of what Pinaud was like when he was "young and ignorant." But after twenty-four other books I expected it to be stronger. It also has an odd feel to it--if Audemars were French and this had been translated, then we could blame it on the translation. As it is, it appears that Audemars has gone out of his way to make it appear to be a translated work with certain infelicities. The plot was workmanlike and believable--but the culprit was certainly no surprise to me. More red herrings would have been welcome and perhaps a few more credible suspects would have helped as well. As an aside: I do have to say that if I were Pinaud's Chief, I would be very reluctant to trust the man with a second car...let alone a third one. Knowing that he loves to drive fast and seems to have a bottomless well to pour drink into...well that doesn't make for a great driver. I hesitate to give this the same amount of stars as the previous review (another mystery set in France), because this one is superior. But I can't see giving The Bitter Path to Death any more than ★★. [note to self--go back and adjust previous rating]

First line: In the days when all the years of devoted toil and labour given so generously by his chronicler had finally brought M. Pinaud to the peak of his eminence, they were in the habit of meeting frequently for periods of intelligent conversation.

Whatever you say, that case had interest and human appeal. What else do people want when they read? And why do they read?...To escape from the monotony of their daily lives--to be interested, excited, and entertained--to lose themselves for a few blessed hours in a world of make-believe. (M. Pinaud's chronicler; p. 8)

All literature is an escape, particularly crime fiction. It is so much easier in this life to read about something rather than make the the effort to do it. And most people--in spite of what one reads in the newspapers today--are basically good and honest. The majority like to believe that justice eventually triumphs over evil...that the criminal is finally caught and the murderer punished. (M. Pinaud's chronicler; p. 9)

You are quite right. The impossible always takes a little longer--so the sooner I get on with it the better. (M. Pinaud; p. 26)

Last line: He closed his eyes and shivered at the pity, the horror and the tragic waste of it all.

******************

Deaths = two stabbed

The Marais Assassin (mini-review)


 The Marais Assassin (2004) by Claude Izner (Liliane Korb & Laurence Lefevre)

The fourth book in the Victor Legris series. This time a murderer is on the track of those who have handled a decorative goblet of little value. It's bowl is in the shape of a monkey's head, it is incrusted with worthless jewels and has a cat's head attached to it. But a trail of death follows it wherever it goes. The first to die is the widow of the man who brought it back to England from Java. She, upon her husband's directions in his will, had sent it to Kenji, Victor Legris's mentor and partner at the bookshop. While Kenji is away from Paris, his apartments are burgled and the goblet is one of three things taken.* A mysterious man also visits the bookshop in Kenji's absence and Victor once again begins investigating. He, Joseph (the shop assistant), and Kenji follow the goblet's trail across Paris--from an apparently crazy old man to various curiosity dealers and barrow owners throughout the city. But the killer--who is obsessed with the goblet--manages to stay one step ahead of them. Will they be able to track the goblet and put a stop to the killing spree?

I wish I could say I recommend this series, but I honestly can't. The mystery ought to be gripping--some of the scenes are very apt and with the right treatment could have made the book as whole very appealing if the same level had been maintained. But it wasn't--and hasn't been in any of the books so far. I mentioned in my review of the last book that I thought I might enjoy the series more if Joseph were the main protagonist instead of Victor. That's still true. Victor behaves as if he's under some sort of obligation to dabble in amateur detection. There's no sense that he's really interested or that he has much aptitude for investigation. Joseph, on the other hand, is very interested in mysteries and investigates with enthusiasm (except when Victor fobs the interviews with the crazy old man on him...but I hardly blame him for being less than excited with that assignment). If you like a lot of background on the characters and a lot of their personal drama that has nothing to do with the mystery at all, then this will be right up your alley. I will rate this one a bit higher--at least at the end of this one Victor seems to be getting his jealousy under control. 

Why, you may ask, do I continue to read these books then? Well...I took it into my head to buy up volumes 1-6 from our Friends of the Library Bookstore and then Rick Mills has his Six Shooter Reading Challenge which requires reading six books from the same author. So...I'm determined to knock out the rest of these for one of the requirements. Four down and only two more to go. ★★ and 1/2

*It's never explained why the thief--who's only object was the goblet--bothered to steal two books as well. In fact after the details of what was stolen are given to the police, we never hear about the books again.

First line: the clock of the Eglise Trinite had just struck eight o'clock in the morning, when without warning, an ear-splitting explosion ripped through the district.

Last line: Without being aware of it, he began to sing softly. "Sometimes when my heart is heavy ~I go out and take a stroll ~In all the little streets and alleys..."

*************

Deaths =  6 (four shot; two fell from height)


Thursday, June 17, 2021

Where the Dead Lie


 Where the Dead Lie (2017) by C. S. Harris

Sebastian St. Cyr, Lord Devlin, is drawn into one of his darkest investigations yet. It begins with the interruption of a clandestine burial at an abandoned Clerkenwell shot factory. The body is that of Benji Thatcher, a fifteen-year-old boy from the streets. He was brutalized in terrible ways before he was killed. A constable with a conscience refuses to accept the quick inquest's decision of accidental death. He claims the body for a proper burial, but takes Benji to Paul Gibson for a proper autopsy. As soon as he sees the body, Paul sends a message to Devlin--knowing that if there is to be any justice for the young boy, then Devlin is the only one who will care enough to do something.

With very little to go on, Devlin goes to the Clerkenwell area and begins to ask questions. He soon discovers that street children have been going missing for quite some time--not that anyone has really taken much notice. After all, what's a few less unwanted street urchins? Even more disturbing is the revelation that Benji's younger sister went missing at about the same time and no one knows where she is. Fearing the worst, Devlin races against time--hardly daring to believe that a swift investigation might save the little girl's life. 

Each piece of the puzzle he picks up, provides stronger evidence that there is a very depraved mind at work. Someone who values the writings of the Marquis de Sade and who believes that the strongest pleasure is found in pain. He also finds evidence that it's someone from the ruling class who is using the most vulnerable members of society as their playthings--and tossing them away like so much garbage when they've been used up. Devlin will once again risk his position and his life to put a stop to such merciless killing.

This is another excellent historical mystery by C. S. Harris. I can't fault the plot nor the characters nor the historical research. Any qualms are purely personal--I have an extraordinarily difficult time reading about the murder and horrific treatment of children. And while the descriptions aren't overly graphic, they are enough to make it very hard to read. If the writing and characterizations weren't so good, I might not have been able to finish it. On a positive note--after not being able to identify the killer in the previous book, I did redeem myself and spotted half of the solution this time. And I was pleased to see Devlin and his father, the Earl of Hendon, begin to patch up their differences at the end. I do wonder whether anything will come of certain suspicions I have about the Jarvis household, however. ★★★★

First lines: The boy hated this part. Hated the eerie way the pale waxen faces of the dead seemed to glow in the faintest moonlight.

Last line: "Well. That should make for some interesting family gatherings," said Ashworth, a faint provocative smile on his handsome face as he moved to take his place beside his bride.

***************

Deaths = 12 (four strangled; seven stabbed; one fell from height)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

When Falcons Fall


 When Falcons Fall (2016) by C. S. Harris

Sebastian St. Cyr, Lord Devlin, his wife Lady Devlin, and small son travel to Ayleswick-on-Teme so Devlin may deliver a final gift from Jamie Knox to his grandmother and so the nobleman may continue his quest to find answers to questions about his own ancestry. But they have barely settled into the inn in the small village when a young woman's body is found by the river. An empty laudanum beside the body makes the constable think it is suicide, but the young Squire who is new to the role of justice of the peace senses that something is amiss. Devlin's reputation for criminal investigation has preceded him and Squire Rawlins asks for his help in investigating the death. 

It soon becomes clear that Emma Chance. who claimed to be a young widowed woman on a sketching tour, was more than she seemed. With Napoleon Bonaparte's exiled brother and family in the neighborhood, is it possible that she was a spy keeping an eye on the French entourage? But her interests seemed to be more focused on the history of people (men in particular) of the Shropshire village and there's a question of her own heritage. Did she unsettle someone on a more personal basis? And then there's the smuggling operation of a certain major--perhaps she was killed because she inadvertently stumbled across something to do with that...The deeper the investigation runs, the more questions Devlin and Rawlins have. And the more death stalks the village. Since Emma's questions revolved around the past, Devlin realizes that they must also look to the past to find a very present killer.

This is the eleventh book in Harris's highly entertaining historical mystery series. Each one could be read as a self-contained mystery, but there is an over-arching story involving Devlin's personal history that encourages readers to read the series in order for best effect. The book should not ruin any previous mystery plots--but it will take the surprise out of a few of the twists in Devlin's own story. And Devlin's story is a very interesting one as are the stories of the recurring characters. 

Harris does an excellent job combining historical facts with her mystery plots. Sometimes the history is absolutely integral to the mystery and sometimes it merely provides background and red herrings, but it is always entertaining and educational if you don't know much about the Regency period. This particular mystery makes use of the historical facts in a very nice way. As with historical novels written by a modern author, it is difficult to keep anachronisms out of the text--but I notice fewer in Harris's work than is often the case. And they are even more rarely jarring when I do notice them.

The mystery plot in this one was also done very well. I generally spot the villain of the piece--even if  I don't have all the details of motive sewn up. But this time, Harris kept me guessing till the very end. A very satisfying entry in this long-running series. ★★★★ and 1/2.

First line: It was the fly that got to him.

That's what haunts this place, he thought. It's the despair and anguish of the monks who poured their energy and joy, their very lives, into this monastery, only to see it destroyed. (p.145)

Last line: So I guess that narrows it down a bit, doesn't it?" she said, her gaze meeting his as a tentative smile curled her lips.

****************

Deaths = 13 (one poisoned; one shot; two fell from height; one drowned; two natural; two accident; two hit on head; two stabbed) [some are from the past]

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A Tasty Way to Die


 A Tasty Way to Die
(1990) by Janet Laurence

Darina Lisle, talented professional cook and recent heiress to her cousin's estate, is looking to sell his Chelsea house and find a country house that would make a nice, small hotel. She's always wanted to own such a place and now she has the chance. But her plans are put on hold when she runs into an old friend from her cookery course days. Eve Tarrant is now co-owner of one of the most exclusive catering businesses in London--The Wooden Spoon--and the business has recently expanded to include cookery demonstrations with hopes of a television show. And Eve is currently in need of an extra set of hands. Her partner seems to have fallen victim to a gastric flu. In an effort to help out a friend, Darina agrees to do what she can with the catering and demonstrations until Claire Montague is well again.

But Darina finds herself in the middle of a second murder investigation* when Claire dies and it's determined that her death was caused by a poisoned mushroom which somehow found its way into the starter at a luncheon provided by and for The Wooden Spoon staff and their associates. Darina begins to suspect that real target was Eve--especially when she finds out that the two women switched their seating arrangements at the last moment. It seems that the mushroom must have been gathered during an educational walk put on by one of the luncheon's guests--Ralph Cox, an expert on mushrooms. So access to the deadly fungus was had by all, but finding out who could have managed to slip it into just one serving proves to be difficult. Motive is a different kettle of fish. Claire appears to have been loved by all. If she was the intended target, it's difficult to see why. Eve, on the other hand, can be a bit dictatorial in her management and doesn't seem to realize how often she's taking advantage of her friends. As her amateur investigation continues, Darina discovers that there are secrets that may provide other motives...some which indicate that Claire may have been the intended victim after all....

This is a decent cozy mystery. The motive is a bit muddled...like an over-large cake, it has too many layers...but all of the various parts are explained lucidly enough. I did have a bit of difficulty getting into the story, Darina is a likable protagonist, but her involvement in the mystery seemed very contrived, especially her efforts to help out Eve with the business. It's not like she and Eve were bosom pals, but she continues to allow Eve to impose upon her long after I would have gotten myself out of there (well before there was a murder to solve). Darina makes it sound like she'd be letting her best friend in all the world down if she didn't keep helping out. The culprit was also fairly obvious to me early on. This wouldn't have mattered quite so much if the story overall had been more gripping. However, the ratings on Goodreads are much stronger (a large number of four and five stars), so your mileage may vary. 

(*The first involved the death of her cousin in A Deepe Coffin.)

First line: The demonstration was slipping out of control.

Darina wondered if he was shifting around odd snippets of conversation, trying to make an idenfifiable pattern. It was she supposed, a form of detection, like upending a detail to see if it would reveal something different if looked at from another angle. [p. 25]

Last line: The wine glass fell onto the carpet and the coffee cooled beside the fire.

*************

Deaths: = two poisoned

Monday, June 14, 2021

Murder at Sorrow's Crown


Murder at Sorrow's Crown (2016) by Steven Savile & Robert Greenberger

It's summer in 1881 just at the end of the Boer War and early in the association between Holmes and Watson. Funds are low and Watson sets up a parade of potential clients for Holmes in an effort to provide a case that will help fill the coffers*, but it's an unplanned visitor who brings the great detective a puzzle worthy of his skills. Mrs. Hermione Wynter is frantic. Her son Norbert, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy did not return with his ship, the Dido, when it was recalled from South Africa. When she tried to get answers from the Admiralty, she was first given the run-around and then was told that he was missing, presumed dead. And then, finally, told that this was just a polite cover up for the fact that he was a deserter. She doesn't know what happened to her son. But one thing she knows--he's no deserter. And she wants Sherlock Holmes to find out what really happened and why the officials don't want to tell her about it. 

On the face of it, it doesn't seem to Watson that this will be of any more interest to Holmes than any of the cases they heard earlier in the day. But something about the way the naval officials have evaded Mrs. Wynter's pleas for information attracts his attention. And when they retrace the frantic mother's steps, they run into the same stonewalling, though Holmes is adept enough at questioning to glean a bit more information. Soon they are engaging trained assassins from India and following a trail that stretches from South Africa to Newcastle and from a lost battle of the Boer War to the halls of Parliament. The game is afoot and it involves much more than just the disappearance of a single naval officer.

Overall, this is an excellent and enjoyable Holmes pastiche. For the most, it captures the flavor of Doyle's works and provides an interesting mystery for Holmes to pursue, though some of the writing seems a bit too modern and it does jar a bit for Watson to call Holmes "Sherlock." It is nice to see a bit more of the early years when Holmes and Watson are just getting used to one another and I appreciated the authors bringing the Irregulars into the story. It was a shame that Doyle did not use them more than he did and it was great fun to see Holmes interacting with Wiggins. The other very nice point was their portrayal of Watson. It has always seemed to me that Watson gets short shrift--a medical man should be more astute than he is often portrayed. Savile & Greenberger manage to make Watson an intelligent assistant to Holmes while still keeping him in the "Watson" role, highlighting that Holmes is the more brilliant of the two. There are medical connections to the story and Watson is allowed his moments to shine as researcher and also making observations that Holmes couldn't (because of a lack of certain medical knowledge). Holmes still puts all the pieces together, but Watson is able to provide some of the pertinent pieces.

The most substantial (though not overwhelming) quibble I have is with the "connection" to Disraeli (to explain would be a spoiler). I don't quite agree that the case has been made in that quarter. I see how that supposed connection advances certain portions of the plot and narrative--but I just don't see that the connection has been proved. It's more a case that Holmes says it's there and then receives confirmation (of a sort) in the denouement and therefore it is so. Otherwise, a highly enjoyable read. 

 (*reminds me of Archie Goodwin trying to get Nero Wolfe to work)

First line: As celebrated as Sherlock Holmes was around the cusp of the twentieth century, a number of his investigations were deemed sensitive to national security.

Last line: Whilst I could not tell Mrs. Wynter the particulars of her son's death, I could set her mind at ease and offer her testimonies of his comrades, and in some small way, perhaps, finally bring him home to her.

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Deaths: 5 (two poisoned; one stabbed; one suffocated; one shot)

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London


 Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked London (2019) by Claire Harman

Lord William Russell, resident in a highly respectable Mayfair street, is found horribly murdered in his bed. His throat has been cut--nearly severing his head from his body. It doesn't take long for the suspicion of the police to rest on Russel's valet--despite the fact that the man seems wholly respectable and a calm and obedient servant. Evidence of theft is soon found and speculation is aroused that his master had caught him in the act. But the gentry are extremely unnerved by this crime--fearing that the true motive behind the murder is an unrest among the servant class; an unrest that has been growing. 

But after the trial is over and Francois Benjamin Courvoisier has been found guilty, he begins writing a series of confessions--each one supposedly, finally the truth. In one of these many confessions, he puts the blame for his actions upon a popular sensation novel, Jack Sheppard. This novel has celebrated the life of an unrepentant thief who escapes justice again and again and whose story includes a dreadful murder not too unlike that of Lord Russell. 

Before the gruesome murder which riveted the attention of all of London--from Queen Victoria herself to the lowliest street urchins, the novel and the many pirated theater productions which sprung up in its wake had been vilified by the press as having encouraged young people to take up thieving as a way of life. The public is even more horrified to think that a novel could incite a man to murder.

Harman has exhaustively researched her subject, that much is apparent. She gives us great detail on the time period and the literary background leading up to the "Newgate novels" as those stories which featured the criminal class in a more pleasing light were called. She also provides all of the material she could uncover relating to the murder of Lord Russell, the subsequent investigation, and trial of Courvoisier. What the book fails to do is make any substantial connection between the novel Jack Sheppard and Courvoisier's crime or between Dickens & Thackeray and the crime. Dickens and Thackeray seem to have been brought into the narrative to bulk up the literary tone, but they certainly don't have much relevance to the contention that there is a connection between this type of novel and crimes committed. 

To be honest, it appears that there is much more evidence that seeing the plays had more influence on young people than the book ever did. Petty thieves who were caught would cite having gone to see a production of Jack Sheppard and while Courvoisier did mention the book, he placed more emphasis on the production he had seen as an influence. In all fairness to William Harrison Ainsworth, author of Jack Sheppard who was shamed in the newspapers for having written such a novel, most of the productions bore scant resemblance to his work and made Jack into an even bigger hero than he had intended. It seems to me that the fingers in the 1840s should have been pointing at those who were packing them in at the theaters.

Overall, an interesting look at true crime in the early Victorian period made slightly more interesting by the literary connection, though I would say that the reality of the book does not quite live up expectation of a large literary influence upon crime. It would have been more impactful if Courvoisier had claimed from the beginning that Jack Sheppard made him go on his murderous rampage. But when he produces several confessions and only brings in Jack Sheppard in the last one--and gives the book a weak reference at that--it doesn't give great credence to the thesis that such novels had any effect on morals. 

First line: Early in the morning of Wednesday, 6 May 1840, on an ultra-respectable Mayfair street one block to the east of Park Lane, a footman called Daniel Young answered the door to a panic-stricken young woman, Sarah Mancer, the maid of the house opposite.

Last line: Jack Sheppard did its evil work of popularity and has now gone to its cradle in the cross-roads of literature.

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Deaths = 6 (two throat cut; one pushed down a well; one crushed to death; two hanged)

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Curious Custard PIe


 The Curious Custard Pie (1950) by Margaret Scherf

This is the second mystery based at a camp to appear in the 4-in-1 Unicorn Mystery Book Club edition that I've been reading. Scherf's book features Dr. Yates's World Amiability Camp situated at Weed Lake, Montana. Three weeks of nothing but pep talks on world peace and harmony and bad food. The food is supposedly concocted by a dietitian, Mrs. Everdell, to produce bodily harmony to go along with the rest of it. But when Dr. Martin Buell, Presbyterian minister, is deputized to represent the church and deliver "Talks on God," he discovers that Mrs. Everdell's idea of bodily harmony consists of kelp, soybean mush, lemon juice with eggshell, and other items he considers inedible. 

So, he, being a fair cook himself, decides to liven up the menu with some homemade custard pies and convinces Dr. Yates to make a real feast of it with steaks on the grill. But somebody slips some arsenic into the flour and several people get very sick...two sick enough to die. Dr. Buell has had previous experiences with murder and he starts to investigate. Mrs. Passfield, one of the less fortunate victims, had mentioned to Dr. Buell that she was visiting the camp to be sure that she still wanted to leave $250,000 to the World Amiability Foundation. If she found things to her liking, then all well and good. If not, then she planned to make a few changes to her will. An arsenic-laced meal prevented her from having a chance. 

Mr. Tattersall, the foundation accountant and the other unfortunate victim, had also felt like confiding in Dr. Buell. Tattersall was a nervous man by nature and seemed to be even more so. He was worried that Mrs. Passfield and a Mrs. Brierly were both in the camp at the same time. Both ladies were involved with the late Mr. Passfield and both were interested in the fortunes of the camp. Passfield had left his wife the large fortune with the quarter of a million earmarked for the camp--if after ten years, she felt it had proved itself a worthwhile venture. Tattersall also mentioned that he had other worries, but was interrupted before he could share them. His last supper prevented him from having another chance.

With both victims having special connections to the camp and foundation, Dr. Buell has to wonder whether this mean that Dr. Yates sprinkled the rat poison around to make sure the promised legacy made its way to the coffers...and maybe Tattersall knew that there was an unexplained drainage on the foundation's funds. But Yates isn't the only one who could have cooked the books. There's Bob Lundquist who handled the foundation's scholarship program. And Mrs. Everdell handles the expenses for the kitchen (just how much does kelp cost, anyway?). Of course, there are also other motives beyond money--including jealousy (Dr. Yates seemed to attract the attentions of all the ladies in the camp which has led to some spirited infighting amongst our harmonious crowd) and fanaticism. Dr. Buell and his friend Sheriff Hunnicut have their hands full and it will take two more murderous attempts--a second on Mrs. Brierly and a final attempt on Buell himself--before they get their man/woman.

I've read three of Margaret Scherf's mysteries previously and all three of them featured Emily and Henry Bryce. I hadn't realized that she had another series character until I started reading Custard Pie. Unfortunately, I don't find Martin Buell to be as funny and personable as the Bryces and his interactions with Hunnicut fall a bit flat for me. His best showing was when, midway, he picks up a sidekick--Sir Wilfred Soper, a visiting Englishman. When the bishop saddles Buell with a guest, he's none too pleased. He's sure the chap from across the pond is going to be stuffy and class-conscious and put a serious crimp in his crime-solving style, but Soper is like a schoolboy on holiday and tremendously eager to join in on the sleuthing. The narrative picks up a great deal once Soper arrives. One wishes he had arrived at the beginning of the story.

The mystery itself is okay and a fine read if you don't mind it not having tons of clues for the reader to spot. It's a closed circle murder, though not an impossible crime. Nearly anyone in the closed circle had an opportunity to add a dash of arsenic and a number of them had motives. Getting down the particular motive may be a bit tricky.   for a decent read--though I would suggest starting with one of the books featuring Emily & Henry Bryce if you want to try Scherf for the first time.

First line: Martin Buell had his weight evenly distributed along the length of a striped canvas chair.

The head was withdrawn with a sound which took the place of swearing in Mrs. Beekman's aseptic vocabulary. (p. 10)

Tattersall smiled a little and tried to let go, but he couldn't. It was doubtless a habit, this tight grip on the universe as if it would slip away and become very confused but for his firm hand on the reins. (p. 17)

[Tattersall] had certainly come with a purpose, but it was evident that purpose would not be disclosed hastily. Accustomed to the diverse means by which human beings communicated their mental aches to someone they felt ought to be sympathetic, he waited. He was not interested, but he waited. (p. 24)

Perhaps the bishop, knowing that no clergyman is perfect, reasoned that an interest in crime was less damaging to the dignity of the cloth than an interest, say, in women. (p. 113)


As I see it, there are two kinds of murders, in general. Those that are finished when the law comes on the scene, and those that didn't work according to plan and are therefor still going off, rather like an unexploded roman candle. In the first type, the murderer rests, gambling that he has left no good clues. In the second type, he must continue to act. It's like fencing or a game of chess. He moves, then you move. then he moves again. Much more dangerous for both sides. (Sir Wilfred Soper; p. 126)

Last line: "She's much too young for whiskey," Mrs. Beekman said, taking the glass, and with a righteous frown she tossed off the contents. 

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Deaths = two poisoned

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Judge Is Reversed


 The Judge Is Reversed (1960) by Frances & Richard Lockridge

John Blanchard was an expert on many things from law to cats to tennis to bridge. One of those activities might just have made him an expert on being a murder victim. As an expert on cats and tennis, he had served as a judge for cat shows and a line judge for tennis. His most recent outings in both arenas had caused a bit of commotion--from being accused of bias by Rebecca Wreuth, owner of Morland's Enchanted Lady of Purrland, at the Colony Cat Club's championship show to accusations of deliberately spoiling the pro chances of Doug Mears at the Forest Hills tennis championship tournament. His interest in animals and law has him crossing swords (verbally) with Floyd Ackerman in the Times letters to the editor. Ackerman is a rabid anti-vivisectionist and has taken great exception to Blanchard's latest response. As a bridge player, Blanchard regularly sees his old friend Graham Lantham. He also sees a great deal of Lantham's rather pretty daughter, has hopes of marrying her, and has already made a rather generous provision for her in his will. And, though he no longer actively practices law, he still has his hand in as trustee for a few estates--one of which has produced some difficulties in settlement.

When Blanchard is discovered in his home with his head bashed in, Captain Bill Weigand is given to wondering which (if any) of the dead man's interests have led to his death. And, of course, much to the dismay of Sergeant Mullins, the Norths are in it and bound to make it screwy again. Blanchard was discovered by the veterinarian who had come to give one of his cats a shot. Mullins, already uneasy about the cats, had looked askance at the odd little man with green pants and red coat and been a bit reluctant to believe his claims. When asked if anyone could verify his identity, Dr. Gebhardt had told him to 

"Call them up and say you've got a bald little man with eyebrows, wearing funny clothes who says he's Dr. Oscar Gebhardt, a cat specialist. Ask them if they've ever heard he goes around killing people....all right, call some people named North. Mr. and Mrs. Gerald. They just might--" He stopped because Mullins's face had changed. It seemed to Oscar Gebhardt, D.V.S., that it had changed for the worse.

It's not that Mullins doesn't like the Norths. He does. He doesn't understand them--especially Pamela North--but he does like them. But he doesn't like what they do to a case. And he doesn't like what their involvement in a case does to Inspector O'Malley and what O'Malley thinks of police officers who allow "those Norths" to barge into investigations.

Of course, the Norths were already in it, so to speak. Pam, who was "sampling cats" in her search to find a successor to their beloved Martini, had observed the argument between Rebecca Wreuth and Blanchard over his inability to recognize that Enchanted Lady deserved a blue ribbon. Pam and Jerry, tennis enthusiasts, had been on hand to see the heated response of Doug Mears to Blanchard's interpretation of the foot fault rules in tennis...and the subsequent altercation in the refreshment area when Doug also seemed to take great exception to Blanchard's attentions to Miss Hilda Latham. As Pam tells Sergeant Mullins (and Weigand) later when they've come to identify Dr. Gebhardt, "We knew Mr. Blanchard was going to be killed." Well, not exactly--but they did notice that he had a tendency to collect opponents, if not enemies. Weigand will have to evaluate the opponents and judge which one earns the blue ribbon in murder.

This is, I think, a strong entry in the last few books of the Mr. & Mrs. North series. The focus is actually more on Weigand and the police procedure and less on Pam North and her attempts to detect. She winds up mixed up in the middle of the denouement, but her mission is entirely different. Of course, her penchant for noticing things and then, unthinkingly, blurting out what she noticed to the wrong person puts her in danger, but we know that the cavalry (in the person of Bill Weigand) will ride in just in time to prevent her untimely demise. 

The mystery is fairly light-weight, but I find these books so much fun that it's nice to know that there's a nice comfortable read ahead with no heavy-lifting needed. Just perfect for a rainy day's read. 

Kate over at Cross Examining Crime has also reviewed this one. Please check out her blog.

First line: There was, Pamela North said, no use waiting to be adopted.

Pam did not repeat, but only waited for seepage, which she assumed to be inevitable. Momentarily, her words lay on a mind's surface, like drops of water on dry soil. They would penetrate. (p.7)

He looked at his watch then, and said, "Good God," in  a tone of surprise. Always, Pam North thought, he felt the same surprise, expressed it so. And always at about the same time of morning. It is pleasant, Pam thought, to be sure of things. It provides continuity. (p. 8)

Sergeant Aloysius Mullins, of Homicide, Manhattan West, was in a somewhat disgruntled mood. Several things irked, one of them being that this looked like turning into a big one--the kind the inspector would ride herd on--and for the moment Mullins was the herd which would be ridden. (35)

It was really the cat part of it which preyed on Mullins's mind. The rest could be endured; would have to be endured....But cats were too much. For Sergeant Mullins, cats are always too much. and it sometimes seems to him that he is dogged by cats. (p. 35)

...it might, if Pam was right, give them some measure of the dead man. It is always desirable to measure the violently dead; it is seldom easy. (p. 50)

"We wouldn't do a thing like that." Which, of course, is a statement often made--with every evidence of shocked sincerity--to policemen. But not exclusively by those who are innocent of doing things like that. (p. 102)

Hence, the slow business of filling in was going on elsewhere; the slow, careful business of asking people who had no part in any of this whether they had seen any part of it. (p. 148)

Last line: "I do hope," Pam North said, "that nothing drastic happens to that judge."

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Deaths = 3 (one hit on head; one strangled; one pushed down stairs)


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

A Silver Spade

photo credit

 A Silver Spade (1950) by Louisa Revell

Miss Julia Tyler was polite but firm--No, she couldn't come and teach Latin at a summer camp in Maine for extremely bright young ladies. It didn't matter how light the duties, how beautiful the location, or how good the pay. She was very sorry that Mrs. Turner had made a trip to Pennsylvania to try and persuade her, but Miss Tyler has remodeling to do in anticipation for a new addition to the family. Wait a minute...what did you say about anonymous letters? Come back here and sit down...

You see, Miss Julia Tyler has a thing about mysteries. She reads them--a lot. And, she's been mixed up in two murders previously and couldn't resist playing amateur detective. As soon as she hears that faculty at the camp have been receiving nasty anonymous letters, she decides that a few weeks teaching Latin at Camp Pirate Island is just what she needs to do. The remodeling can get down without her supervision. But once the murders start and there seems to be no end in sight, she begins to think she made a mistake.

The first death seems almost straight-forward. Captain Benesch was a blackmailer and it looks like one of his victims just had enough and decided to silence him. But who was being blackmailed and for what? Well--there's the late-night activities on the beach which may be covert Nazi-sympathizers. There's talk of a faculty member previously tried and found innocent of murder--but was she really innocent? There's also speculation that Mrs. or Mr. Turner may have hurried Mrs. Turner's aunt to her grave in order to inherit the camp. And one of the faculty might be in the States with false documentation. There's also stories of pirate treasure to be dug up and just who is the camp nurse keeping hidden in the isolation ward? 

When more deaths follow, it begins to look like there might be other motives beyond disposing of a blackmailer and tidying up loose ends. We have all kinds of clues--from heavy black gloves (in the middle of summer) to a Coke bottle stamped "Terre Haute, IN" to a smooth seashell-shaped object. And when we're ready for the wrap-up, we have confessions and semi-confessions and an elaborate theory involving two of the little girls. And, then a final twist to the whole kaleidoscope.

my copy


This was a great book for a couple of reasons. First (and best--to me, anyway), it is an interesting twist on the academic mystery. Instead of being set at a school or university, we have a bunch of highly intelligent campers learning Latin and Greek and Astronomy and music on an island off the Maine coast. I love academic mysteries and it's always fun to find one with an interesting or different setting. And, second, I figured it out! I knew who and I knew the basic reason why (though I wasn't completely sure of the details of the initial motivation for the first murder in the camp). This didn't detract from the story because I was wondering when our sleuths would figure it out.

The ending is done quite nicely too. If the reader doesn't spot the killer, then it's quite fun to see the various theories explained and then shot down until we get down to the final (correct) solution. 

John over at Pretty Sinister Books reviewed this one back in 2016 (and I've shamelessly stolen his posted cover photo--credited above--since my copy comes in an unadorned 4-in-1 mystery book club edition). Check out his review too.

First line: My great-niece Anne is going to have a baby, and after I got home from Louisville I was busy getting the house ready for him.

Oh, Miss Tyler, but they all do that. Didn't you know? The person who writes the anonymous letters always writes one to himself....Don't you read detective stories? My dear, you really should. The most relaxing things in the world. (Miss Randle; p. 34)

Murderers aren't easily discouraged, Sally. As soon as Miss Randle came out with what she said about seeing somebody in the woods--well, that was when that person made up his mind." (Miss Tyler; p. 127)

Last line: We walked on.

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Deaths = 5 (one shot; two poisoned; one stabbed; one hit on head)