Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Locked Room


  The Locked Room (1972) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The eighth installment of this series finds Martin Beck just returning to work after a life-threatening encounter with a bullet. His colleagues are trying to put a stop to an outbreak of robberies--primarily bank robberies, but robberies of all sorts have taken over Stockholm. Most recently, a young woman walked into a bank, wound up with 87 thousand kroner, and shot a man who tried to stop her. Witnesses' accounts conflict (don't they always?)--she had several different outfits; she got into a blue car or a beige one--no, wait she didn't get in a car at all; she had accomplices waiting for her or maybe she just drove off/walked away alone. Who knows? The head of the bank robbery investigations--District Attorney "Bulldozer" Olsson soon decides it's one of a string of robberies planned by criminal mastermind Werner Roos. According to Bulldozer, Roos is planning a BIG robbery--his biggest yet--and the DA is adamant that they're going to get him this time.

A hot lead to Roos's plans practically falls into Bulldozer's lap, but will he and his team be able to use it to their advantage (Spoiler Alert---that's a big no). Meanwhile, Beck is handed an impossible crime to solve. The body of Karl Edvin Svard was found shot to death (after several weeks) behind the quadruple-locked door of his apartment. All the windows were shaded, unbroken, and locked as well. The local officers quickly filed it under suicide--but the case is handed over to Beck because things don't quite add up. For one thing, if the man shot himself, where is the gun? In an odd little twist, it's found in the most interesting place...Beck will, of course, figure it all out. But will he be able to prove it? And what about those bank robberies?

I'm having a difficult time deciding what I think of this one. It is both entertaining (in a Keystone Cops kind of way) to read about the absolutely inept handling of the bank robbery investigations by Bulldozer and his special team and depressing to see how little justice and correct police procedure ultimately figure in this story.

Seriously, if you can read the scene where Larsson and Kollberg and company bust into the room where they believe two of the bank robbers are holed up and Larsson winds up hanging out the window, one of the nervous uniformed officers shoots the lights out (literally) as well as hitting a hot water pipe (insert image of spraying hot water pipe), the police attack dog bites one of the officers and refuses to let go, and--as a grand finale--one of them tosses in some tear gas...and you don't laugh, then I guess you just don't like physical humor. It's slapstick straight from the era of silent film. And, of course, the bad guys aren't even there anymore. And the crackerjack band hot on the trail of the bank robbers don't get any better. Just wait till they screw up the intelligence they receive on the upcoming BIG bank job.

So, entertaining? Yes, indeed. And the locked room mystery is pretty good as well. Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö use an old trick to good effect and there's enough going on to distract most readers from seeing it until Beck finds the answer.

But...then there's the actual police investigations--breaking and entering for evidence; the whole Bulldozer fiasco; Beck not being sure his taping equipment is working properly (though--Beck comes through the best in this book). And there's all sorts of shady goings-on among the police. Not to mention that at the end of the book, Beck's superiors decide not to promote him (there had been rumors) and why? Because they think he's unbalanced. Now--just to be clear, Beck doesn't want to be promoted. He wants to keep on investigating crimes and not be kicked up to a desk job. [And he's definitely not unbalanced--he's probably the best detective they've got.] But, let's just suppose that Beck really is unbalanced. His superiors think it's better to keep an unbalanced Beck where he is--investigating crimes and dealing with the public?!  There's some fine bureaucratic thinking for you... I know that this sort of thing happens in real life--but I'm not all that keen on my fiction being so realistic. I like the wheels of justice to run smooth in my detective stories. 

On balance, this is a solid story. I enjoyed the mystery and I especially enjoyed the slapstick antics and Martin Beck's portion of the plot. If it hadn't been for the (to me) depressing realism of how justice (and the police) really works, I would probably rate it higher. ★★

First line: The bells of St. Maria struck two as she came out from the subway station on Wollmar Yxkullsgatan.

Last lines: Someone must know. Who?

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

Deaths = two shot

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

DeKok & Variations on Murder


 DeKok & Variations on Murder
(1984) by A. C. Baantjer

In most cases of suspicious death, the primary question is whodunnit, but Baantjer puts a twist on the murder game and this time the question is: "Where is the body?" Marlies van Haesbergen is an elderly woman living in the penthouse of the building housing a multi-national dredging company owned by Paul Vreeden. She and her husband had long been caretakers for the building and when that position was no longer needed, Vreeden had allowed them to keep their apartment. Even now that her husband is dead, Mrs. van Haesbergen still makes the rounds of the building each night, making sure everything is okay.

Except four days ago, it wasn't. When she entered the company's boardroom, there sat Paul Vreeden...dead. Or so she thought. She rushed off to call for help--but then wasn't certain if she should call a doctor or the police. And maybe she was too hasty and Mr. Vreeden wasn't really dead. So she goes back...and Vreeden is gone. The next morning she makes an excuse to ask for Paul Vreeden in his office and his secretary tells Mrs. van Haesbergen that her boss is out of the country on business and she could make an appointment when he got back. The elderly lady gave it a couple of days and tried again. This time she was told that he had gone from business to a holiday in the Bahamas.

The whole incident doesn't sit well with Mrs. van Haesbergen, so she brings her story to Inspector DeKok. Even though they have no body, DeKok is certain that the lady is right--something has happened to Vreeden and it's not a trip to the Bahamas. He and Vledder (his right-hand man) begin poking around and asking questions....and making someone uneasy. "They" attempt to get DeKok relieved of duties for an illegal entry, but our intrepid inspector wriggles out from under that accusation. Then dead bodies do start appearing--Mrs. Vledder is strangled, the not-too-bright Archie Benson (who comes in handy for crooks who need an assistant who won't think up too many questions) dies, and so do a couple more--but they still haven't found Paul Vreeden--alive or dead. But then DeKok has an idea based on one particular fact learned during the course of the investigation. If he can use it to his advantage, the villains of the piece will lead him straight to Vreeden's body....

The opening scene between Archie Benson and the unnamed man is gold. I've always enjoyed the DeKok mysteries I've come across, but this beginning chapter definitely grabbed hold and drew me right in. Poor Archie can't see what is plain to the reader...that unnamed man is not happy and means Archie no good.

Archibald Benson should have listened more carefully to the words of the other man. Maybe he was on overload or distracted. He followed the man outside obediently, head bowed. It was the last mistake he would make.

And that's the last we hear of Benson until the bodies start showing up.

DeKok is an older detective, resistant of new methods and prefers to stick to the tried and true ways he's always known. He'll never see promotion, but he also won't be fired because his ways, unorthodox as they may be, always gets results. His character and his interactions with Vledder and the other characters in the stories are really what makes the books. That and the way Baantjer has of putting a twist on the mystery tropes. Here we have an almost standard inverted mystery. We know Vreeden is dead. We highly suspect that it's Vreeden's body that is in question in the opening scene. But we don't know who the other man is and we don't know exactly how Vreeden has died. And, true to form, Baantjer has an extra shake to give to the puzzle pieces at the end. ★★★★

First line: "Did you bury him?"

Last line: "I must say never before have I so intently wanted to find a corpse."

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

Deaths = 5 (two strangled; two shot; one natural)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Witch of the Low Tide


 But she was strangled to death. And the murder had to leave after he had killed. He's not here now. But in some fashion, explain it how you like, he or she or some damnable witch of the low tide managed to leave without a footprint in all that wet sand. ~Dr. David Garth in The Witch of the Low Tide (1961) by John Dickson Carr

Set in 1907 England. Dr. David Garth, middle-aged medical man, has fallen in love with a young widow, Lady "Betty" Calder. He has been reluctant to let his friends know that the "confirmed bachelor" has become susceptible to Cupid's darts--but events outside his control lead to sudden revelations. For Inspector Twigg of Scotland Yard is on Betty's trail--claiming that she is woman of low-repute and a blackmailer in the bargain and Garth is determined to prove Betty innocent. We soon discover that Betty has a sister named Glynis who has taken to dressing like Betty and even going about under her name.

When Glynis is found dead in Betty's own bathing pavilion, Garth's lady-love is the primary suspect. After all, we only have Betty's word that Glynis is the woman behind the blackmail. But, given the fact that there were no footprints on the surrounding sand, Twigg is hard-pressed to prove how Betty did it. Garth uses his knowledge of the up-and-coming practice of psychoanalysis and detective literature to solve the questions of who and how...and save his lady from the hangman.

This is another historical mystery by the king of locked rooms and impossible crimes. Unfortunately, Carr and his historical mysteries & I don't get along very well. I thoroughly enjoy his Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale books, but something about the books that slip into another time period just doesn't work for me. In general, I do like historical mysteries--particularly those set in the Victorian or Edwardian period. This time round, Carr has chosen the latter. I don't know if it's the fact that he needs to pay so much attention to the details of his impossible crimes and has less attention to give to the time period or what. But the time period setting just doesn't feel right. Certainly, it's somewhat necessary for Carr to set his story earlier than when he was writing. After all, the little private bathing pavilions (changing rooms) are very much of the time period and the fact that there is one on the beach for our victim to be murdered in is kind of important to the plot.

Swimmers of the 1960s weren't nearly as concerned with modesty and didn't need these private bathing "machines" when they ventured to the beach.

The antagonism between Garth and Twigg was fairly well-played--especially at first. It did drag on a bit, though. And, for Garth supposedly being able to analyze character so well, you'd think it would have twigged (yes, I went there) the inspector's commitment to finding the truth (and not just wanting to pin it on Betty) a lot sooner. 

A decent impossible crime (two, actually!) but I have to say I prefer Carr's series books to his stand-alones. ★★

This has also been reviewed by Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy! 

First line: The train reached Charing Cross towards dusk of a fine evening in June.

Last lines: You might offer me that cigarette-case again, Doctor. You're not so bad yourself.

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

Deaths = 2 (one strangled; one shot)


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Dolls Are Deadly


 Dolls Are Deadly (1960) by Brett Halliday

Dolls are deadly. Especially when they are voodoo dolls sent to threaten. But what connection could there be between a small-time gangster ("enforcer") and a fantastically beautiful housewife that would result in them both being sent voodoo dolls? Henry "Henny" Henlein, an enforcer who hired out as a muscleman for Miami's crime bosses (and most particularly De Luca), has received two dolls--one stabbed to the heart with a black pin and the other with a noose around its neck--and he is scared to death. He comes to Mike Shayne and asks the detective to find out who's behind it. But Shayne wants no part of Henny's dirty money. He turns the tough down flat and decides to go fishing instead.

Instead of the relaxation he expects on his friend Sylvester's boat, he encounters of trio of odd vacationers. Shayne can't quite put his finger on what's wrong, but all his instincts tell him the three men are up to no good. A strange exchange of fish with a Cuban boat, a brand new boat motor, and a matter of no ice are just a few of the little oddities that put him on the alert. And then people start dying...First Henny is found shot to death. Then Sylvester comes up missing and Shayne suspects that the little Cuban has been put out of the way as well. (He is, of course, right.)

Next up is Clarissa Milford. She has also received one of the little voodoo dolls with a pin in its heart.But what connection could she have to a mobster's hunk of muscle? It winds up that all dolls lead to Madame Swoboda--a medium who puts on seances for the tourists, as well as selling voodoo dolls, conjure candles, and love potions. Clarissa's husband, sister, and brother-in-law have all become devotees of the mysterious madame. Clarissa fears that they're being hustled (though she doesn't quite know how) and has threatened Madame Swoboda with the police. Has the madame used her voodoo doll to threaten Clarissa in return? Or is someone else using the medium's black magic for their own ends? Shayne believes there's something bigger at stake than just a few psychic shekels. (He is, of course, right about that too.)

One thing I like about the Mike Shayne books is that they are more like classic mysteries than most hard-boiled private detective novels.Sure, we've got loan sharks and enforcers and shady dames--but Halliday also gives us a nice little puzzle to work out to go along with the tough guy backgrounds. This one is little bit leaner in the clue department, but it's still possible to find the bare bones of the plot. Or I should say two plots since there are two mysteries to solve here. I was half-way there. I got one of the solutions, but fell down on the job on the second. Or Halliday fooled me. One of the those. Another solid outing with the red haired detective.  ★★ and a half.

First line: Michael Shayne stared dreamily from his office window, his chair in a nearly impossible tilt and his big feet scuffing the desk top.

There was sardonic humor in the idea of a professional killer trying to hire a detective to protect him against the sender of a couple of tiny dolls. (p. 13)

Last line: She seemed to hear him then, and for the first time since he had met her, she smiled.

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

Deaths = 3 (one shot; one hit by car; one stabbed)

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Dead Woman's Ditch


 Dead Woman's Ditch
(1964) by Simon Nash finds us at an obscure little country inn at what should be the tail-end of the holiday season. Oddly enough, the inn is packed with guests and none of them seem to be in the holiday mood. They all eye one another suspiciously and what attempts there are at small talk quickly fall flat. Among the guests and staff we have the young novelist Joan Forest, the most stand-offish Silas Taker, the former sea captain George Hughes, the stockbroker's wife Mrs. Trask, the academic language specialist Dr. Amethyst, the civil servant John Croydon, the self-contained accountant Egbert Weeldon, the very frightened waiter Sebastian Munoz-Diaz, and the very happy innkeeper, Mr. Cannock. 

They have barely settled in on their first night when Taker is found murdered in his room--stabbed to death with one of a pair of ornamental knives displayed downstairs in the hotel. The local police quickly admit that murder is a bit out of their depth and so the Yard's Inspector Montero and Sergeant Springer are on the scene early. He decides that this is just the sort of case that his academic friend Adam Ludlow be able to contribute to (especially since a fellow academic is among the suspects) and convinces Ludlow to take a late holiday himself. The trio uncover a blackmail plot--it appears that the nasty Mr. Taker had summoned his victims to the inn in order to squeeze them dry and every other guest had reason to want him dead. Even the innkeeper was in his evil clutches.

But blackmail isn't the only crime going. There are also connections to a politically extreme group who recruits members using various means. There are clues pointing to the group and there is also the little matter of the missing photograph. Why on earth was the blown-up photo of the inn (which was hung above the bar) removed? What incriminating detail could there have been? Once they know that, they will be well on their way to solving the crime.

Oh, and you may be wondering what Dead Woman's Ditch has to do with it all. Well...it's a handy place for dropping bits of inconvenient evidence. It's a pity (for the criminal) that Ludlow is such an inquisitive fellow when it comes to ditches and how they got their names and just where they are...

This is the fourth of five mysteries featuring academic Ludlow and Montero--but it was the last one left for me to read. Nash is the pen name used by Raymond Chapman, Emeritus Professor of English at London University and an Anglican priest, for five mystery novels published in the 1960s. Professor Chapman worked as a non-stipendiary priest in Southwark, and is currently on the staff at St Mary's Barnes in Southwest London. His police detectives are Inspector Montero and Sergeant Jack Springer, unofficially aided by the gifted amateur and lecturer at North London College, Ludlow. Chapman has also written many books on religious themes and English literature. For more information on Nash/Chapman check out gadetection.  I owe Jon (author of the post) a great debt--previously when I went searching for information on Nash, there was pretty much nothing to be found.  Jon  did his own bit of detective work and tracked Chapman to his current post at St. Mary's.

As anyone who knows me or my blog at all well, I do love a mystery with an academic slant and this one has two--as amateur sleuth and as suspect. Ludlow is an understated character, perhaps just a shade too much so, but it was interesting to watch him try to infiltrate the political organization's headquarters in London. I did spot the villain of the piece, but I didn't get the motive exactly right. A satisfying, solid mystery. ★★ 

First line: It was still early enough in the year to leave the curtains open at dinner, but late enough for twilight to come pressing up to the windows before the meal was over.

Last line: As for that piece of research which Montero's telegram had interrupted, it really looked as if it would never be finished.

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

Deaths =  2 (one stabbed; one strangled)

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Regatta Mystery


 The Regatta Mystery (1930s--various original dates for each of the stories) by Agatha Christie

A small collection of short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, Mr. Parker Pyne, and Miss Marple. Solid entertainment and Christie fans can have fun spotting methods and plots that appear in expanded form in some of the novels. ★★

"The Regatta Mystery": A diamond thief is on the loose at the Dartmouth harbor regatta festivities. Mr. Parker Pyne is on the case.

"The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest": How did the dead body get into the chest while a dance party was going on? Hercule Poirot is asked to find out the answer...and, of course, who put it there.

"How Does Your Garden Grow?": Poirot receives a letter from a woman needing someone with discretion. She dies before being able to meet with him to explain. And he goes to investigate--he finds the nursery rhyme in the title very informative. Similar beginning to Dumb Witness and notable for the appearance of Miss Lemon.

"Problem at Pollensa Bay": Parker Pyne solves the problem of a mother's dislike for her son's fiancée. At first it looks like he's failed his commission.

"Yellow Iris": a phone call summons Poirot to a restaurant and table with yellow irises on it. He spies an acquaintance at the table and is invited to join the party. But then among the champagne and dancing, a strange announcement is made... (another story reminiscent of a novel-length work).

"Miss Marple Tells a Story": Mr. Petherick brings a man accused of murdering his wife to see Miss Marple. When the man sees the elderly sleuth, he's doubtful that she can help him, but Petherick convinces him to tell his story. Mr. Rhodes and his wife were staying at a hotel. She had gone to bed and he was working in the adjoining room. Only he and a chambermaid (who brought fresh towels) had access to the rooms and there are witnesses who can state that no one else came near the rooms. The case looks very black against Mr. Rhodes and he didn't impress the jury much at the inquest. But never fear...Miss Marple can prove his innocence if anyone can.

"The Dream": An eccentric millionaire has a disturbing dream about killing himself, tells Poirot about it, and then is found dead one week later--an apparent suicide. But Poirot thinks not.

"In a Glass Darkly": Supernatural undertones to this one--which does not feature any of Christie's detectives. A young man sees a vision of a beautiful young woman being strangled by her fiancé. He believes he has saved her from her fate...is he right?

"Problem at Sea": In one of his rare voyages aboard ship (he hates traveling by boat...), Poirot solves the murder of a wealthy woman in her locked (from the inside) stateroom.

First line (first story): Mr. Isaac Pointz removed a cigar from his lips and said approvingly: "Pretty little place."

Last line (last story): "I do not approve of murder," said Hercule Poirot.

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

Deaths = 6 (two stabbed; two poisoned; one shot; one natural)

Practise to Deceive (spoilerish)


 Practise to Deceive (1957) by Frances & Richard Lockridge

Captain Heimrich is on the case again when wealthy "old" woman (42!) is stabbed to death in a motel. Heimrich's lady-love, Susan Faye, is asked to visit the Senley mansion--bringing fabric samples for a redecoration project. Hurricane Doris is playing havoc with the weather and when Susan's appointment is changed to Friday night, she finds herself stranded between the washed out bridge leading onto the Senley property and the road home with water too deep to drive through. There is nothing for it but to stop for the night at the Crescent Court Motel.

Susan usually travels with her Great Dane, Colonel, and when Colonel begins barking in the middle of the night Susan knows something isn't right. She looks out into night to see a figure running away from the motel and an open doorway a few rooms down from hers. Inside is Mrs. Senley, her prospective client, but Mrs. Senley is a prospective client no more. She is dead from a stab wound to the heart.

Heimrich and Sergeant Forniss arrive and they find that the fact that Mrs. Senley and Susan were both at the hotel was not the only oddity of the night. Mrs. Senley is currently on husband number three (a much younger man, this time). He was caught at home--on the other side of the washed-out bridge. But husbands number one and two were also at the Crescent Court Motel and each claim to have received a note from Olive Senley requesting their presence at the motel. Are they both telling the truth? Did one arrange for the other's presence as a red herring for the police? Or perhaps they both have been brought along as cover for the mysterious Mr. X? When another body is found drowned in the swollen stream nearby, Heimrich has cause to review the facts of the case...and to remember on particular statement made early in the investigation.

~~~~~~~Spoilers ahead! 


I have to say that I found this one most enjoyable in its descriptions of the weather and how it affected the story as well as the description of the characters involved. The mystery itself really wasn't all that mysterious. There's only one solid motive to be had and it seemed pretty obvious that the Lockridges were relying on the readers to believe that just because something was supposed to be impossible...well, then it must have been impossible and so we'd try to fix one of the other suspects up as murderer. I didn't know precisely how our killer got round the impossibility, but it was apparent they must have since they were the only credible suspect. Heimrich's reconstruction of the "how" is good--even though there's little chance of proving his theory. We're left wondering at the end whether the prosecution's case is going to be solid enough to bring in a verdict of guilty. Overall, a solid read--though not one of the absolute best Heimrich books. ★★

First line: Ann, born prematurely in late June, had blown herself out in the Gulf of Mexico, a fretful baby of a hurricane.

Last lines: "Come here, you oaf," Susan Faye said. "Come here to me."

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

Deaths = 2 (one stabbed; one drowned)

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Lake Frome Monster


 The Lake Frome Monster (1966) by Arthur W. Upfield

Eric Maidstone was a teacher on holiday. He headed to the outback to take pictures of Australian animals for free-lance articles he submitted in his spare time. He planned his travels to take him to the Lake Frome station where an acquaintance worked. But he never got there.

His body was found with a bullet hole in the chest near the Bore Ten watering hole--just west of the dingo-proof Fence. Before those who found him turned his body over, they thought he might have tangled with The Lake Frome Monster, a giant-sized rogue camel known to attack men. The police from the nearest town get nowhere with their investigations and so the force sends its best: Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte. 

A half-white, half-Aboriginal detective, Bony is an expert at tracking and reading the ways of the outback. He often goes undercover as a worker in the bush in order to win the confidence of those he is investigating. He does so again. This time tackling the worst stretch of Fence work--clearing brush, mending broken fence, replacing rotten posts. But even his skills are put to the test when he finds that a wind storm has covered the ground with sand and debris. Most of the clues will come from conversations with various witnesses and suspects--from overseers to station owners to his fellow Fence minders. Eventually, a pattern emerges and he's forced to set a trap to catch the killer/s. When it's sprung a bit too soon and his own life is in danger, help comes from a very unlikely source...allowing Bony to once more get his man.

This is the last entry in the Inspector Bonaparte mysteries. It was completed by J. L. Price & Dorothy Strange. They did a credible job of finishing the work, but I could definitely tell that other cooks had been in the kitchen--the dish served up had a slightly different flavor. Bony's character lacks some of the depth that you find in the earlier works. The basic plot is a good one and the mystery is fledge out pretty well, though the ending is a bit abrupt. Overall, a solid ending to the series. ★★

First line: The wildfowl in the trees round the lake rose in a flurry of alarm with the shot.

As had happened to him so many times before, the most vital parts of a conversation had never been given to him on his first interview with someone who could possibly help. The really significant things, he reflected, were passed over because they seemed unimportant. (p.p. 123-4)

Last line: "To the finest Fence in the outback, coupled with the name of the Lake Frome Monster!"

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

Deaths = two shot


Friday, September 10, 2021

A Burial at Sea


 A Burial at Sea (2011) by Charles Finch

Charles Lenox, fairly new member of Parliament and sometime detective, finds himself in a new role in this fifth entry in Finch's Victorian-era mystery series. His brother Edward, speaking on behalf of certain government officials, asks Lenox to go on a secret mission to Egypt. A number of English spies have been killed on French soil and tensions are once again rising high between the two countries. It is feared that France is preparing for war. So, using a visit to the newly-dug Suez Canal as cover, Lenox will meet with a Frenchman willing to trade secrets to find out just how compromised Britain's spy system is and just how prepared France is for hostilities.

But first he has to make a safe trip to the canal aboard the Lucy. A killer is stalking the naval crew--the first to die is the ship's second lieutenant, Mr. Halifax. He is stabbed and his torso cut open...and certain, shall we say, souvenirs are left in and around the body. The captain quickly calls upon Lenox to use his detective skills to find the murderer. The hunt for more clues is slow-going. To add to the problems there is a rumor of mutiny and then another death follows before he can pinpoint the culprit. He nearly becomes the third victim and has to be rescued from the clutches of the sea while the villain appears to have been lost. 

Leaving the killer to his fate on the Mediterranean, they arrive in Egypt where Lenox expects the only danger to be from French spies who may have suspicions about Her Majesty's representative's motives in Port Said. But he'll need another rescue from a villain determined to see him dead--fortunately, he's won the loyalty of his ship's steward and Mr. McEwan saves the day.

There is much going on in this one. We have a nice, vintage-style closed group puzzle plot with the murders aboard the Lucy. And we have a spy thriller theme. For naval history buffs, there's a lot of interesting information about life aboard a steam-assisted naval ship. Despite the gruesome nature of the murders, this was a fun book--McEwan is quite a character, a non-stop eating machine who is round in shape but can swing among the rigging with the best of the sailors. I enjoyed the scenes of life aboard the Lucy and appreciated Lenox's first taste of sailing. I was pleased to see his detective work take more of the limelight, the secret mission is almost an after thought so we don't get a lot of the cloak and dagger stuff. Overall, a very good entry in the series. ★★★★

First line: He gazed out at the sunfall from an open second-floor window, breathing deeply of the cool salt air, and felt it was the first calm moment he had known in days.

Last line: Edmund remembered hearing it very specifically, the whisper, but he did not learn the meaning and import of that stray word until several months later: Only after Charles and Jane had their child, a baby girl.

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

Deaths = 8 (two stabbed; three strangled/hanged; two drowned; one fell from height)


Thursday, September 9, 2021

Dumb Witness


 Dumb Witness
(Poirot Loses a Client; 1937) by Agatha Christie  

Dumb Witness or (as both Poirot and Hastings mention at various times) "The Affair of the Dog's Ball" features a case where Poirot loses his client before he even knows she exists. Miss Emily Arundell is a wealthy spinster with nieces and a nephew buzzing round hoping to get a little of Auntie's money before the old girl passes away (because with their luck, she's going to live to be a hundred and they could all use some cash now). She doesn't approve of Theresa and Charles's mode of living--living beyond their means, that is. And she doesn't approve of Bella's choice in husbands. Whatever could she have been thinking to marry a Greek? But--if they can all be patient, they will have equal shares in the dibs once Miss Arundell dies. Or at least that's what she's told them will happen under her current will.

When they all gather at Littlegreen House (the Arundell's family home) for Easter, Miss Arundell takes a nasty fall down the staircase late one night. The ball which belongs to Bob, her terrier, is found nearby and it looks like he must have left the toy at the head of the stairs after a round of his favorite game--bumping it down the stairs to a playmate willing to toss it back up to him. They all assume that slipping on it caused her to tumble down. Fortunately, she is not seriously hurt, merely battered and bruised, but it does force her to lie in bed for some time. While she is resting, she begins to consider the circumstances of her accident and decides that someone needs to investigate. She remembers a friend mentioning a certain Hercule Poirot and she decides to write him a letter. This is April 17th.

Unfortunately, the letter is delayed and Poirot does not receive it until the end of June. When he and Hastings arrive in Market Basing to call upon Miss Arundell, they find that she has recently died--apparently of a recurrence of jaundice, an ailment she had successfully endured in the past. And--to the surprise of everyone--she had signed a new will just days before her death which disinherited her family and left everything to her companion Wilhemina  Lawson. All of Poirot's instincts are on the alert and he determines to get to the bottom things. It starts with the simple questions of why was the letter not posted immediately and why was the will suddenly changed, and by the time he has interviewed all of the family and servants he is convinced that the fall down the stairs was no accident and Miss Arundell's death was not as natural as it appears.

Another enjoyable mystery by one of the Queens of Crime. I had read it before (long before blogging) and it's one of the few* of hers where I remembered who did it. But that didn't lessen my enjoyment. I think the set-up with Poirot having a dead woman as a client is an interesting one and I had fun watching Hastings go through all sorts of convoluted solutions before Poirot reveals all at the end. Also, being a dog lover, I found the scenes with Bob--particularly when Hastings is on the scene--to be quite fun. The running monologue of what's going through Bob's head while he barks at and sniffs the two men is quite amusing. And Poirot's explanation of why dogs are very logical in their dislike of mailmen was very nice as well.

For those who say that Christie had cardboard characters, I can only reply that her thumbnail sketches of each character in Dumb Witness is spot on and I can vividly imagine them all--from Minnie Lawson, the fluttery hen of a companion, to the scapegrace nephew Charles to the gossipy Miss Peabody (and everyone in between). Even the listless girl in the house agent's office springs to life as she makes every effort to be as unhelpful as possible to potential buyers. Who needs pages of character descriptions when Christie can introduce characters in a brief scene or two and give you all you need to know? ★★★★

*Not counting "big" ones like And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, etc. where once you know who did it, it's pretty impossible to forget the solution.

First line: Miss Arundell died on May 1st.

There is one piece of advice i offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller--and an actor to any play whatsoever! The shower of destructive criticism in each case is somewhat devastating. (p. 201)

Last line: "Wuff," said Bob in energetic assent.

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

Deaths = two poisoned

Monday, September 6, 2021

House of Care


 House of Care (1981) by W. J. Burley

The Care family make their home at Naneslow, their decaying family estate in Cornwall. The family is made up of Sir Henry, his two children by his first wife Deborah--twins Laura and Harold, his second wife Nancy, their son John, Sir Henry's mother Ethel, Henry's sister Isobel, a cousin Celia, and her daughter Alice. Sixteen years ago Deborah fell to her death from a tower on the estate. It was determined to be an accident at the time and the family has let Deborah's memory rest. Until now. Now, Laura has returned from staying with an aunt in Paris and seems determined to rake up the past. She has dabbled in witchcraft and the dark arts and claims to be able self-hypnotize and recall details from that day sixteen years ago which were previously forgotten. And she begins asking pointed questions. 

One night Laura goes up to the top of the tower to perform a summoning ritual--to call up a spirit or demon to answer the questions she still has. When morning comes, her body is found at the base of the tower. In the same spot where her mother was found. Part of the summoning ritual involves burning herbs and other materials which may have produced a hallucinogenic effect. Is her death an accident due to disorientation? Or perhaps she committed suicide? Or, most unsettling of all, did someone grow uneasy with Laura's questions about Deborah's death and decide the daughter needed to die as well?

~~~~Spoilers Ahead! Continue at your own risk.

The title (and family name) is really an interesting one given all the unpleasant undercurrents running through the members of the household. The house of Care most definitely does not appear to be a comfortable place to live--not only because it is in such disrepair. In fact the condition of the estate parallels the condition of the family. None of them are easy in their relations with the others and neither Laura nor her mother were nice people, it seems. When Deborah is mentioned, she is always described as creating scenes and manipulating her husband--using his desire for sexual variety against him in ways to taunt and trap him. She deliberately brought Nancy into the family circle to tempt him...which may very well have led to her death. 

Laura is described several times as being much like her mother. She certainly likes to use people's weaknesses against them--finding out secrets and dropping hints where it will do the most damage. She has obsessed over her mother's death for years and her purpose in returning from France was to make sure "they" don't get away with it. Unfortunately, it looks like "they" will.

I'm not a huge fan of ambiguous endings to mysteries. I like to see the murderer firmly identified and justice take its course. The final conversation indicates what we are to believe is the solution, but nothing is settled. It makes for an unsatisfactory ending. The atmosphere is superb and the relationships between the characters are well done--if a bit depressing. But that's the effect Burley was going for, I think. Had the wrap-up been more definite and satisfying, I would have given four stars. As it is...★★

First line: The three women sat around the table in the great bare kitchen with its tall cupboards, its stone sink, and Aga range.

Last lines: Ethel said, "I shall be there." And se added, after a moment, "As usual."

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

Deaths = 4 (two fell from height; one car accident; one hanged)

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The River & the Rose


 The River & the Rose (1967) by Sandra Abbott

Set in about 1899 in Georgia: Four years after her fiancé dies in a freak carriage versus train accident, Suzanne Howe answers an advertisement for "a young lady of good character for a position with a Southern family." Her beloved Aaron had been from the South and she thought she would be closer to his memory there. She has visions of beautiful plantations and people of quiet Southern manners and charm. What she gets is a ramshackle mansion--dusty and falling into disrepair, a butler who is downright rude, and a housekeeper who is by turns cold and aloof and then warm and welcoming. Andrew Parker, the master of the house, is a dark, brooding sort who both repels and attracts Suzanne. 

But looming over Belle Rose (the name of our gothic plantation) are dark secrets. Who is the woman crying hysterically in the room next to Suzanne? Is she the same woman who wanders through the woods and fields at night? Why don't the townspeople want to come to Belle Rose? And why won't the doctor and his wife help Suzanne when she thinks she wants to leave the plantation? Andrew finally answers her questions about the strange things that have been happening--but can she really believe him? When someone winds up murdered one fateful night and Suzanne finds Andrew standing over the body, will she discover that she's fallen in love with a killer? 

So...this is a bizarre little book. Literally--it's a bare 128 pages in length and this story needs more than that. Sometimes a book moves quickly because it's exciting and you keep turning pages to find out what happened. Not here. Everything just happens too fast. There is a whirlwind of strange crying, sightings of the weird woman, Suzanne having fainting fits and a fever, Andrew telling her he loves her. they kiss a lot for two people who've just met but then immediately she's fearful of him, and he's off in a brooding fit of anger.  There's no real build up at all. And then there's a whole other storyline about a dreadful event that happened at the end of the Civil War. It's all too much in too few pages. I got to the end of the story and just felt like "What just happened?!" And, seriously girl, if a guy swings from tenderness to shouting anger like that...he's got issues that need resolved before you go tumbling into his arms.  and 1/2

First line (Prologue): We were dancing.

First line (Chapter One): The late July afternoon heat was sweltering, and by the time the train reached Parker's Junction my clothes were sticking to me

Last line: When the last stone was thrown, the stallion reared its head and galloped off into the night.

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

Deaths: 5 (one hit by train; one shot; one stabbed; one killed in a fire; one hit by chandelier)

Saturday, September 4, 2021

The Appeal


 The Appeal (2021) by Janice Hallett

Hallett gives the epistolary story an updated, mystery twist, using emails and instant messaging as the primary source of evidence in this story of murder and intrigue in the small town of Lockwood. Roderick Tanner is convinced that there has been a miscarriage of justice when death occurs among the members of a community theatre group. One member has died and another has been convicted of murder. But he feels like the story which came out at the trial is not "the whole truth and nothing but the truth." He believes he knows what really happened, but he sets the evidence before his two protégés, Charlotte and Femi, to see if they arrive at the same conclusion. Everything they need to know is given primarily in emails and instant messages obtained at the time of the trial. These are supplemented with transcripts of witness and suspect interviews. 

Over the course of the book he brings them up to the point of the trial and the law students find do find themselves agreeing that the wrong person is behind bars--but there are still too many options for how things played out. Tanner then provides more information which came to light after the trial was over--this is the evidence upon which he will base the appeal for his client. The legal team fighting for an appeal are confident they can get the sentence reduced to manslaughter, but Tanner wants to argue for the guilt of another party altogether. He needs others to see what he has seen in the documents. Will Charlotte and Femi spot the killer? And will the reader spot him or her before the law students do?

It's difficult to discuss the plot without giving the game away. The interesting hook for this mystery is that we (the reader and the students) pretty much go into the story blind. We are introduced to the cast of characters (suspects and victim) and know only that one of them will die, someone is convicted, and that there is possibly someone else responsible. We also know that a production of the play All My Sons and a shady charity appeal for a little girls medical treatment is involved in some way. Book blurbs usually give us more to go on than that--but as we work our way through the messages we get to know these people and the situations leading up to the murder. It's up to us to spot the clues in what's said and, sometimes more importantly, what's there between the lines. 

Everything depends on whose point of view is trustworthy (and to what extent) and understanding that a great deal of what is said in these messages may have more than one interpretation. Some readers may think that we're given a lot of fluff--gossip, trivia, etc.--in these emails, but appearances aren't always what they seem and a random comment may prove very important indeed. This is a fantastic updating of the epistolary story--very reminiscent of Sayers' The Documents in the Case. My primary difficulty was keeping everybody straight--there are a lot of characters to keep track of. ★★★★ and 1/2

First line: As discussed, it is best you know nothing before read the enclosed.

Last line: There's nothing as exciting as a fresh new start when the page is blank and the future is all for the making!

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

Deaths =  one fell from height

Friday, September 3, 2021

A Stranger in Mayfair


 A Stranger in Mayfair (2010) by Charles Finch

At the end of the previous book Charles Lenox is elected to Parliament. This book finds him trying to strike a balance between his new job in the House of Commons and his detective work. Just as he's settling into his new role, Ludovic Starling, a fellow member of the House, asks Lenox to investigate the murder of his footman Frederick Clarke in the alley behind Starling's house. Someone struck the young man down from behind, using a brick from the alley's paving to deliver the killing blow.

Lenox insists that he's too busy getting ready for his maiden session in Parliament, but agrees to take a quick look at things before handing the case over to his assistant John Dallinger. He can't keep from thinking about the murder though and when Starling suddenly insists that he no longer needs Lenox, the detective's interest is doubled. The two detectives soon discover that the footman was leading a double life--as a member of an exclusive boxing club and the recipient of mysterious packets of money. The trail leads from boxing clubs to butcher shops. A second (unsuccessful) attack occurs and someone is arrested for the crimes. But Lenox is convinced that someone is covering for the real killer. But who? And why?

Spoiler Ahead! (second paragraph down)

I have to say that this one disappointed me. One reads mysteries with the expectation that the detective will detect. Dallinger is fine--but he's no Lenox. And Lenox is distracted--having him split his time between Parliament and detecting really doesn't work for me. And then, of course, he isn't distracted enough by trying to do two jobs at once. We've got to throw in this weird not-communicating-properly thing with his new wife. It's not like they have known each other since they were children and have been best friends all this time or anything....so naturally they're being all weird now that they're married. 

I was also a little mystified about the whole gentleman's boxing club thing. I mean, it seems rather a long way to go just to have a red herring to throw in and then it didn't seem to serve all that well as a false. Lenox barely pays attention to it, save for one visit to the gym, and I never got the idea that he thought a boxer might have slugged Frederick over the head. I honestly expected there to be some real reason for Frederick's involvement in the boxing club and that it would figure more prominently in the solution. With the boxing thing being such a dud, it was pretty obvious who was behind it (especially after we learn about Frederick's other secret...). 

My primary reason for giving this three stars rather than less is my fondness for the characters. I enjoy Lenox's relationship with Graham (reminding me of Wimsey and Bunter) and his relationship with Dallinger (despite his protégé not being up to snuff in the detecting department). There are also good moments with his brother Edward and the description of the opening of Parliament is quite interesting (even if I do wish Lenox were just detecting). I hope the next installment will see more detective work on display and less of the extraneous material--these are billed as mysteries, after all. ★★

First line (Prologue): Clara, who is that gentleman? He looks familiar.

First line (Chapter One): For an Englishman, it was a strange time to be in France.

Last line: From her he looked out into the chamber, and with a clear, confident voice, began to speak.

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

Deaths = one hit on head

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

August Pick of the Month

 


When I decided to renew my Pick of the Month Awards, I was amazed to find that it had been three years since I put together a monthly list of books read, stats, ratings, and overall My Reader's Block P.O.M. Award winner. So far, I'm sticking to the plan. I had participated in Kerrie's Pick of the Month meme which focused on mysteries, but it doesn't look like she's got that up and running. My plan is to focus on mysteries (since that's the bulk of what I read), but if there are non-mysteries worthy of a P.O.M. award then I will hand out two awards.

Last month was a reading bonanza (34 books!)! My pace slowed in August as I knew it would since we went back to full-time in the English Department office--after over a year of working from home. But I still managed to average almost a book a day...

Total Books Read: 25
Total Pages: 5,626

Average Rating: 3.31 stars  
Top Rating: 5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 58%
Percentage by Male Authors: 38%
Percentage by both Female & Male Authors: 4%
Percentage by US Authors: 29%

Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  13%
Percentage Mystery: 88
Percentage Fiction: 96%
Percentage written 2000+: 29%
Percentage of Rereads: 42%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's eas
y to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}    
Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 24 (86%)

Mysteries/Mystery-Related Reads:
Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird (8/2/21)
The Secret of Skeleton Island by Robert Arthur (4 stars)
The Private Face of Murder by John & Emery Bonett (3.5 stars)
Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie (4 stars)
Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie (4 stars)
Funerals Are Fatal (After the Funeral) by Agatha Christie (4 stars)
The Patriotic Murders (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe) by Agatha Christie (3 stars)
Sleight of Crime by Cedric E. Clute & Nicholas Lewin (eds) (3 stars)
Hang the Little Man by John Creasey (4 stars)
The Sound of Insects by Mildred Davis (3 stars)
A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch (3.5 stars)
The Fleet Street Murders by Charles Finch (3.5 stars)
The September Society by Charles Finch (4 stars)
The Body of a Girl by Michael Gilbert (3 stars)
Death in Daylesford by Kerry Greenwood (4 stars)
Appleby's Other Story by Michael Innes (3 stars)
The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell (5 stars)
Add a Pinch of Cyanide by Emma Page (2.5 stars)
Bluegate Fields by Anne Perry (3.5 stars)
Paragon Walk by Anne Perry (3 stars)
Resurrection Row by Anne Perry (4 stars)
Rutland Place by Anne Perry (3 stars)




This month's P.O.M. award is easy. Out of 22 mysteries, there was only one five-star winner--the 2018 mystery by Paraic O'Donnell, The House on Vesper SandsThis was an incredibly absorbing story--particularly so when one realizes that I am not especially fond of either paranormal books or those that keep switching points of view. But this mystery with paranormal tones grabbed me from the beginning. One of the most delightful parts of the story is the somewhat uneasy (at first) partnership between Cutter and Bliss. The introductory scenes where Cutter assumes Bliss is his new sergeant (and Bliss decides to just go with it) are very funny and I fully appreciate Cutter's sarcastic wit. It looks like the two are set to continue as a team and one must hope that there will be future installments in the duo's detective career.