Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Third Quarter Reading on the Block


Since I started out behind on reporting on my reading this year, I've decided to stick with my quarterly reading round-up. It's hard to believe that three quarters of the reading year have passed already. In previous years I have done a monthly round-up with statistics and handed out a Pick of the Month (POM) Award to the best mystery read. Let's take a look at the overall stats for the quarter and then we'll see who the big winners for each month are for mystery fiction and hand out those sparkly P.O.M.

Total Books Read for the Quarter: 59 (up 2 over the half-time results results)
  ~I'm still a bit behind my pace for last year. By the end of September 2022, I had read 187 books. This year I'm sitting on 164--and not as many from my own stacks as I'd like. 
Total Pages: 15,740
Average Rating: 3.68 stars
Top Rating: 5 stars
Percentage by Female Authors: 59%
Percentage by Male Authors: 41%
Percentage by both Female & Male Authors: 0%
Percentage by US Authors: 67%
Percentage by Non-US/Non-British Authors: 3%
Percentage Mystery: 81%
Percentage Fiction: 92%
Percentage Written 2000+: 47%
Percentage Rereads: 34%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% (it's easy when you do as many challenges as I do)
Number of Challenges Complete: 24 (65%)

Mysteries Read
The Final Appointment by Marcia Blair (3 stars)
The Private Wound by Nicholas Blake (3 stars)
Beverly Gray on a Treasure Hunt by Clair Blank (3 stars)
 Psycho by Robert Bloch (4 stars)
Slay Bells by Eunice Mays Boyd (7/7/23)
The Frightened Pigeon by Richard Burke (3.5 stars)
Juggernaut by Alice Campbell (2.5 stars)
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (4 stars)
Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie (4 stars)
Nemesis by Agatha Christie (4 stars)
Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie (4 stars)
The Case Against Paul Raeburn by John Creasey (4 stars)
The Figure in the Dusk by John Creasey (4 stars)
Depart This Life by E. X. Ferrars (2.25 stars)
What Darkness Brings by C. S. Harris (4 stars)
What Remains of Heaven by C. S. Harris (4 stars)
What the Devil Knows by C. S. Harris (5 stars)
When Falcons Fall by C. S. Harris (4.5 stars)
When Maidens Mourn by C. S. Harris (4 stars)
Where Shadows Dance by C. S. Harris (4 stars)
Where the Dead Lie by C. S. Harris (4 stars)
Who Buries the Dead by C. S. Harris (4.5 stars)
Who Cries for the Lost by C. S. Harris (5 stars)
Who Slays the Wicked by C. S. Harris (4.5 stars)
Who Speaks for the Damned by C. S. Harris (4.5 stars)
Why Kill the Innocent by C. S. Harris (5 stars)
Why Kings Confess by C. S. Harris (4 stars)
Hemlock Hollow by Culley Holderfield (4 stars)
The Widening Stain by W. Bolingbroke Johnson [Morris Bishop] (4 stars)
In the Shadow of Agatha Christie by Leslie S. Klinger (3 stars)
Ashes to Ashes by Emma Lathen (3.5 stars)
The Birthday Murder by Lange Lewis (4 stars)
The Golden Spoon by Jessa Maxwell (3 stars)
Birthday Party Murder by Leslie Meier) (2.5 stars)
Who Is Simon Warwick? by Patricia Moyes (4.5 stars)
Borkmann's Point by Hakan Nesser (3 stars)
Holding by Graham Norton (3.5 stars)
The Alarm of the Black Cat by D. B. Olsen/Dolores Hitchens (2.5 stars)
The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman (4 stars)
The Body in the Cast by Katherine Hall Page (3 stars)
The Man in the Cellar by Palle Rosenkrantz (3.5 stars)
Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers (3.5 stars)
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers (5 stars)
Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott (2 stars)
The Bell in the Fog by John Stephen Strange (3.5 stars)
See Also Murder by Larry D. Sweazy (3 stars)
The Mystery of the Yellow Hands by Jake & Luke Thoene (3 stars)
The World's Best One Hundred Detective Stories by Eugene Thwing, ed (2 stars)

So far I've been able to stick to my no repeat/reread winners policy. I'll keep to it if I can, but if doing so means I'll be awarding a POM to book that earned three stars or less then I may have to break policy. If that policy were not in place, then our clear winners would be Sayers in July and C. S. Harris in August and September. Let's see who else provided good reads this summer. In July, both John Creasey and Lange Lewis provided four-star treats. Creasey's The Figure in the Dusk is a highly suspenseful entry in the Inspector West series--full of action and a more thrillerish atmosphere. A very good--and slightly unusual--addition the inspector's cases. And Lewis's The Birthday Murder has a good puzzle plot  and the clues are very subtle, so subtle that I didn't catch them. Lewis does a good job of spreading the suspicion around even without concrete motives to hang that suspicion on. I kept changing my mind about who really snuck into the kitchen and grabbed the ant poison but never did come up with the right answer.  Very enjoyable--and very appropriate. I started this book on my birthday. Fortunately, no fatalities at my house. I think, in honor of my birthday month, I really must award the July P.O.M. To The Birthday Murder.

August's selection of mysteries brought us two more new four-star winners. The Widening Stain by W. Bolingbroke Johnson (Morris Bishop) is a delightful send-up of academic life in the 1940s. It comes complete with debonair Professor Parry and his just-barely-printable (at the time) limericks. And lots of funny repartee between the professors and between Gilda and Parry. Given when the book was written there are, of course, many references that are dated--and possibly mildly offensive, especially to women. But Gilda is a woman who knows her own mind and though romance may be in the air, the outcome may not be quite what readers expect. The plot is serviceable, but not brilliant nor is Gilda's detective work. There is just a tad too much thinking about who might have done what and little actual sleuthing going on. If the plotting and detection had been more solid, this would easily have garnered five stars. What carries the book for me are the characters and the verbal play--as well as the academic setting. Johnson/Bishop certainly knew what he was doing when it came to setting the academic scene and I do love me an academic mystery. The other book is one that I never thought I'd read and if I didn't participate in a couple of challenges that push me out of my comfort zone I probably still wouldn't have. Psycho by Robert Bloch is more thrillerish/horror than my norm, but there is definitely a mystery there. And--if Psycho weren't so firmly embedded in pop culture, I'm sure the ending would have surprised me more. It was an interesting and absorbing read. Bloch is a master and we get great insight into the characters of Norman and Mary--less so with the others, though the detective is also interesting even though he's not on the page much. An excellent examination of Norman's psychology and the motivations behind the events at the Bates Motel that fateful night.... 

But...it should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the blog regularly to find that August's P.O.M. goes to...The Widening Stain. As I said, I love me an academic mystery--especially when it's so entertaining.

And now for the September Award. September gave us the only new 4.5 star winner of the quarter. I almost always enjoy Patricia Moyes's Inspector Henry Tibbett mysteries, but Who Is Simon Warwick? is, I believe, the best one I've read to date. The solution was quite interesting--and a first for me in the field. If I've read another with a similar solution, then it's fallen through my sieve-like memory. An interesting premise and I appreciated how Emmy Tibbett got involved and managed, in certain ways, to save the day. A quick read with plenty of action once the initial groundwork was laid. 

Here's hoping for a strong final quarter!

Monday, October 2, 2023

The Goldfinch

 The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt

Synopsis [from Goodreads]: Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love - and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

I don't even know where to begin with this. There is so much here that just isn't my cup of tea. It's told in the first person. It's a coming of age story of boy that I can't have any sympathy for despite the fact that I'm very sorry that  his mother was killed in a horrible terrorist bombing. I mean later in his story we spend pages on him and his burned out druggie friend in Las Vegas. His narrative just goes on and on and on and there's so much detail and "near-stream-of-consciousness, why on earth is he telling me this" stuff crammed into this 700-page doorstop that I tuned out regularly. I would be reading along for an hour or two and come up for air and not remember a darn thing about what I just read. And that doesn't normally happen. If I hadn't needed to claim this for two challenges where I can't change my mind about what I'm reading, then I probably wouldn't have finished. You'd think I'd be able to write a longer review for a book of this size--but honestly, I just want to move on with my life.

I absolutely enjoyed Tartt's The Secret History and so I thought this was a good choice for those challenges. But I absolutely did not enjoy this one. Large numbers of people on Good Reads did and it's won prizes (a Pulitzer, for goodness sake...), so your mileage may vary. But the percentages are high that if you don't enjoy the first 100 pages then you probably won't enjoy the other 600 or so. 

First line: While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.

Last line: And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.


Deaths = 4 (two blown up; one car accident; one shot--I may have missed some while zoning out)

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Saturday, September 30, 2023

They Called Us Enemy

 They Called Us Enemy (2019) by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, & Scott Becker (illustrated by Harmony Becker)

George Takei tells the story of his family's (and thousands of others of Japanese descent) incarceration during WWII in American internment camps--all in the name of American defense. 

In 2016 I went with friends to see Allegiance (the live performance viewed through the local cinema), a Broadway musical based on the events depicted in this graphic novel. It was a moving experience--I came out of the theater weeping, which doesn't happen often. Both that production and this graphic novel depict events from World War II of which this country should be ashamed. We were off to fight in a war that was being waged because certain people thought they were better than others--either part of the "master race" or part of the chose empire or whatever. Hitler was evil because he and his gang had decided that Jews, the Roma peoples, homosexuals, and the disabled all did not deserve the life of the master race. They were sent to camps to either be worked to death or just straight up put to death. Horrible!

And yet...here in America we immediately began to round up people who did not look like "real" Americans (for which, read white). Those of Japanese/Asian heritage were easy targets because they didn't look like the white folks running the country--and any of them might be spies. So better safe than sorry, you know. It was a little more difficult to single out German or Italian "spies"--there were no physical markers that let "real" Americans who the German or Italian Americans were. 

Takei's story highlights the prejudice and fear that fueled the push to segregate Japanese Americans for their own good. And he ultimately ties that story into present-day events that are disturbing echoes of the past. The way "real" Americans are still eager to target those who don't look like them--to limit their access to enter the country. To put them on no-fly lists. And, sometimes, to even kill them. There are lessons to be learned from these horrible mistakes from the past--lessons that I wish everyone would learn from and help to change our country--and our world--for the better. ★★★★

First line: "George! Henry! Get up at once."

Last lines: "Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other...that history can't be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress...that my liberty depends on you being free too...but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past." ~President Barkck Obama

Depart This Life

 Depart This Life (1958) by E. X. Ferrars

Hilda Gazeley has lived with her brother Stephen and niece for the last six years. She came to help take care of Katherine after her sister-in-law died in a car accident. Now Katherine has grown up and is engaged to Colin Luckett--there's just one problem, her father and the Lucketts don't get along. But neither Hilda nor Katherine know exactly why. On the day that Katherine tells her father of her plans, he's murdered--struck over the head in his study. Hilda and Arthur Luckett were talking on a bench not far from the study windows. When they hear a crash and a cry, they immediately rush towards the house--no one came out the front. Stephen's friend Nelson Winguard was painting near the river and coming up the path at the back. He saw no one there either. If all the witnesses are telling the truth, then it seems impossible that Stephen should have been killed. And yet he was. 

And the question is...why? Stephen could be difficult at times, but bad enough for murder? Apparently so, as Inspector Crankshaw digs, he discovers the truth behind the feud between the Lucketts and Stephen. He learns the identity of the mysterious Mrs. Frearson and her sister; two women who have recently taken a cottage on the other side of the river and in whom Stephen had taken a sudden interest. He learns that Stephen liked to know secrets about others and liked the power and control it gave him. Whose secret was worth killing for?

Observations: Not really any characters that I could relate to or root for. Hilda is either the most unaware person on earth or is deliberately fooling herself about her brother. I have no idea why Ferrars made her our protagonist and point of view--she annoyed me from the moment she arrived on the page until the end of the book. Just when I thought she was finally seeing the light on her brother, she'd come out with another "Oh, but that was just Stephen's way. He didn't really mean it." Even when it was blatantly obvious how cruel he had been. 

When we found out what a slimy fellow Stephen was, I was all set to feel sympathetic to his murderer. After all, they were just trying to stop the pressure/blackmail. But then we find out that they weren't exactly the victim we thought they were and were quite willing to sacrifice others to protect him/herself. Committing that second murder and trying to set up an innocent person to take the blame made any possibility of sympathy go right out the window. 

Honestly, the big reveal here is the insight into the murderer and what they are willing to do after Stephen is dead. The identity was no great surprise. Ferrars is usually better at plot than this. Not the best of her mysteries and not the most appealing set of characters. ★★ and 1/4

First line: It was precisely six forty-five when Mrs. Frearson appeared by the river.

Last line: "You'll be needed, Miss Gazeley."


Deaths = 5 (one shot; two car accident; two hit on head)

Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Bullet That Missed

 The Bullet That Missed (2022) by Richard Osman

It's time once again for the Thursday Murder Club gang to get themselves involved in another murder investigation. The eclectic group of septuagenarians include Elizabeth, an ex-MI5 agent; Ron, a former union activist who's always up for bucking the system; Ibrahim, a retired therapist whose insight into the human psyche and knack for puzzle-solving comes in handy; and Joyce, a former nurse whose appearance has deceived many a miscreant along the way. When they sat down to debate what cold case was next on the agenda, Elizabeth is taken with story of the spinster who died "leaving three unidentified skeletons and a suitcase containing fifty thousand pounds in her cellar." But Joyce, who always seems to get her way when she really puts her foot down, wants them to investigate the case of Bethany Waite.

Bethany had been an investigative reporter and co-host of South East Tonight when her car went off Shakespeare Cliff and she was declared dead, though her body was never found. She had been hot on the trail of a massive fraud and money-laundering scheme and had just sent her co-host Mike Waghorn a message that said she had found something that was absolute dynamite. It apparently blew up in her face.

As the gang investigates, there are more murders and more missing money. They find themselves involved with high-powered crooks, an ex-KGB man, and a mysterious foe the name "Viking" who wants Elizabeth to kill the ex-KGB officer. If she doesn't, he threatens to kill Joyce. The case really heats up and the friends will have to work fast if they don't want to get burned.

So...this was another fun ride. Osman has given us a great set of characters and while there needs to be plenty of suspension of disbelief it doesn't matter that things may not be all that believable at times. This is just a fun group and as long as you're with them you believe they can do all the things that they do. They can outwit the Viking. They can play nice with ex-KGB. They can charm TV personalities into helping them with their investigations. It's all possible. I was a bit disappointed that I saw the solution coming--both the solution to Bethany's murder and who was behind it all. But again, that didn't detract from my enjoyment that much because the characters make the book. The story is so character-driven that it helps compensate for the flaws. ★★★★

First line: Bethany Waites understands there is no going back now.

She has read enough detective novels to know you must never trust a murder without a corpse. (p. .37)

Last line: You keep your head above the water for as long as you can.


Deaths = 4 (one stabbed; one shot; two natural)

Monday, September 25, 2023


 Pax (2016) by Sara Pennypacker

Pax is Peter's fox--has been since the young fox was just a few weeks old. And the two have been inseparable. Until now. Now war rages and Peter's dad has to join the forces and use his wiring skills to beat the enemy. Peter's mother died several years ago (not long before he found the fox kit) and so Peter must go and stay with his prickly grandfather. But Pax isn't welcome and his father insists that it's time the fox was returned to the wild anyway. So, they abandon Pax in a location that Peter believes will be safe and the boy is taken 300 miles away.

As soon as he settles into his new room for the night, Peter knows he isn't where he should be. His place is with Pax and he knows Pax needs him. The fox was tamed and never learned how to hunt or cope in the wild. His friend will never survive without him. So after his grandfather goes to bed, Peter packs a knapsack with everything he can think of to help him on the journey and sets off to find his pet. He has studied an atlas and sees a way across country that will save him about a hundred miles--but the terrain is difficult and he finds himself in trouble and hobbling along on a damaged leg. Fortunately, he stumbles onto land that belongs to a hermit-like woman by the name of Vola who takes him in (grudgingly at first), nurses him back to health, teaches him a few life lessons, and helps him continue his journey. But the area where Pax was abandoned isn't as safe as Peter thought and the war is approaching. Will Peter be in time?

Meanwhile, Pax, sure that his human will come back to him is reluctant to leave the area where Peter left him. But he must eat and he must find water and in his search he encounters other foxes--foxes that teach him a few life lessons as well as teaching him to hunt and defend himself. Both Pax and Peter learn about what truly makes a family and how to be true to one's deepest self. Excellent children's story with complicated themes. ★★★★

First line: The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first.

What I am is for telling the truth about it. About what it costs. People should tell the truth about what war costs. (Vola; p. 130)

Last line: And Peter hurled the plastic soldier over the brush and into the woods, as far away as he could.


 Nemesis (1971) by Agatha Christie (Read by Joan Hickson)

Several years ago Miss Jane Marple and Jason Rafiel shared a murderous adventure in the Caribbean. Miss Marple had shown up in Rafiel's room late one night with a pink wooly scarf around her neck and, in the persona of Nemesis, had asked him to help prevent another murder. When Rafiel began making plans to see justice done in another matter, he included Miss Marple (all unawares) in those plans. So, when Rafiel dies Miss Marple has an invitation to visit his solicitors where she will receive an unusual request through a letter he left with Mr. Broadribb:

Our code word, my dear lady, is Nemesis....I want you to investigate a certain crime. I have ordered a certain sum to be placed so that if you accept this request and as a result of your investigation this crime is properly elucidated, the money will become yours absolutely.

And that's pretty much all she's told about Rafiel's request. There's a crime to be investigated--either one that already occurred and justice was not done OR one that will occur and the wealthy businessman wanted to be sure justice would be done. The solicitor, Mr. Broadribb, knows no more about it than she does. 

She decides to take on the task and makes some tentative efforts to learn more about Mr. Rafiel's life (beyond what she knows from their brief encounter in the Caribbean). Her best bet is to try and find Rafiel's former employees and see what they can tell her. She meets, as if by accident, Rafiel's former secretary who tells her that there had been some scandal involving the businessman's son, but she knows little beyond the fact that there was a scandal. Miss Marple cannot find the valet/masseur who attended him and she begins to think her investigation will be over before it's barely begun when she receives two more communications.

The first is another letter from Rafiel telling her that since she's accepted his request, she will receive a second message in two days time. She does and it is from a tour company telling her that Mr. Rafiel had reserved a space for her on their Tour No. 37 of Famous Houses and Gardens in Britain. Miss Marple doesn't know if the purpose of the tour is to introduce her to one of her fellow passengers of to take her to a particular place where crime has happened...or will happen, but she is prepared to find out. She meets several people who are able to tell her more about the scandal surrounding Michael Rafiel. Two girls--including one named Verity that Michael supposedly love--disappeared several years ago. Verity was found strangled with her face beaten in. The other girl was never found. And Michael was convicted of Verity's murder. But when one of Miss Marple's fellow passengers is killed by a falling boulder, she decides that her job must be to find out the truth of Verity's death--because Miss Elizabeth Temple knew Verity and had told Miss Marple that she was on a pilgrimage to find out the truth as well?

This is one time that Dame Agatha didn't pull the wool over my eyes. I recognized the clues and picked up on the culprit right away. But that didn't detract from my enjoyment. Nemesis is enjoyable for a reason that normally doesn't attract me. Often I find when an author takes a favorite detective and places them outside their normal locale that I don't much care for the story (most of the Nero Wolfe stories that take him out of the brownstone for extended periods of time--Death of a Dude and The Black Mountain, for instance). But taking Miss Marple out of St. Mary Mead and placing her on the bus tour, put her at the center of the action for most of the novel and I liked that a lot. It was interesting to watch her go from having no idea what Jason Rafiel wanted her to investigate to picking up pieces bit by bit and finally fitting them all together. Excellent read. ★★★★

~~~One interesting note--in the novel, Rafiel promises Miss Marple 20,000 pounds if she successfully unravels the mystery and sees justice done. I watched the Marple episode with Geraldine McEwan after I finished the novel and among the changes made to the story was the reduction of the sum to a mere 500 pounds. I just wonder why they cheated Miss Marple out of 19,500 pounds of her inheritance?

First line: In the afternoon it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.

Last line: "It must have been another of Mr. Rafiel's little jokes," said Mr. Broadribb.


Deaths = 7 (one natural; two plane crash; two poisoned; one strangled; one hit by boulder)

Friday, September 22, 2023

Who Is Simon Warwick? (spoilerish)

 Who Is Simon Warwick? (1978) by Patricia Moyes

When Lord Charlton's brother and sister-in-law were killed in a London bomb attack during WWII, he wanted nothing to do with his young nephew and arranged for a quiet adoption to an American soldier and his wife. Charlton had felt ill-used by his family when he was young and so, when he made his millions, he determined that none of them would benefit. For years, his will would leave everything to a foundation whose sole purpose was to dispense the funds to suitable charities with a substantial legacy for his secetary as well. Late in life when his doctor tells him that he has little time to live, he repents of his earlier behavior towards his young nephew and decides to leave everything to the young man who was born Simino Warwick. He hopes to live long enough to meet any claimants.

But who is Simon Warwick? Once the will is signed and his attorney, Ambrose Quince, has placed notices in all the important newspapers (both in England and America), Lord Charlton dies. Soon after two claimants (out of all the usual hopefuls) rise to the top. Each hold important documents that give credence to their claim--Simon Finch has letters from the attorney (not Ambrose Quince) who arranged the adoption to his parents, the Finches and the man currently known as Harold Benson has a passport made out to Simon Alexander Warwick, newborn. Quince believes Finch to be the legitimate claimant and is even more sure after a visit to America. But he still has one question that he plans to put to both men. And he decides to meet them both at the same time, in the hopes that the confrontation will help solve the issue.

The meeting never takes place. Simon Finch arrives early for the appointment and is sent by the secretary to wait in the waiting room. Harold Benson arrives and finds Finch dead. Enter Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett who must decide not only who the murderer is but also who the victim really was. Is Simon Warwick dead and will the inheritance now (as stated under Lord Charlton's will) revert to the terms under the old will? Or is Benson really Warwick and killed in an effort to claim the inheritance? Tibbett keeps saying that Simon Warwick's identity doesn't concern him...but until he knows who Finch really was, he won't know who killed him.

~~~~~Spoiler ahead! read at your own risk~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This is an unusual mystery in a number of ways. Not least because there are actually two mysteries whodunnit and who was it done to. It isn't often that the identity of the corpse is in such dispute because the victim claimed to be someone that they may or may not have been. Another unusual point is Tibbett's apparent lack of concern about the identity of the victim. He does find out during the course of his investigation but it doesn't seem to be all that important to him. And, finally, the big reveal about who Simon Warwick really is. That is a first for me in all of my mystery reading. And, considering when the book was published, it is also unusual in the way it handles certain issues--issues that are very much a hot topic right now in 2023 (and, quite frankly, are not handled nearly as well by a great many in today's world). It is all made to seem very matter of fact by Tibbett and his wife It certainly would have made for an interesting point of law if Warwick had decided to follow up on the claim.

This is, I think, one of the best mysteries I have read by Moyes. An interesting mystery with an intriguing premise and I appreciated how Emmy Tibbett got involved and managed, in certain ways, to save the day. A quick read with plenty of action once the initial groundwork was laid. ★★★★ and 1/2. 

First line: A rainy November night in London.

Last line (of main text--last line of the epilogue is a spoiler): "You know what men are like."


Deaths = 9 (five natural; two bombed in WWII; one plane crash; one strangled)

The Man in the Cellar

 The Man in the Cellar (1907; aka Amy's Cat) by Palle Rosenkrantz

Holger Nielson is a Danish lawyer and amateur criminologist on a three month holiday in London. Nielson may be a lawyer, but he has unusual ideas about law and order and justice. He has long thought that just because there is a crime it does not follow that the perpetrator is a criminal. During his stay in London, he wants to observe the British mode of justice and refine his ideas. He rents a house which he plans to share with his friend Dr. Jens Koldby who has given up his practice in favor of painting. The house is a bit more expensive than Nielson would have liked, but it is admirably set up with a well-lighted room that will be perfect as a studio for Koldby.

The men move in along with Madame Siverston, their housekeeper, and all goes well until both Nielson and Madame Siverston begin hearing odd noises from below. It sounds like a cat may be trapped and hungry in the basement. But when they investigate there is no trace of a cat. It isn't until the housekeeper is gone for the day that the men do a more intensive search and discover a cellar hidden below a concealed trap door. They find the cat...but they also find a long, sealed box that contains a dead man. A dead man whose face has been obliterated and whose clothes have had the tags removed. Contrary to his stated beliefs, Nielson's first thought is to go for the police. But Koldby tells him this is the chance to prove his theories of justice. Besides....they might be considered the prime suspects and they don't want to go to jail.

And so begins their amateur investigation. They discover that the previous owner of the house, a Major Johnson, has "gone to the colonies"--but there is some evidence that he may have never left and might be the man in the cellar. There is the question of who really owned the house--Major Johnson or a man named Throgmorton? There is also the chain around the cat's neck bearing the inscription "Amy's Puss" and a love note addressed to "James" and signed by Amy. Questions put to the realtor leads them to two Amys. The first is Miss Derry, the former fiancee of Major James Johnson. The second is Mrs. Weston, sister of Mr. Throgmorton, and there's rumors that Major Johnson was enamored with her. Did one of the Amys do away with Major Johnson because of love gone wrong? Or maybe Mrs. Weston or Major Johnson killed her husband to pave the way for a new relationship? The theories fly fast and furious and Nielson and Koldby wind up following Throgmorton and the Westons to Denmark in the search for more clues.

This is an interesting look at early Danish crime fiction. The writing still has elements of Victorian sensation novels, but there is also a Holmesian feel to the investigation with definite detection. Nielson as our lead is more Watson-like--he jumps from theory to theory as new information is found while Koldby brings him down to earth and reminds him that they don't have all the facts yet. The two do make a good team and I enjoyed watching Koldby poke holes in Nielson's theories. An intriguing mystery with some unorthodox detective work and a fairly satisfying ending. Without the sensation elements and the one rather contrived bit of coincidence once the men are back in Denmark, this would have been a four-star novel. ★★ and 1/2 (rounded up on Goodreads & Amazon). If you are interested in the roots of Scandinavian crime before it became Nordic Noir or you're looking for a good mystery and don't mind a bit of Victorian melodrama and an element of coincidence, then I can definitely recommend this to you.

First line: "It is dirt cheap, sir, dirt cheap!"

And Mr. Anderson tried to look superior but failed because of his thin yellow mustache. (p. 3)

Of course, he knew that there was at least one cat in each house in London, all well-treated animals that enjoyed some kind of civil rights, under no constraint, and able to pass their lives day and night as they pleased. (p. 10)

Everyone has a right to ride his hobby horse if he does so only within his own four walls-- (p. 39)

Only in comedies and bad novels is the right thing said first. In life it is always the other way around. (Dr. Koldby; p. 104)

Last line: So, they found happiness and life together.


Deaths = 5 (one stabbed; one drowned; three natural)

 ~~~A pdf copy of the book was given to me as a review copy by Kazabo Publishing in exchange for an honest review. All comments are my own and I have received no payment of any kind.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Hemlock Hollow

 Hemlock Hollow (2022) by Culley Holderfield

When Caroline McAlister was young, her family would spend summers at their cabin in Hemlock Hollow. It was her mother's special place--she loved the mountains of Carolina. Late one night, when Caroline had two of her friends staying with her, she saw a figure standing at the end of the bed. He was a tall, sad-faced man in brown with a hat. She never quite knew for sure what she'd seen and she wasn't sure she believed in ghosts, but the memory stuck with her. Not long after that incident, her beloved mother died of cancer and she, her brother, and her father stopped coming to the cabin.

Years later, Caroline is college professor whose life seems to be coming apart. Her father has now died, her marriage has come to an end, and research for a new book has stalled. When she learns that her dad still owned that cabin in Hemlock Hollow and had left it to her, she goes to check it out. After years of disuse (and abuse from random squatters and "hippies") it is in desperate need of renovation and she hires Micah, a local general contractor, to oversee the job. There are still treasures among the clutter and debris--including a curio cabinet where Caroline would store her "archeological" finds (a professor in the making), some of the more practical furniture (a bed, a table, etc.), her grandmother's quilt, and...a metal box that Caroline has never seen before.

The box contains a journal written by Carson Quinn in the late 1800s. Quinn was suspected (but never arrested or tried) of the murder of his older brother, Thomas. The young men had grown up smitten with the same girl, but Thomas was the one she married. Because there were other suspects and no real proof, the murder was never solved. Caroline suspects that the sad-faced man who visited her that night long ago was Carson. As she begins reading the journal, she finds an intelligent, curious young man with a deep love of the natural world and especially the place called Hemlock Hollow. She finds it difficult to believe that the same young man who wrote this journal could be a killer and decides to investigate. The case may be cold, but her research skills are used to investigating the past. But the answer may not be as simple as she'd like.

This novel is a lovely mix of fact and fiction. Holderfield builds on the historical facts of life in the Carolinas in the troubled years after the Civil War and includes a rich mixture of characters that reflect the conflicted views of Southerners during the period. The Quinn family had a set of values that didn't always mesh with those of their neighbors, but for the most part they each, in their own way, stayed true to them. I loved the characters of Gramps, Carson's mother, and Carson. They are fully realized in Carson's journal and come to life as Caroline learns about the events that led up to the murder. Hemlock Hollow is just as much a character as these folks with the presence of the mountains and the trees and the secluded spots that Carson, his mother, Caroline, and her mother all love influencing events as much as the people do. And when Caroline finds that they will need to remove some of the trees sheltering the cabin (due to an insect infestation), the sudden sunshine falling on the cabin seems to indicate that the mystery is clearing and soon all will be revealed.

The identity of the murderer didn't come as a huge surprise to me, but Holderfield has woven such an interesting tale, told with emotional subtlety and a real sense of place, that it doesn't bother me. The detective fiction lover in me would have like Caroline to do more independent investigating and not have the solution given first in a seance with the ghost and then through one more written document from Carson (long after the journal ends), but the solution is satisfying and the story is compelling. A really nice piece of historical fiction. ★★★★

First line: The box wasn't much to look at.

In life people will say lots of things about you, some of it terrible and some of it wonderful. Cling to neither good nor bad, and you'll be fine. (Carson's mother; p. 201)

Last line: I sat back in the rocking chair and looked out over the hollow, lit differently now without the hemlocks, yet still somehow the same, ever haunted by the spirits of those who loved it and left it and returned.


Deaths = 6 (four natural; one shot)

 ~~~This book was given to me as a review copy by Regal House Publishing & Mindbuck Media in exchange for an honest review. All comments are my own and I have received no payment of any kind.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

 Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer
(2006) by James L. Swanson

Synopsis (from the book): The murder of Abraham Lincoln set off the greatest manhunt in American history--the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. From April 14 to April 26, 1865, the assassin led Union cavalry and detectives on a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington D. C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginian, while the nation, still reeling from the just-ended Civil War watched in horror and sadness. 

At the very center of the story is John Wilkes Booth, America's notorious villain. A Confederate sympathizer and a member of a celebrated acting family, booth  threw away his fame and wealth for a chance to avenge the South's defeat. For almost two weeks, he confounded the manhunters, slipping away from their every move and denying them the justice they sought.

Based on rare archival materials, obscure trial transcripts, and Lincoln's own blood relics. Manhnt is a fully documented work and a fascinating tale of murder, intrigue, and betrayal. A gripping hour-by-hour account told through the eyes of the hunted and the hunters, this is history as you've never read it before.

The primary difficulty I have with this book is the word "Chase" in the title (and "gripping" in the synopsis above). The beginning of book, which details the lead-up to the assassination and the assassination itself, is riveting--even though anyone who knows much of anything about American history knows that Booth successfully carried out his plan to murder President Lincoln. And the end of the book is just as interesting with Booth pinned down in the barn and waiting for the final outcome. The problem....the "chase" that takes place during the remainder of the book. There really isn't any chasing going on here and there's not much that's gripping about the manhunt. Booth holes up in a pine forest for days with searchers ambling by. He and his conspirator hear search parties go by and none of them seem to be in a hurry. Things don't get interesting until the final chapter or so. We really didn't need the nitty-gritty detail about Booth's time in the woods. It would have been more in line with the title of the book if we'd followed more closely in the footsteps of the men on his trail instead of spending so much time cozied up to a president's murderer.

The book is well-researched and taught me (or reminded me of) some things about the assassination plot that I either didn't know or didn't remember. I had forgotten that the plan included the deaths of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward--though neither attempt succeeded. And it was interesting to learn about those who joined Booth in the plot or who aided and abetted him during his escape. If the actual chase part of the narrative had been as "gripping" as advertised, then I would have given a full four stars. As it is: ★★ and 1/2

First line: It looked like a bad day for photographers.

Last line: Today, almost a century and a half since the great chase for Lincoln's killer began, its blued steel needle still dances on its spindle, still pointing the way South.


Deaths = 6 (two shot; four hanged)