Thursday, November 30, 2023
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Murder in Mayfair (2017) by D. M. Quincy
First line: Had his mount not lost its shoe on the return journey to London, Atlas Catesby would not have been in a position to purchase another man's wife.
Atlas Catesby and his friend, Gabriel Young, the Earl of Charlton, are on their way back home when they are forced to stop at an inn to have his horse reshoed. While having a glass of ale, the men hear a commotion outside in the yard. Godfrey Warwick says that he has no use for his wife any longer and will sell her to the highest bidder. When it becomes apparent that a dirty old man wants her for unsavory reasons, Atlas puts down a bid of 30 pounds and finds himself the "owner" of Lilliana Warwick, a spirited young woman who seems to have married beneath her when she became the wife of the abusive owner of a haberdashery.
But when Atlas offers her his protection, she insists she wants to return home with her husband. What she means is that she doesn't want to leave her children. But Warwick has washed his hands of her and tells her that she won't be allowed in his house ever again--and according to the law the children are his and his alone. She finally agrees to allow Atlas to convey her to his sister Thea Palmer's home for refuge until a long-term plan can be set-up. Thea is a most unconventional woman in the Regency period--she has a flair for mathematics and isn't phased at all by the scandalous events that have brought Mrs. Warwick her door.
But the scandal isn't over, for in a few weeks Godfrey Warwick is dead and Endicott, the Bow Street Runner, assigned to investigate the death seems certain that either Atlas or Warwick's widow (or both in collusion) is responsible. Atlas, who has a love of puzzles and who has solved minor mysteries in the past, is determined to solve the mystery of Warwick's death himself in order to clear both their names. Endicott is sure that Atlas killed the man because of his interest in Mrs. Warwick (why else is she staying Atlas's sister's house?) and the devil of it is that Atlas finds himself attracted to the lovely young widow. His investigation turns up others who had reason to want Warwick dead--from the man's "best friend" (whose job as magistrate Warwick was about to usurp) to a rival tailor with a secret that might be worth killing for to a mysterious gentleman who had a run-in with Warwick in his shop. And there may be others. Now all Atlas has to do is find the evidence that will lead to the culprit.
This is a very engaging first novel in what promises to be another good Regency-era mystery series. I immediately downloaded the second novel through my library's Hoopla account, so that tells you how eager I am to continue Atlas Catesby's adventures. Atlas is the youngest son of a newly-minted baron--who just passed the baronetcy on to Atlas's eldest brother, so he's a gentleman but not quite in the higher realms where his friend Charlton is at home and part of the interest is watching him walk the fine line between gentleman and nobility. It doesn't help that Atlas (much to his brother's dismay) disdains the way of the ton and the hierarchy. But it does make Atlas an interesting character.
Atlas is also surrounded by interesting characters. Charlton manages to help the investigation despite his pose as a somewhat ignorant dandy and Thea is a delight (even though she does seem to be awfully enlightened for the times--that seems to be a trend in historical novels these days). My one real complaint about the story though is about the postmortems--the descriptions and the doctor's terminology seem very modern and I find it difficult to believe that the country doctor who appears later in the story would be just as modern as the doctor in London. I haven't done a lot of research on medical practices in the Regency era, but C. S. Harris, the author of the Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series (another favorite), has. She has a Ph.D. in European history and her surgeon knows as much as he does about the dead and the effects of various murder methods and diseases because he uses bodies brought to him by grave robbers for research. I doubt the country doctor here has had the benefit of such anatomical researches. But that quibble aside, this is a good historical mystery for those who enjoy the Regency period. ★★★ and 3/4
Last line: Pulling his greatcoat closed to ward off the chill, Atlas bounded down the stairs and went into the night.
Deaths = 4 (one bled to death; two natural; one carriage accident)
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Monday, November 27, 2023
The Professor Knits a Shroud (1951) by Wirt Van Arsdale (Martha Wirt Davis)
Professor Pedro Jose Maria Guadaloupe O'Reilly y Apodaca, professor of anthropology and commonly known as Uncle Pete, finds himself in the middle of a dreadful tangle of murder when he accompanies his courtesy niece Kay and her husband Niles Carter to their farm near New York City. the mystery really began before they left for the country. First, he sees Kay out in the city and she's looking drawn and worried. Then Niles, a publisher, brings him a short story written in Spanish and only wants the professor to give him an oral translation. But he won't explain where it came from or who the writer is.
Speaking of writers--the Carters have been renting their farmhouse to the famous writer, Henri von Fliegel, the man who put Niles' publishing business on the map. Von Fliegel was supposed to be returning to California, but he insists that he must stay until he finishes his current book--which may take another month or two. Kay is none too pleased and the professor soon finds out why. She suspects Niles of having an affair with the author's secretary, a cool beautiful blond by the name of Marita.
Kay isn't the only one who'd rather that von Fliegel left as originally agreed. It seems the writer is disliked by nearly everyone in the area--except for the irritating Mrs. Costigan who hopes the author will help her with her own writing aspirations. So, when von Fliegel is found shot to death in the Red Room (which he has been using as a study) the police have plenty of suspects. Perhaps Niles killed the author because he was interfering with his plans for Marita. Or maybe it was Minnie or Harry, the Carter's caretakers, who had had run-ins with the new tenant. There's also Larry, von Fliegel's nephew, who may have hoped to inherit some or all of his uncle's wealth. There's a hint that Marita may also have wanted to be rid of her employer. Freddie Costigan is a crack shot and seemed mighty put out at how much time his wife was spending with von Fliegel, so just maybe it was him. While the police keep changing their pick for prime suspect, Professor Apodaca sits and knits socks--the one activity that helps him think through puzzles (last count he had knitted 2,736 of them). When the Costigan's little girl starts collecting spent bullets, the Professor begins to see his way to the end of the case.
So, this was an unexpected pleasure. I went into it blind save for knowledge that a professor featured as the amateur sleuth. I had come across the title at some point when looking around for academic mysteries. And I can't resist a new-to-me author in the academic mystery field--especially a vintage mystery. This was Van Wirt's first and only mystery--perhaps more had been planned, but she died unexpectedly of a heart attack the year following publication--and she shows great promise in her debut. Her plotting well done and she certainly throw plenty of red herrings across the trail. It's not her fault that I wasn't fooled by them--I latched onto the culprit right away and never let go. The professor is a lovely character and I thoroughly enjoyed his method of detecting and aiding cogitation. His interactions with various characters and particularly little Jeannie Costigan were great fun. My one complaint about him is how long it takes him to remember where in print he has seen Rache before. A man with such an interest in detection would surely remember Sherlock Holmes a little sooner...But overall a delightful academic mystery. ★★★★
First line: Pedro Jose Maria Guadaloupe O'Reilly y Apodaca, B.S., M.A., Ph.D., leaned over and carefully sprinkled a scoopful of caned coal on the fire in the tiny grate.
Last line: "I guess he never will learn to look at a thing a second time."
Deaths = 4 (one shot; two natural; one car accident)
Thursday, November 23, 2023
When the clues and rumors were sifted down there remained the inescapable fact that no one knew whether one or more than one person were involved, whether the kidnaper were a man or a woman, whether one familiar with the life of the Montes family or an absolute stranger.
Sunday, November 19, 2023
A Most Efficient Murder (2022) by Anthony Slayton
Lord Unsworth doesn't like giving parties and hasn't done so for a decade. But his favorite niece is turning eighteen and he has invited friends and far-flung family for a huge gala in her honor. He also plans on making a big announcement at the end of the party. But things go awry when an unknown woman is found dead in his garden. With high-profile guests, Lord Unsworth really doesn't want the police to ruffle any feathers. He asks his trusted secretary, Mr. Quayle, to keep a watching brief on the investigation and manages to convince the Chief Constable to allow Quayle to "shadow" Inspector Wintle as he takes up the case. Fortunately, Quayle and Wintle served together during the Great War so there is a measure of trust between them. At least until Wintle begins to suspect that Quayle is more interested in protecting the family than discovering the truth. But he should remember Quayle's record in the service....the secretary isn't going to let a murderer go free even if s/he winds up being a member of Lord Unsworth's family.
And it just may be...because it isn't long before Quayle and Wintle discover that several of Lord Unsworth's family did indeed know the woman. And certain pieces of evidence indicate that someone well-acquainted with the house and people must have let the woman into the grounds. Things get even more tricky for the Unsworth's when the gardener's son, known for picking up odd bits of information here and there, is found dead next. Did Tom Nettles see or hear something that led to his death? And can Quayle and Wintle find the killer before anyone else dies?
This is a fun tribute to the country house murders from the Golden Age. Slayton captures the time period and the atmosphere of the vintage mystery really well in this debut novel of what promises to be a good series featuring the very efficient, very observant, very intelligent Mr. Quayle. Clues are distributed quite liberally--almost too liberally since I figured out half of the solution fairly early on. But Slayton's deft hand with characters, narrative, and dialogue makes this a real winner. He especially captures the upper-class grande dame in Lord Unsworth's sister very well. There are hints about Quayle past that are quite intriguing and I hope that future installments will give us more insight on what happened and how Quayle wound up in Lord Unsworth's employ. I look forward to reading the next book in the series. ★★★★
First line: From his perch atop the highest turret, Edward Statham, the Thirteenth Earl of Unsworth could see out across his domain--from the winding gardens and rolling parks to the lakes and woodlands beyond.
Last line: And all was silent save for the music echoing from downstairs and the scratching of His Lordship's pen.
Deaths = 7 (two stabbed; two drowned; two killed in war; one natural)
Saturday, November 18, 2023
Friday, November 17, 2023
Death of a Doll (1947) by Hilda Lawrence
Hope House, a boarding house for young women, is run by the very genteel Monica Brady and her assistant Angelina "Angel" Small. Seventy girls are given bed, two meals a day, hot water and the opportunity to make friends. The story opens with Ruth Miller, a clerk at Blackman's department store, who has been able to take advantage of an opening at the boarding house. She is so pleased about the fact that she's finally found a place with hot water that she tells her favorite customer, the wealthy young Roberta Sutton, all about it. Roberta has taken an interest in the girl and isn't sure that Hope House is the paradise Ruth thinks. She promises herself to check in on Ruth when she returns from a visit to the country, but when she gets back Ruth is no longer at the store. She is shocked to discover that the young clerk has died from an apparent suicide.
The doctor on the scene and the police quickly declared it a suicide-though why she should have jumped from her seventh floor room window during costume party where all the girls were dressed as rag dolls is hard to fathom. But Miss Brady and Miss Small both say that Ruth was having trouble fitting in and seemed very withdrawn, nearly depressed--and that is that. Except--Roberta doesn't believe it for a minute. When she left Ruth, the girl was excited about her new living arrangements. And--just the day before the party Ruth had bought a new blue suit that shed been saving up for. Roberta asks her friend Mark East, an investigator, to nose around and see what he can find out. Why would a girl whose luck was on the upswing jump to her death? What the reader knows--but Mark will have to find out--is that in the short time Ruth was at Hope House she had found someone from her past. Someone who scared her upon sight. But who in Hope House is the menacing figure from the past and why did Ruth have to die?
Hope House is full of tension and unexplained suspicion. Beulah Pond, friend of both Mark and Roberta, says that the house "stinks" with an unpleasant atmosphere and once he starts investigating Mark can't disagree. This is in effect even before Ruth meets up with the enemy from the past. I suspect Lawrence was trying for suspense, but I just found it overly oppressive without building any desire in me to investigate the source of the atmosphere. And Mark's detective work, paired with that of Beulah and her tag-along Bessy, seems even more lackluster and haphazard than in the previous book I read.
On the positive side--there was a major clue to the culprit's identity dropped right in my lap and I missed it. So, Lawrence did a nice bit of misdirection there. But overall I just can't say I recommend her books. When I read my Lawrence book, Blood Upon the Snow, I said that it was an "almost" kind of book and I gave it 2.5 stars. I followed that with a non-Mark East book, The Pavilion, and it was a bit better--but given that I awarded 2.75 stars, I'd say it still didn't quite hit the target. And here we are again. Death of a Doll is even less captivating than the previous two, so I suspect Hilda Lawrence is an "almost" kind of detective novelist. I've still got one more Lawrence mystery on the TBR stack: A Time to Die, the second of the Mark East books. Maybe that will wind up being her masterpiece...but I'm not going to hold my breath. ★★
First line: Angeline Small stepped out of the elevator at five o'clock and nodded to Kitty Brice behind the switchboard.
Last line: He answered Roberta, but to himself. He said, Poor Monny.
Deaths: one fell from height
Thursday, November 16, 2023
The Third Policeman (1967) Flann O'Brien (Brian O'Nolan/Brian Ó Nualláin)
O'Brien's novel, originally written in 1939/1940, did not find a publisher until 30 years later. It is a novel about crime and punishment told with a combination of stream of consciousness, bizarre humor, and Alice in Wonderland dream-like qualities. Our unnamed narrator opens by describing how he and his friend John Divney killed old man Mathers for the fortune they believed he had in a black cash box. The rest of the story tells us what happened when it came time to divvy up the booty and what happened to our narrator afterward.
"It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter."
For anyone reading the story unawares (don't read the intro! see complaint below), it definitely is a conundrum. Making sense of the events that follow the narrator's return to Mathers' house is going to take all of the reader's attention. There are policemen and one-legged men and bicycles. The policemen are recording measurements of a mysterious nature. And when they're not doing that they are hunting for stolen bicycles or stolen bits of bicycles such as lamps or seats or wheels or pumps. The policemen don't seem to know that Mathers is dead. They don't seem concerned about where our narrator came from or what his business is--unless it has to do with a bicycle. And does our narrator ever find the missing cash box?
I have to start my take on the book with a complaint. I hate introductions that spoil the story. I don't know why Denis Donoghue thought he needed to tell the world what was going on in this bizarre little story--but I certainly wasn't pleased. One of the major points of O'Brien's narrative is that the reader is supposed to be wondering the whole time what in the world is going on. Where is our unnamed protagonist? Why are there policemen? What's the deal with the bicycles? Why is everything so weird? When you know the hook from the get-go, you just want to cut through all the weirdness (or at least I did). In fact, you kind of wonder why you're bothering to read this at all. Oh--and by the way--the spoiler is not the first line quoted below nor in my description of the novel above. Since O'Brien tells us upfront that our narrator killed someone, it is obvious that that is not the big mystery to be solved.
Overall, this is an interesting book and with a unique method for comment on crime and its just punishment. We also take a look at the nature of reality, death, and what comes next. ★★★ (probably would have been higher if I'd skipped the intro and experienced the book as it should have been experienced).
First line: Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.
Last line: "Is it about a bicycle?" he asked.
Deaths = 5 (three natural; one hit on head; one blown up)
Monday, November 13, 2023
You'll Be the Death of Me (1979) by Miriam Lynch
A twenty-year high school reunion is paired with the retirement ceremony for math teacher Sarah Plunkett. Mrs. Plunkett had a huge effect on the students of Belltown High School--whether for good or ill. A number of the kids seemed to get under her skin over the years and she was periodically heard to tell them, "You'll be the death of me." And now, apparently, one of them has. When comes to the podium to acknowledge the parting gift--a set of luggage for her anticipated retirement travels--she dies from what is suspected to be poison before she can say "thank you."
Nell Willard, reporter for the local newspaper, had been assigned to cover the event and of course she can't resist investigating even though her steady date, Lieutenant Gerold Holloway tells her to stay away from crime reporting in lieu of her usual society news beat. Nell just can't help wondering if Marlene Hallison, organizer of the event, had been nursing an ancient grievance against her former teacher. Or if one of the Corbett twins, owners of the downtown drugstore, used their knowledge of drugs to keep her from revealing a fatal secret. Or maybe Suzanne Dixon, young wife of the town's richest man, had a skeleton in her closet (or her husband's) that she couldn't afford to have exposed. Nell's determined to help Gerold find out...whether he wants her to or not.
This another of a series of Zebra Mystery Puzzler Books that I got in an assortment for Christmas last year. As indicated on
the cover, the set-up for these books is that all the clues necessary
for the reader to solve the mystery before the final reveal are given in
the cover photo, various illustrations within the story, and, as with
good mysteries clues given in the text. I obtained and read one of this
series a very long time ago (over 30 years) and enjoyed it (thus the request for my hubby to order up the Zebra books on Ebay last year). And I read The Final Appointment earlier this year and found it to be a decent mystery as well. But Miriam Lynch doesn't do this mystery thing quite as well as Marcia Blair (Marc Baker) did.
Our protagonist Nell seems prone to immediately jump to the worst conclusion with the least amount of reason. She immediately speculates that one of the twins is responsible because she saw a light late in the pharmacy. She immediately thinks that Suzanne Dixon is having an affair with Dr. Gregory because she sees her leaving the house early in the morning. Nell is supposed to be a reporter and should be looking for facts--with a capital F. But as a reporter (and an amateur detective), she leaves a lot to be desire. One point in her favor, her relationship with Lieutenant Holloway is easier to take than that of the pair in the earlier read. At least they're not shouting at each other all the time.
But what really keeps the book from a higher rating is the solution. Which I can't discuss without spoilers, so I've encoded it using ROT13. V'z abg n sna bs gur "Bbcf, V xvyyrq gur jebat crefba" fbyhgvba. Jr fcraq gur jubyr obbx gelvat gb svther bhg jub unq n zbgvir gb xvyy Zef.Cyhaxrgg bayl gb svaq bhg gung bhe phycevg zrnag gur cbvfba sbe fbzrbar ryfr. Ner gurer pyhrf gb guvf fbyhgvba nf cebzvfrq? Jryy, V thrff. Grpuavpnyyl. Ohg V unir tenir qbhogf gung znal (vs nal) ernqref ner tbvat gb erpbtavmr gurz nf pyhrf orsber gur nafjre vf erirnyrq ng gur raq.
I have another Zebra title written by Lynch and I hope the mystery is bit better plotted and the solution more accessible (clue-wise) to the reader than it is here. Fingers crossed! ★★
First line: The banquet was to have begun at seven o'clock, but well after the scheduled time the cocktail lounge was still thronged.
Last line: But that was good enough for the present, she decided; good enough for a start.
Deaths = 2 (one poisoned; one natural)
Sunday, November 12, 2023
Only the Good (1942) by Mary Collins
Ella Rutledge was a good woman with relatives who put her good nature to the test. She's long known how she wanted to leave her worldly goods, but when a letter arrives she decides to gather the family to Oak Hill "on a matter of business." But a stroke interrupts her plans and before she has a chance to recover both she and her faithful maid Parsons are dead.
Susan is Ella's great-niece, and the only one who really grieves when Ella is poisoned. But, circumstances make it appear that she is also the only one with motive and opportunity to have done the job. Sheriff Atwood doesn't want to believe that Susan is guilty, but the evidence does keep mounting up. Especially when it's discovered that Parsons was richer than you'd expect a lady's maid to be and her will leaves half of everything to Susan. Who would want to frame her if she isn't the culprit? That's what Susan hopes to prove before it's too late.
And, really, there are others who might have wanted Ella Rutledge out of the way before she had the chance to finish her "business." Susan's domineering cousin Bea wouldn't want to lose her place as Ella's heir and her husband, once Susan's fiance, seems eager to believe that Susan is guilty. the Starrs, Will and Mabel, are always on the verge of bankruptcy and had counted on the legacy Ella had always promised them. Except...Ella apparently destroyed her previous will and there's no sign of a new one. Things get really interesting when Susan's estranged mother shows up with a son from her second marriage in tow. And mother dearest hints that she knows a secret or two about the family. Of course, that means she's next on the list of potential murder victims. What secret is worth killing for?
More suspense than detective novel, we spend a great deal of time watching the net draw tighter and tighter around Susan. But there's not an enormous about of actual detective work going on. The sheriff finds himself up against a respected family who won't tell him a thing and it's Susan who keeps discovering clues. Ultimately, there's not enough proof to accuse the guilty party, so Susan winds up the bait in a trap to catch the killer. But...I do like the set up and the characters of Susan and Ella (a shame that Ella has to be killed for the plot). And I enjoyed it a great deal more than the first Collins book I read (Dead Center) back in 2010 when My Reader's Block was just a baby blog. ★★★
First line: "Oak Hill is the most beautiful old house in California..."
Last line: And after the proper interval following my marriage to Joe next spring, I hope very much that Oak Hill's rooms will be filled with cries and laughter of new young lives that will surely drive out the ghosts of old, unhappy ones.
Deaths = 11 (one in the war; two drowned; two stabbed; one poisoned; three natural; one car accident; one shot)
Fear Nothing Vol 1 (2010) by Dean Koontz; adapted by Grant Alter from the original Koontz novel (1997)
This graphic novel tells the first part of Koontz's story about 28-year-old Christopher Snow who lives in the city of Moonlight Bay, California. Chris has XP (xeroderma pigmentosum) a very rare genetic disease that makes light deadly to him. He has lived his life in darkness, using candlelight instead of regular light and covering up as completely as possible when forced to go out in daytime. The story opens with the death of his father. Both his father and mother have succumbed to cancer and, while Chris is saddened at their deaths, he doesn't think there is anything nefarious about the circumstances until....
Directly after his father's death, he witnesses an exchange in the hospital parking garage that leads him to believe that all is not as it seems. Before he knows it, he's being stalked by military-types and family friends who help shelter him begin dying. He teams up with his best surfing buddy Bobby in an attempt to find out what's going on before the stalkers catch up to him.
Full disclosure: I needed a Dean Koontz book for a reading challenge. Otherwise, I would never have picked this one up--I didn't think Koontz would be my cup of tea. Now I'm disgruntled to find out that this was volume one in what was supposed to be a complete graphic novel series based on the original book. But Koontz never finished the graphic novels. And now...I think I'm going to have to get the original book because Koontz hooked me and now I want to know what happened to Chris's parents and what the big secret about the military base at Moonlight Bay is. So, Dean Koontz, you did your job. You got me interested and now I have to read the rest. It may not be my standard type of mystery, but there's definitely a mystery to be solved. It may have a weird solution (not having ever read a Dean Koontz book before, who know?), but as long as it makes sense I'll be satisfied. Off to figure out if my library has to original novel.... ★★★★
First lines: I am not psychic. I do not see signs and portents in the sky.
Last line: I was sure...we were going to find out.
Deaths = 4 (two natural; one suicide; one stabbed)