Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mount TBR Check Point #1

Wow!  Three months into the year already. Well, you know what that means...Your mountaineering guide is calling for the first quarterly check-in post. Let's see how our challengers are doing. Made it a couple of miles? Camping out in a cave 1/3 of the way up the mountain face? Taking refuge in a mountain hut along the way? Let us know how you're doing. For those who would like to participate in this checkpoint post, I'd like you to do two things:

1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read).  If you're really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you've read correlates to actual miles up Pike's Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting adventures you've had along the way.

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:
 A. Post a picture of your favorite cover so far.
 B. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.
 C. Have any of the books you read surprised you--if so, in what way (not as good as anticipated? unexpected ending? Best thing you've read ever? Etc.)
 D. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?

And what do you get for all that hard work (and distraction from the actual climb)? The link will close at 11:59 pm on Sunday, April 5.  On Monday, April 6,  I will crank up the Custom Random Number Generator and pick a winning climber. He or she will have the chance to add to their TBR stack via my gently-used book vault (prize list will be sent). Just think, if you win a book you can start up a pile for next year's Mount TBR Challenge. 

Even if you're not in the mood for a prize or if you've only got one leg of the journey under your belt, I'd love to have you check in and tell us how your climb is going!

***Please note--the linky is for Checkpoint posts only.  The link must be to a specific Checkpoint post (not your blog's home page in general). Links that are not Checkpoint-specific will be removed--to make it easier for me to track a winner.

Sign in below with your Checkpoint post.


Dine & Be Dead: Review

Dine and Be Dead, originally published as Death Lives Next Door (1960), is the sixth mystery in Gwendoline Butler's John Coffin series--but it takes the reader back in time to Inspector Coffin's first case. It also takes us to the highly academic setting of Oxford for a little murder and psychological drama among the dons. The story centers on Marion Manning, an Oxford scholar who has been successful in more than one field--most recently anthropology, which she gave up after the unexpected death of her husband. Also central to the plot are her spiteful charwoman, Joyo Beaufort, and her friends Ezra Barton (a ``perpetual scholar''), his girlfriend Rachel (who comes from a family of dotty academics), and her gossipy neighbor, Major Nickols.

The action begins when "The Watcher" as Dr. Manning calls him shows up. He doesn't approach her; he doesn't ever do anything overtly threatening. He's just always there. Standing outside her house...watching. Appearing at her lectures...watching. Following her to the train station...watching. Ezra and Rachel tell her she should report him to the police, but she says they'll only think her a silly woman. Because the man hasn't done anything. Then he gets inside her house and there's a death. Only it isn't Dr. Manning who dies...but the man. Dr. Manning insists that she didn't stab him in the back with a knife and that no one else had been in her house. If she didn't kill him, then who did? And who was this mystery man who was dogging her every step?

Enter Inspector Coffin who is hunting for a missing person who finds that his search is somehow tied to Marion Manning's problem. When various people close to Dr. Manning are hospitalized for poisoning, he begins to wonder what forces are at work in the scholarly community. The attacks seem to be aimed at Dr. Manning, will Coffin be able to unravel the mystery and save her....and her friends?

  This is an odd little book. It wins points with me for the unexpected academic ties (I bought this one blind--it had no dust jacket and I grabbed it up because it was a U.S. first edition of an author I was familiar with). There are some apt descriptions of the scholarly life and we all know how I love mysteries with an academic twist to them. But the academic points don't quite balance out the odd psychological feel of the book. The first half to two-thirds (without Coffin, I might add) are pretty dismal and full of a sense of impending doom. We all know that something is going to happen to Dr. Manning--but what? And then when it does, it's kind of anti-climatic because it doesn't actually happen to her. The final psychological twist is a bit of a let-down as well. Most likely because I've already read the classic rendering of this particular twist by....well, I can't tell you because that would give it all away. Let me just say that author X used it in such a masterful way that anyone else is bound to seem second-rate in comparison. I will give Butler kudos for keeping the possibility of the twist hidden as long as she did--the twist itself was a surprise to me even if not used to full effect. The other drawback, in my opinion, is that Coffin doesn't show up until the book is nearly two-thirds done. Knowing that this was supposed to be an Inspector Coffin case, I kept waiting for him to appear.  ★★ for the academic connection, as well as for interesting characters and relationships.

My copy = no dust jacket

This fulfills the "Published Under More Than One Title" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.

He and Ezra swopped detective stories. have you read Ransome's latest? Pretty good you know. What about the new Punshon? No Daly for a long time. Is she dead? And the new Innes? Not up to standard. (p. 47)

"My ideal university," said the Professor dreamily, "would be one without any undergraduates in it. A quiet, scholarly, happy world where one need never see a young face again." (p. 66)

Ezra...was sitting at his work-table contemplating the whole corpus of his thesis spread out in nicely typewritten sheets before him; behind were arrayed row upon row of books, authorities he had consulted, would consult, and hoped to consult; Ezra was a slow quiet ruminative worker, chewing over his thoughts as contented as a cow. Morning was just as likely to discover him, still one shoe on and one shoe off, having written two words, crossed out three, and discovered some fifty books that must be consulted before he wrote another one.... (p. 86)

He was not a great believer in coincidences. In his own work, where they occurred, they were usually the result of an error, and however they started out they usually ended in a trap. (p. 91)

Murder Fantastical: Review

Patricia Moyes was a practitioner of the traditional English mystery with a focus on the solution and the characters rather than the crime itself and psychology of its villain.  She was dubbed early on by Vivian Mort of the Chicago Tribune  as “the writer who put the ‘who’ back in the whodunit.” Her Inspector Henry Tibbett is described as a man easily overlooked--"mild-looking, sandy-haired" and "middle-aged"--but his mild appearance allows him to follow his "nose" for clues without unduly ruffling any feathers along the way. 

However, as cozy as Moyes's stories tend to be, she occasionally makes me think of Michael Innes. Most of her plots are fairly straight-forward, traditional mysteries, but every once in a while she, like Innes in some of his more fantastic plots (see The Open House and The Weight of the Evidence), seems to take us for a ride down Alice's rabbit hole. Murder Fantastical (1967) is aptly named--for a more fantastic bunch of characters would be hard to come by. The book is worth it for the description of Bishop Manciple’s visit to a new neighbor to borrow some margarine. He arrives dressed in “an old-fashioned bathing costume... Wellington boots... carrying a flowered Japanese sunshade, a clarinet, and a string bag” while on his way to the river for a swim and a little musical practice.

The Manciples have always been known in the village of Cregwall as a very eccentric family indeed.  From Great Aunt Dora, who at ninety-plus is interested in the astral manifestations of animals, to the cryptic Edwin Manciple, clarinet-playing and crossword-loving former Bishop of Bugolaland to Major George Manciple himself who loves to take potshots on his private shooting range using a home-made clay pigeon flinger of his own design, they each have their quirks and fancies. And after one conversation with any of the Manciple clan one can't help but think that the citizens of Wonderland would feel right at home at the Manciple tea table.

Tibbett is brought into the case when Raymond Mason is shot through the forehead in the Manciple driveway. Sir John Adamson, Chief Constable, and Major Manciple both feel that the situation calls for the Yard instead of local constabulary. Mason, a social-climbing bookmaker who had recently moved into the neighborhood, had set his sights on buying the Manciple estate and when turned down flat (no matter how much money he offered for it) had begun making a nuisance of himself. He had tried to get the Major's shooting range shut down as a public nuisance; he had taken the Major to court over a long disused right-of-way; he had paid unwelcome court to Maude Manciple--the youngest and most beautiful of the family. The village, while remaining loyal to their favorite wacky family and refusing to comment directly to the police, are quite certain that the Major has accidentally shot Mason in an over-exuberant bit of shooting on his range.

Tibbett's famous nose, however, leads him to suspect that this solutions will not satisfy all the questions raised by the puzzle. His search for the truth will take him through the secret files of the British government, a letter from a long-dead physician, and a hunt for a missing book of Homer. And, although he tries to arrange a happy ending for Maude, he finds that sometimes the standard happy ending isn't what one might think.

This is a fun, humorous and very cozy take on the police procedural.  Yes, we're following Inspector Tibbett around, but the focus isn't on tracking down clues in the conventional way or gathering up evidence to send to the lab. The focus of the story is on Tibbett's interactions with the Manciples and various other characters connected with the crime. A very interesting character study and a delightful read. ★★★★

With the central character of Edwin, former Bishop of Bugolaland, this fulfills the "Involves Clergy/Religion" square on the Silver Vintage Mystery card. It also serves as a second entry for Rich's monthly Year in Mystery over at Past Offences--this month's year has been 1967.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Library Bookstore Clearance Sale!

So...any thought that I might actually clear more books off my TBR mountain range than I buy this year promptly went out the window. Our local library had their Spring Clearance sale and some generous soul (or souls) had obviously done a bit of vintage mystery spring cleaning. I had already missed two days of the sale and--based on my experiences of the last two year (very slim pickings in the vintage mystery category)--I didn't expect to find much. Boy, was I wrong! I walked out with forty new-to-me books and if I hadn't exerted what little self-control that I did I could easily have carted out twice to maybe three times that many. The heavy favorite was Erle Stanley Gardner--tons of pocket-size editions of his books (under both the Gardner name and A. A. Fair). I resisted the urge to  put ALL the books in my bag....But it's quite possible I may go back for more.

The best find was a David Frome Dell Mapback edition. I am always pleased to find those.

And the most interesting has to be Some Beasts No More by Kenneth Giles. Tucked in the pages is a "Preview Copy" review request form...from 1985! The book looks brand new--not a crease in the spine, like it's never been opened. I'm thinking somebody didn't send back the requested "two copies of your review."

Here's the complete list of what came home with me:

The Bitter Path of Death (Pierre Audemars)
Death Beside the Sea (Marian Babson)
The Corpse with Sticky Fingers (George Bagby)
The Paton Street Case (John Bingham)
Death by Hoax  (Lionel Black)
Malice in Wonderland (Nicholas Blake) lovely Penguin edition
Or Be He Dead (James Byrom) bought vintage Penguin to replace 1980s reprint
The House without the Door (Elizabeth Daly) Superior Reprints (WWII edition)
Aristotle Detective (Margaret Doody)

Cats Prowl at Night (A.A. Fair/Gardner)
Shills Can't Cash Chips (A. A. Fair/Gardner) Pocket Books (1st printing)
Experiment with Death (E. X. Ferrars)
All for the Love of a Lady (Leslie Ford) Popular Library edition
The Town Cried Murder (Leslie Ford) Bantam pocket size (1st printing)
The Hammersmith Murders (David Frome) Dell Mapback
The Seventh Mourner (Dorothy Gardiner) Popular Library (Crime Club selection)
The Case of the Perjured Parrot (Gardner) Pocket Books (1st WWII printing)
The Case the Shoplifter's Shoe (Gardner) Pocket Books (3rd WWII printing; fine condition)
The Case of the Sulky Girl (Gardner) Pocket Books (25th printing--but near-fine condition)
The D.A. Breaks an Egg (Gardner) Pocket Books Cardinal edition
The D.A. Calls It Murder (Gardner) Pocket Books Cardinal edition
The D.A. Draws a Circle (Gardner) 1st WWII Pocket Books edition
The D.A. Holds a Candle (Gardner) Pocket Books Cardinal edition
The D.A. Takes a Chance (Gardner) Pocket Books (2nd printing)
A Hole in the Ground (Andrew Garve) Dell Publishing (1st printing)
Some Beasts No More (Kenneth Giles)
Death on the Broadlands (Alan Hunter)
Gently Between Tides (Alan Hunter)
The Tick of Death (Peter Lovesey)
The Doberman Wore Black (Barbara Moore)
Add a Pinch of Cyanide (Emma Page)
Every Second Thursday (Emma Page)
Follow Me (Helen Reilly)
Mr. Smith's Hat (Helen Reilly)
The Darlington Jaunt (Angus Ross)
The Suicide Club & Other Stories (Robert Louis Stevenson)
Find a Crooked Sixpence (Estelle Thompson)
The Metropolitan Opera Murders (Helen Traubel)
Murder on the Thirty-First Floor (Per Wahlöö)
This Little Measure (Sara Woods)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Malice Domestic: Review

Malice Domestic (1962) is the second book in the Antony Maitland series by Sara Woods. Woods is the most recognized pseudonym of Lana Hutton Bowen-Judd (March 1922-1985), a British mystery writer who also wrote under the names Anne Burton, Mary Challis, and Margaret Leek. Her series character Maitland is a English barrister who, more often than not, plays detective to ferret out details that will allow his uncle, Sir Nicholas Harding, Q.C., to more ably defend the (obviously) innocent clients that Maitland convinces him to represent.

This time Maitland wants his uncle to defend Paul Herron against a charge of murder (and attempted murder). The Cassell family has more than its share of twins. Paul and Timothy are one set and their Grandfather Ambrose  and Great-Uncle William are another. William has been living abroad for almost twenty years and returns to the family home just in time to be shot and killed in Ambrose's study. Paul is caught red-handed outside the room with the gun in his hands and a bewildered look on his face. 

Ambrose, who takes the family name and standing seriously, would like his grandson to plead insanity--because madness is somehow easier to swallow than cold-blooded murder. There had long been bad blood between Ambrose and his grandsons and he's quite sure that Paul mistook his identical twin for the grandfather with whom he'd argued one too many times. Paul insists that he had been sleepwalking and woke up with the gun at his feet--picking it up without thinking. When Maitland hears the details, he becomes certain that Paul is innocent and assures his uncle that he'll be able to defend the young man on a "not guilty" plea. Now Antony has to put his money where his mouth is and dig up proof that someone else fired the deadly shot. The proof just might be in the closet with the family skeletons and no one, not even Paul, wants Maitland rattling those bones. Even if an innocent man has to hang for it....

Malice Domestic provides an interesting question for the armchair detective to consider as he reads--who was the intended victim? Everyone in the family except Paul had met Uncle William and knew that he and Ambrose were identical twins--so it would seem that only Paul could have killed William in mistake for his brother. But was the killer so used to seeing Ambrose at the desk in the study that they simply assumed that was who was seated there? Or could there possibly be a reason to kill a man who hadn't set foot in England for twenty years and someone is counting on the assumption of mistaken identity?

Maitland makes for a determined detective. He doesn't mind ruffling feathers in his search for evidence to prove the client's innocence. His relationship with his uncle is amusing. Despite Sir Nicholas's bluster and complaints about Maitland's methods, it's obvious that there is great affection between the two. Characterization is not Woods's strongest point, but she does very well with these main characters and her plotting balances out any deficiencies in character development. An enjoyable entry in a series I've neglected for too long. ★★

This fulfills the "Set in US/England Square on the Sliver Vintage Bingo card.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Poisoner's Handbook

Contrary to expectations from the title, this is not a how-to book on the disposal of all those extra, annoying, moneyed people (who have willed you their goodies) in your life. The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder & the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum is a detailed examination of the development of forensic science and the growing importance of the chief medical examiner in the early twentieth century. Until Charles Norris took over the position, corruption ran rampant in the coroner's offices--obvious violent deaths were often written up as "heart failure" or "natural causes" or even multiple choice causes of death such as death due to "either assault or diabetes" or "diabetes, tuberculosis or nervous indigestion." Norris, with the help of toxicologist Alexander Gettler, set about cleaning up New York's forensic examination system as well as making trailblazing discoveries within the science itself--from the development of a new scale to determine alcoholic intoxication (based on brain saturation) to more and more precise tests for various poisons in the body. Gettler very often had to create a test where none existed before.

The basic premise is a very interesting one. The book is divided up into chapters based on various poisons with each poison characterized through a newsworthy event featuring the potent substance. Not limited to murders--though there are plenty of those here--we also have the systemic poisoning of the drinking crowd of the Roaring Twenties (and 30s) by none other than the government Prohibition enforcers. Prohibition did nothing to make "moral" men and women out of persistent tipplers. Those who craved the buzz of alcohol were willing to drink absolutely anything--no matter what toxic substance the regulators insisted be added to any liquid containing alcohol. Bootleggers made their money out of people who were quite literally dying for drinks. Also included is the famous case of the "Radium Girls"--women who earned their living painting watch dials with luminous paint containing radium. Women who began dying because they sharpened the points of their brushes with their tongues.

The stories of murder and other deaths by poison were intriguing. My main complaint about the book is that there are only so many times I needed to be told how Gettler ran his tests. Once you've read about how he gathered up all the major organs in the body, pulverized bits of them in various substances, and distilled the resulting ooze in order to measure the amount of thallium, arsenic, cyanide, [insert your favorite poison here], you really don't need to be told the process again. Honest, I'm not the most scientific person in the world, but I got it the first time. It would have been far more interesting to have had greater detail on each of the cases and about the relationship between Norris and Gettler...and they with with their forensic team than to have spent so much of the book on chemistry lectures. At ★★ and a half, it is still a fascinating book. It revealed a lot of details about the effects of Prohibition that I had not previously heard.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Five Faves: Meme

Five Faves is a meme sponsored by Gilion at Rose City Reader. As she says....
There are times when a full-sized book list is just too much; when the Top 100, a Big Read, or all the Prize winners seem like too daunting an effort. That's when a short little list of books grouped by theme may be just the ticket. Inspired by Nancy Pearl's "Companion Reads" chapter in Book Lust – themed clusters of books on subjects as diverse as Bigfoot and Vietnam – I decided to start occasionally posting lists of five books grouped by topic or theme. I call these posts my Five Faves.
This week's theme is Alternate Histories. Alternate histories give the reader a chance to think about what might have been and to imagine how changes in the past could affect our present. I have always enjoyed speculative fiction--whether that might be an imagining of humanity's future (usually in space) or stories about how we might have been different. Here are some of my favorites.
Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling: A startling time-travel phenomenon has occurred. The island of Nantucket has been swept into the long-ago past. With its inhabitants adrift in the year 1250 B.C., there is only one question to be answered: Can they survive?
West of Eden by Harry Harrison: What if the dinosaurs hadn't died out? What if the reptiles had survived to evolve intelligent life? A rich, dramatic saga of a world where the descendents of the dinosaurs struggled with a clan of humans in a battle for survival.
The Way It Wasn't: Great Science Fiction Stories of Alternate History by Martin H. Greenberg & Robert Silverberg (eds): An amusing, intellectually stimulating excursion into speculative history by renowned science fiction writers, telling what things might be like if... Elvis Presley weren't the "King" but the President of the United States ("Ike at the Mike" by Howard Waldrop)... The Black Death had killed the entire population of Europe in the fourteenth century ("Lion Time in Timbuctoo" by Robert Silverberg)... John F. Kennedy had survived the 1963 shooting in Dallas ("The Winterberry" by Nicholas A. DiChario) and more.

Murder & Magic by Randall Garrett: A world where Richard the Lion-Hearted did not die at the Siege of Chaluz and the House of Plantagenet rules England and a mighty empire even in the 1960s. This is also a world where Magic is science and all the usual scientific methods are underwritten by magical laws and procedures. There is no blood-typing by is all discerned by the Law of Sympathy. 
Timeline by Michael Crichton: Archaeologists make a shocking discovery at a medieval site. Suddenly they are swept off to the headquarters of a secretive multinational corporation that has developed an astounding technology. Now this group is about to get a chance not to study the past but to enter it. And with history opened up to the present, the dead awakened to the living, these men and women will soon find themselves fighting for their very survival -- six hundred years ago.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Challenge Complete: Men in Uniform

January 1, 2015 – December 31, 2015

I signed up for the lowest level on this one:
  • Sergeant: read 1–5 men in uniform novels
and actually completed my fifth book on March 6th. I somehow forgot to log my completion. I'm still reading and hope to make at least Lieutenant before I'm done, but my stated commitment has been fulfilled and I'm crossing this one off my mega-list of challenges.

My reading list:
1. Police Procedurals by Martin H. Greenberg & Bill Pronzini, eds [policemen, all sorts of policemen] (1/9/15)
2. Death of Dwarf by Harold Kemp [policemen] (1/25/15)
3. Caught Dead in Philadelphia by Gillian Roberts [policemen] (2/11/15)
4. Into the Valley by John Hersey [Marines] (2/28/15)
5. Death & Mr. Prettyman by Kenneth Giles  [policemen] (3/6/15)
Challenge Commitment Complete (3/6/15)

Playground of Death: Review

Playground of Death by John Buxton Hilton is the seventh in his Inspector Kentworthy series.Kentworthy has his own peculiar way of investigating matters that makes him something of a puzzle to the local constabulary when he is sent along by Scotland Yard to tend to cases that need an outsiders touch. But he also has a certain flair that allows him to find the solution that others miss.

Such is the situation in Filton-in-Leckerfield. Roger Bielby, a former mayor and all-around big-wheel in the Lancashire town was arrested for the shooting death of his wife Maggie. But he never made it to his initial hearing--he was shot himself by an as-yet unknown killer while on his way into court. The circumstantial evidence against him was quite strong and the local authorities have no doubt that he would have been convicted had he been allowed to face trial. But when Kentworthy examines the case notes and visits the crime scenes, he's not so sure. And then when he reads the journal Bielby had been working on in jail, he becomes convinced that the crimes have roots in the past. Bielby's journal is full of memories growing up in the slum area of town--a child with no father, skirting the law and getting into trouble until his father show up to marry his mother and to try and give him a respectable life. A stint in the army during the war seemed to point him onto the straight and narrow and he returns to his home town a war hero determined to better himself. Hidden in those memories are clues to current events and Kentworthy manages to trace the clues a solution that will surprise the village even more than an accused and murdered ex-mayor.

There must be something about the Kentworthy stories that keep me coming back. At least, I do keep picking up new entries in the series as I find them--but I consistently give them between two and three stars and never more than that, so I'm not quite sure that I can pinpoint what the overall appeal is. This one comes in for ★★ and a half. And most of the star power is for the historical framing of the story. The journal entries, which comprise almost the entire first half of the book, are some of the most interesting parts. The final wrap-up relies heavily on information from those entries and on current interviews with key players from that time period. Kentworthy is his usual peculiar self and his investigation has a somewhat disjointed feel (something I've noted in a few others in the series), but overall a decent police procedural story.

This fulfills the "Historical" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card as well as providing Clue #2 in the Super Book Password.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Underdog & Other Stories

The Underdog and Other Stories by Agatha Christie is a reread for me. It had been so long since I first read these nine stories that it was almost like reading them for the first time. One thing that struck me about most of them on this go-round is how much Christie was following the Holmesian short story model. The opening of "The Affair at the Victory Ball," for instance has a very Watson-like phraseology and style:

Pure chance led my friend Hercule Poirot, formerly chief of the Belgian force, to be connected with Styles Case. His success brought him noteriety, and he decided to devote himself to the solving of problems in crime. Having been wounded on the Somme and invalided out of the Army, I final took up my quarters with him in London. Since I have a first-hand knowledge of most of his cases, it has been suggested to me that I select some of the most interesting and place them on record. In doing so, I feel I cannot do better than begin with that strange tangle which aroused such widespread public interest at the time. I refer to the affair at the Victory Ball.

And the beginning of "The Lemesurier Inheritance" as well:

In company with Poirot, I have investigated many strange cases, but none, I think, to compare with that extraordinary series of events which held our interest over a period of many years, and which culminated in the ultimate problem brought Poirot to solve.

All but one of the stories are told by Captain Hastings in the same narrative-journal format that Dr. Watson uses. And Poirot uses some Holmes dramatic flair to wrap up a few of the cases. He is much more active in tracking down clues (despite talking about the psychology and the little grey cells)...or at least giving the appearance of doing so. In "The Submarine Plans" he even devotes time to the search for footprints.

Another intriguing least two of the stories include a insert by editors about two pages from the end which suggests that "the reader pause in his perusal of the story at this point, make his own solution to the mystery - and then see how close he comes to that of the author." Early Ellery Queen stories would also make use of this "challenge to the reader"--telling the reader that he now had all of the necessary clues and should be able to solve the mystery for himself.

Revisiting these short stories was great fun and it was interesting to see how much Christie was mirroring the work of Doyle and foreshadowing the challenges of Queen. I don't remember noticing that the first time I read them. With the shorter format, the plots were not quite as mysterious as the full-length novels. It is much harder to hide the culprit when you have less space in which to display red herrings and false clues. But, overall, a good set of stories from the early years of Poirot and Hastings.  

A short synopsis of each story:
"The Underdog" (near novella-length): The irritable Sir Reuben Astwell is found dead and his nephew is blamed for the murder. Lady Astwell is certain she knows who the killer is, but can offer no evidence. Poirot is called in to prover her right...but is she?

"The Plymouth Express": The daughter of a wealthy American steel king is found stabbed to death on the train and her jewel case is missing. Was it a robbery gone wrong? Did an ex-lover do the deed? Or perhaps it was her husband?

"The Affair at the Victory Ball": Two people in a party of merry-makers at the Victory Ball die--one is stabbed and one dies of an overdose of cocaine. The only clue? A green pom-pom.

"The Market Basing Mystery": Japp, Poirot, and Hastings venture to the countryside for a bit of a holiday. When it appears a village resident committed suicide, but the doctor isn't satisfied with that solution, the local constable asks Japp and his colleagues to assist.

"The Lemesurier Inheritance": A legendary curse says that no first-born son will inherit in the Lemesurier family...and history records that the curse has been pretty accurate. Can Poirot stop the latest outbreak of first-born deaths?

"The Cornish Mystery": Mrs. Pengelley suspects that she might be a victim of steady poisoning. But she's not sure. She thinks it might be her husband who is doing the poisoning. But, again, she's not sure. She asks Poirot to investigate...and then she dies. Did her husband really poison her?

"The King of Clubs": The beautiful dancer, Valerie Saintclair, bursts into a room where a family is playing bridge, announces that their neighbor has been murdered, and faints. The man is someone who had a hold over Valerie...but she insists she didn't kill him. Poirot is invited to find out who did.

"The Submarine Plans": Top-secret plans for a new type of submarine disappear from Lord Alloway's desk. But it looks like no one could have taken them. Did his secretary really place them on the desk? Or is there another answer? Poirot will discover the truth.

"The Adventure of the Clapham Cook": Poirot is reluctant to respond to Mrs. Todd's request that he find her missing cook. After all, the great detective shouldn't be bothered except for the most important of crimes. But the good lady convinces him that an excellent cook is worth her weight in gold and just as important as the finest jewels. Poirot will be very surprised just how important a missing cook can be.

All of the stories were published separately from 1923-25, and the collection was published in the United States in 1951. This fulfills the "Animal in the Title" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Night Train to Paris: Review

Laurence....had no idea what sort of an emergency Edward had become entangled. Selling peppers and spices appeared such a harmless and peaceful trade unless, as a result of the pepper shortage, someone had produced a recipe for synthetic pepper which was worth a fortune to its possessor and Edward had got it. There was a gang of ruffians, mused Laurence...ruffians subsidized by rival pepper firms in the City who were prepared to stop at nothing to wrest the Sneezo formula from poor Edward. (p. 51)

Edward Logan is a stuffy, predictable, highly respectable businessman. His manservant says you can set your watch by him and he always knows what to expect from Mr. Logan. But then, on the day Edward decides he's been a fool over a young woman and, on the advice of his lawyer, goes to ask for his letters back and to tell her good-bye, he becomes impulsive. 

EL: I've been a fool...what are you laughing at?
F: I thought you were going to say that. There is a faintly sheepish aspect about you this afternoon which is immediately recognizable to any experienced solicitor. It is almost invariable accompanied by the form of words you have just uttered. Or some equivalent synonym. (Edward Logan, Fenchurch; p. 12)

She is not at home when he arrives at her apartment, but her door is unlocked so he walks on in. He finds a note which asks someone (quite probably the suspected other man in the case) to wait as she'll be right back. As he stands looking out the window and tries to decide what to do, he sees a man walking purposefully towards the apartment. When the man comes into the building and his footsteps can be heard on the stairway, Logan is again impulsive and dashes into a closet.

His suspicions about Betty Alton's relationship to the man are put to rest when she arrives home to find her brother (!) in her apartment. But Logan has barely breathed a sigh of relief before Stephen Alton reveals that he's managed to get his hands on some top secret plans, is attempting to avoid the authorities, and wants to sell the plans back to the Russians. And then the Russians show up--demanding the plans and searching the apartment and the occupants for their precious secrets with no success. The Russian spies are quite amused to find a secret lover hidden in the closet and they appear to discard Logan as a prime player in their particular drama. They exit with Alton and Logan runs away from the scene. 

He becomes convinced that it might be a practical idea to leave London for a bit...just in case the Russians don't find what they're looking for and decide that he might have it. So he arranges with Greene, his manservant, for his bags to be packed and tickets to be bought for an unexpected trip to France. He then calls his twin brother Laurence, who lives in Paris, and asks him to meet him at the Gare du Nord  and put him up in a hotel for a bit.

Laurence is baffled by the odd request. Every time his brother has visited, it has been arranged long in advance, down to the last detail. His brother never does anything on the spur of the moment. Edward is very mysterious and will only tell him that it's a matter of life and death and that all will be explained when he sees Laurence. Laurence's bewilderment increases when he arrives at the station late to find an almost empty train and no sign of his brother. He heads to Edward's compartment and finds his luggage, passport, tickets, and hotel reservations laid out for custom inspection but Edward has vanished without a trace! Before he can decide what to do, the conductor comes and addresses him as Mr. Edward Logan. 

Certain signs among his brother's things (items out of place, slits in the lining of the suitcases) and his brother's ominous statement cause Laurence to be a little impulsive himself. He assumes his brother's identity, determined to discover what happened to the normally unadventurous Edward...and avenge him if necessary. Laurence was a member of the French Foreign Legion and the French Resistance during the war so he has no problem with a little adventure. He just wishes he knew what it was all about.

Enter Tommy Hambleton and Inspector Bagshott. Hambleton is attached to the Foreign Office and interested in the fate of a certain German doctor, known to have been carrying secret plans for a device that could play havoc with enemy troops. Bagshott is with Scotland Yard and wants to know who had it in for Stephen Alton. He also knows that Herr Muntz disappeared overboard while on a Mr. Stephen Alton's ship and the papers may or may not have gone over the side as well. 

Muntz--let's call him that--was carrying a briefcase containing papers which he said were worth vast sums to the Russians and when the British Government saw them they would dance ring-o'-roses round Nelson's Column. So said the second engineer. (Bagshott; p. 55)
Hambleton gets on the track of a trio of Russians and follows the trail to France while Bagshott investigates in England. Things really get interesting as Laurence, the Russians, and Hambleton all race to find each other and the missing plans.

This is another fun outing by Manning Coles, the neighborly writing duo of Adelaide Frances Oke Manning and Cyril Henry Coles. Spy thrillers aren't my usual fare, but this particular series is breezy, witty, and humorous. There are more coincidences and unlikely events than you can shake a stick at--but you don't care, dead bodies accumulate at an alarming rate, and there is, of course, no real mystery about who did what to whom, but it's a rollicking good yarn. The only real mystery is what did Alton do with those darn plans? ★★★★

Published in 1952, this fulfills the "Mode of Transportation" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card and with several deaths by strangulation it also fulfills that category in the Mystery Reporter Challenge.

Challenges fulfilled: 100 Plus Challenge, How Many Books, Vintage Mystery Challenge, Cloak & Dagger, Mount TBR Challenge, A-Z Reading Challenge, Monthly Key Word, European Reading Challenge, 52 Books in 52 Weeks, My Kind of Mystery, Mystery Reporter, A-Z Mystery Author

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Top of the Heap: Review

the edition I wish I had
A member of San Francisco's upper class comes to the offices of the Cool & Lam Private Detective Agency. John Carver Billings II hands them a retainer and a bonus of five hundred dollars if they can track down a couple of women who can provide him with a nice alibi. It seems he walked out of a restaurant with a redhead who belonged to a local gangster and the redhead walked out on him. So, he decided to find another date and wound up with a pair--one blonde and one brunette. His problem? The redhead didn't just walk out on him. She has disappeared entirely and he doesn't want to be blamed for her vanishing act. The lovelies that he spent the night with could prove that he was otherwise occupied...if they could be found.

Bertha Cool, head of the agency, is eager to let Donald Lam earn the money. But Donald smells something fishy. When earning the bonus proves to be just a little too easy (Donald knows he's good...but not that good), he knows he was right. And when he decides to dig deeper to find out just why Billings wanted Cool & Lam to "discover" an alibi that has obviously been pre-arranged, he finds himself on the wrong side of law, on the wrong side of the powerful Billings family, and on the wrong side of Bertha Cool. One murder, one hit-and-run accident, one run-in with the mob, and one gold mine later, Lam has put the pieces together and is able to present Bertha with a bonus that even she could never have dreamed of....

Top of the Heap is the thirteenth entry in the series by A. A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner, better known for his Perry Mason books). In many ways it follows what seems to be the typical Cool and Lam pattern--Bertha wants money and lots of it; client offers said money; Donald gets to do all the work; Bertha waits to scoop up the cash and share it out. I don't think these are books that I would want to read too close together. The one bonus here is that Donald really gets to show Bertha what he can do. When she decides that he has screwed up the case and cost them their retainer, he sets off on his own to get to the bottom of things and does so in style. It's absolutely worth it to see him stroll into the office (through a door where Bertha has scraped his name off the glass) and present her with the bountiful fruits of his labor. It's amazing how fast her fire-breathing changes to honey-toned appreciation. Enough dollar signs will do that, I guess.

Overall, a decent read in the pulpy private eye world. I particularly like Donald--he's quick on feet, quick-witted, and quick with a snappy come-back. ★★

This fulfills the "Detective Team" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Glenn Ford: A Life...Mini-Review

Glenn Ford was an under-appreciated actor with a career spanning over 50 years. He starred in such classic films as Blackboard Jungle, 3:10 to Yuma, Gilda, and the Rounders. His rugged good looks and tough, straight acting made many a western film what it was. In 1958, he was rated number one at the box office by the Quigley Publishing Company's Poll of Film Exhibitors and was consistently ranked highly from 1955-1962. And yet this actor who seemed to always have a project going throughout his acting career never collected an Oscar, never was recognized for a Life-Time Achievement Award, and was never even recognized by his native Canada because, in the words of his son Peter, "The people in charge [of the Toronto Hall of Fame where native Canadians are honored] said they had never heard of him."

In his acting career, Ford was a quiet, dedicated actor who made the most of his roles--even in films that are now long-forgotten. His fellow actors remember him as a colleague who would always help them orient themselves in a scene or with a character, or, for those just starting in the business, within the business itself. He was a man driven to act and, perhaps, continued acting long after most celebrities would have rested on their laurels. Despite the lack of recognition from award-granting entities, he had a large body of fine work upon which to rest.

The face that Ford's public and co-stars saw, wasn't always the same as the private one. Glenn Ford: Life is a very honest and open biography by Ford's son Peter. It presents the many sides of Ford from humble beginnings through his rise to celebrity, from fairly inept father to yearning, but unfaithful husband to non-stop ladies' man and romantic adventurer. Using exclusive interviews with family, friends, and colleagues as well as pieces from the family collection of diaries, letters, audiotapes and photos, Peter Ford presents his father as the great and flawed human being that he was. The result is a biography that gives the reader all the glitz and glamor of Hollywood with a balance of hard-hitting truth. ★★★★

Friday, March 6, 2015

Death & Mr. Prettyman: Review

Kenneth Giles was a British author wrote ten mysteries under his own name (one non-series) as well as two other series under the names Edmund McGerr and Charles Drummond. Death and Mr. Prettyman (1967) is the third book in the Giles series which features Harry James--who begins the series as a detective sergeant and is currently an acting inspector--and his sergeant Cedric Honeybody. 

In this installment, we are presented with the death of the respectable, elderly solicitor Charles Prettyman during one of London's fabled peasoupers. Prettyman is discovered, knife protruding from his back, in the waiting room of a barrister's office in the very proper Inns of Court. Was he another victim of the "Blue Lady," a serial killer with a taste for smallish men and a penchant for a peculiarly shaped knife? Or did someone use a copy-cat killing to eliminate Prettyman for reasons of their own?

On the surface, Prettyman seems to have been a very harmless and inoffensive solicitor. He was careful in his business matters--managing the affairs of several large estates--and certainly never mixed up in any unsavory circumstances. But then a clerk in Chambers where Prettyman was found is also killed with a knife and a possible witness dies in a fall down a rickety staircase, James and Honeybody begin to think there was more to the solicitor than met the eye. Several trips to the country are called for and James will need to enlist the help of his wife, the "Modest Maidens" Society (a group of female do-gooders), a few old lags, and a peer of the realm to solve the serial killings as well the mystery behind Prettyman's murder.

Giles writes a rather eccentric mystery. Throughout the entire book the dialogue reads like a vaudeville act or an old Abbott and Costello routine. The reader is constantly poised for the "badum-tish" at the end of any given conversation. And yet the camaraderie between James and Honeybody is genuine and a great deal of fun. There are moments when I thought I was in the middle of the "Who's on first" routine and didn't quite follow, but it didn't deter from the enjoyment too much. Not quite as fairly clued as one might hope--a few clues are held a bit too tightly to the chest and James makes a final "research" trip that is not explained until the big reveal at the end, but overall a fun ride. ★★

This counts for the "Lawyer, Judge, etc" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card as well as for Rich's year in crime fiction (this month is 1967) over at Past Offences.

Porterman is taking Liverpool apart. The police of four counties, by the Home Secretary's orders, are providing him with three hundred men on a three-shift basis. At this moment you could steal the whole of Manchester with out anybody noticing a thing wrong. [Superintendent Hawker; p. 25]

"I know what Miss Christie meant," said Hawker. "She's responsible for every little tea-leaf wearing gloves these days. Until she told 'em they didn't know about crime detection. She should have been locked up years ago." [pp. 26-7]

Nobody's met more loonies than Sir Bradbury. They say he even gibbers to himself when he thinks he's alone. [Hawker; p. 29]

He's devilling a county-court case for me. Nothing to it; two toilet bowls broken, but a matter of principle on both sides. We make our money from principles, Inspector. [Hewson; p. 46]

G: If Scobie gets mean tell him to go get another boy.
H: That's the spirit. When I hear that, I know a man's arrived, sir. That's the spirit.
[Greenaway, Hearman; p. 70]

I've seen--no that's not true--I've heard of them coming suddenly, like a thoroughbred at the eleven-furlong post. That makes us clerks happy. [Hearman; p. 72]

H: Perhaps I may buy a round in celebration of that dry-cleaning case, a forensic triumph.
G: My opponent was twenty-three, sweating, tongue-tied, and clueless, poor devil.
H: Always take the credit, laddie, because you'll get the blame. Such reputation as I have originally rested on three monstrous coincidences, a doting judge, a senile witness and the fact that old Bromley--before your time--broke his upper plate a quarter through his final speech. 
[Hewson, Greenaway; p. 73]

Whilst at home he was relaxed in dressing gown and slippers, he found the formal hotel occasions trying. And if Elizabeth was eupeptic at breakfast, which was her inclination, Honeybody resembled nothing quite so much as a large grinning, mustachioed bear, its stomach almost audibly welcoming the day's promise of food and drink. [p. 89]
...Honeybody, beaming and exuding a smell of stout, entered.
"Holy mackerel," said Harry.
"Disguise, fading into the yokel background, sir."
   The Sergeant's great stomach perilously rested on the upper edge of riding breeches, spread taut against vast thighs. Riding boots, polished bright, encased the size twelve feet. A checked shirt with a red cravat and a vast Harris tweed jacket with patch pockets completed the picture. [pp. 154-5]

Monday, March 2, 2015

Brighton Rock: Review

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is a follow-up to Green's novel A Gun for Sale, in which Pinkie Brown arranges for the murder of local mob boss Kite. In Brighton Rock, Pinkie has taken over the gang. He's a little young for the job and faces opposition from Colleoni, a more experienced, wealthy mob boss who is moving in to Brighton.

The story opens with Charles "Fred" Hale who has come to Brighton on assignment from his newspaper. His job as "Kolley Kibber" is to visit various towns, leaving cards worth prizes along his route, and to be prepared for someone to recognize him and "challenge" him to collect a larger cash prize. But Hale has had some dealings with Pinkie's rival--something that Pinkie has taken great exception to. It isn't long before Hale suspects that Pinkie has marked him for murder as well and Hale searches for likely lady friend to use as cover while in Brighton. 

He approaches Ida Arnold, a friendly middle-aged woman who is willing to spend time with him. But she insists on "freshening up" in a ladies room and when she comes out, he's gone. Ida has a very uncomplicated view of life and isn't too disturbed about his leaving her....until she sees his picture in the newspaper. He died that very day, apparently of natural causes. And when Ida thinks over the conversations she had with "Fred" and reads the article on the inquest she finds that she has several questions about what really happened. A little bit of investigation on her part makes her very suspicious indeed and she goes to the police with her suspicions.

They don't take her seriously and Ida sets out to play detective and find out what really happened to "Fred" that day in Brighton. She is determined to find the person responsible for Fred's death--no matter what it takes and no matter how many questions she has to ask. Ida is fearless and represents blind justice in a very real way.

I certainly get why this is classic...and why it appears on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. It is a terrific snapshot of the pop culture of the day and the wicked underbelly of Brighton and the racetrack nearby. But an enjoyable book it is not. It is bleak and there are few appealing characters. Even Ida, whom we feel that we must root for, is a bit frightening in her single-minded quest. Yes, we do want to see Hale's killer brought to justice, but the advancement of justice is such an unrelenting process. By the end of the book, I felt ground down by the weight of Ida's quest and burdened with Pinkie's guilt and horrible treatment of everyone he comes in contact with--from his gang members to to Rose, the girl who loves him. ★★

This fulfills the "Place in the Title" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card.

All Challenges Fulfilled: 100 Plus Challenge, How Many Books, Vintage Mystery Challenge, Mount TBR, My Kind of Mystery, Cloak & Dagger, 1001 Books Before You Die, Dare You, Genre Decades Challenge, Back to the Classics, A-Z Mystery Author Challenge