Sunday, May 31, 2015

May Wrap-UP and P.O.M. Award

Image Credit
 I'm enjoying another year of tracking reading progress and statistics for all things bookish on the Block. I will also be contributing to Kerrie's Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. Here's what happened here on the Block in May....

Total Books Read: 13
Total Pages:  3,174
Average Rating: 3.23 stars
Top Rating: 5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 23%
Percentage by US Authors: 46%
Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  15%
Percentage Mystery:  85%
Percentage Fiction: 92%
Percentage written 2000+: 15%
Percentage of Rereads: 0%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's easy to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}  
Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 8 (20%)


This actually turned out better than I thought. I began the month with a hefty non-fiction book and my reading seemed to lag once I got that done. But then I put on a burst of reading speed in the second half of May to reach the respectable total of 13.


AND, as mentioned above, Kerrie had us all set up for another year of Crime Fiction Favorites. What she was looking for is our Top Mystery Read for each month. March was a big month for mysteries with nine coming from that field and two in non-fiction. And one of the non-fiction was all about poisoning, so it could almost count. Here are the books read:


The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (4.5 stars, non-fiction)
The Eye in the Museum by J. J. Connington (3.5 stars)
Dead Lion by John & Emery Bonett (3.5 stars) 

The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest (3 stars)
The Three Fears by Jonathan Stagge (4 stars)
Gods of Gold by Chris Nickson (3 stars)
Deep Lake Mystery by Carolyn Wells (2 stars)
Bones in the Barrow by Josephine Bell (4 stars)
The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (4 stars)
Penny Allen & the Mystery of the Hidden Treasure by Jean McKechnie (3 stars)


I actually handed out one full five-star rating in May, but that went to science fiction master Harlan Ellison for his short story collection Strange Wine and, unfortunately, that wasn't a mystery collection and doesn't qualify for the P.O.M. This month, I'm going to break tradition and hand out two P.O.M. Awards. First, as usual, for the best mystery fiction we have three contenders: The Three Fears by Jonathan Stagge, Bones in the Barrow by Josephine Bell, and The Abominable Man by
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The Abominable Man is a hard-hitting, action-packed police drama--moving quickly from the first murder to the final scene. Sjöwall and Wahlöö are experts at setting the scene and placing the reader right in the middle of the action. But they are also previous winners of the coveted Reader's Block P.O.M., so let's move on. Josephine Bell's Bones in the Barrow is a suspenseful puzzle plot that keeps the reader guessing till the end. It comes up just a bit shy in the fair play arena--there are clues if perhaps a bit tenuous, but I did have that "Oh, I should have noticed that!" moment for what was there. And I believe it is a much better example of Bell's work than her previous P.O.M. winner (Death at the Medical Board), but....having also won before we'll have to pass her by as well.

Which means that this month's winner is....

 
The Three Fears by Jonathan Stagge. Of all the pen names taken up by
Richard Webb & Hugh Wheeler as well as Martha Kelley and Mary Aswell (Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick, and Jonathan Stagge), I think I enjoy the Stagge books with Dr. Westlake the best. This one has a nifty puzzle plot with a nice juicy clue dangled right before the reader's eyes in the opening chapter. I don't think that's a spoiler--most people still aren't going to get it. I know I zoomed right over it. Westlake is a good amateur detective. He's not infallible by any means and the way he works through the twists and turns of the mystery is very realistic. Solid characters--the police chief is perhaps a little bit too inept, but overall the characters are very well done. The rivalry between the actresses adds just the right about of spice and spite to the mix.

I am also handing out a bonus P.O.M. award to Martin Edwards for his highly entertaining and informative (hot off the presses!) book on Detection Club. The Golden Age of Murder is a fantastic and fascinating book that is an absolute must-have for anyone with interest in the Golden Age of mysteries, crime, and detection. Edwards gives us a detailed look at the original members of the Club--tracing their careers and investigating certain mysterious circumstances in their lives. And even though many of the authors' mysteries were already familiar to me (as a long-time reader of Golden Age crime fiction), Edwards managed to discover new and interesting tidbits about even the most well-known of the Golden Age writers.

Challenge Complete: Crusin' Thru the Cozies


I've just finished my latest round of the Cruisin' thru the Cozies Reading Challenge hosted by Yvonne at Socrates' Book Reviews.

For my participation, I signed for:
Level 2 - Investigator - Read 7-12 books
 
And with my latest read, I just hit 12 books and the upper limit of Investigator. Thanks to Yvonne for hosting us each year!
 
1. Mother Finds a Body by Gypsy Rose Lee (1/12/15)
2. Death of a Tall Man by Frances & Richard Lockridge (1/31/15)
3. Death Over Deep Water by Simon Nash (2/8/15)
4. Caught Dead in Philadelphia by Gillian Roberts (2/11/15)
5. The Secret of Magnolia Manor by Helen Wells (2/24/15)
6. The Underdog & Other Stories by Agatha Christie (3/17/15)
7. Poison Jasmine by Clyde B. Clason (4/5/15)
8. The Ringmaster's Secret by Carolyn Keene (4/16/15)
9. Dead Lion by John & Emery Bonett (5/13/15)
10. The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest (5/15/15)
11. The Three Fears by Jonathan Stagge (5/17/15)
12. Penny Allen & the Mystery of the Hidden Treasure by Jean McKechnie (5/31/15)
Investigator! Challenge met.

Penny Allen & the Mystery of the Hidden Treasure: Review

The Allen family (Penny, Phil, Jimmy, and Marjorie) have recently inherited a big ol' house in Michigan from their Uncle John Allen (see the first book Penny Allen and the Mystery of the Haunted House). Orphaned at a young age, Phil, now twenty, leads his brother and sisters in an effort to turn the house into a summer vacation lodge in order to earn money to support the family. There are also rumors surrounding the house that there is treasure buried somewhere on the property. In the midst of their preparations, they make time to search off and on. But other people also have the same idea. There are prowlers at night and someone even sends them anonymous threatening notes to scare them away. Then they start finding clues planted in various places--but are they real or is someone trying to lead them astray? The story ends with a masquerade party, a real-live desperado disguised as a one of the guests, and a thrilling capture in a secret room. They find the treasure and everything ends happily with a romance or two for the Allens thrown in for good measure.

Penny receives top billing in this young adult mystery, but the story is more in line with the Trixie Belden mystery series than Nancy Drew. Solving the mystery and the adventure is more of a group effort among all the Allens than the brain work of Penny alone. But then it also reminds me of Judy Bolton who is every bit as interested in matrimony as she is in the mystery. Good clean fun. Not too mysterious for those who are regular detective fiction fans (I spotted the culprit straight off), but I'm sure kids would enjoy the gentle adventure. ★★


The Stars, Like Dust

The Stars, Like Dust (1951) is early, early Asimov. It, in fact, reminds me more of a spy thriller set in the world of science fiction. Set in the far future when mankind is subject to the empire run by the Tyranni (a race who apparently hold much in common with the Mongol warlords of ancient Earth), there is rumor of a planned rebellion against the Tyranni masters. At the beginning we have the hero--Biron Farrill, son of a planetary leader known as the Rancher of Widemos--barely escape a radioactive bomb left in his university dormitory. Biron has journeyed to the radioactive Earth to complete his degree....and attempt to fulfill a mission for his father (he's looking for a top-secret document that will aid the rebels). 

Sander Jonti, who claims to know Biron's father, manages to save him just in the nick of time, and warns him that his father has been arrested for treason--mostly likely to face execution--and that this is just the first attempt that will be made on the Rancher's son. On Jonti's advice, Biron travels to Rhodia, the strongest of the conquered planets, where he hears about a planet where the forces of rebellion are gathering. He joins with Rhodia's Director's Artemisia oth Hinriad) daughter and others in an attempt to find the planet and aid the rebellion. But there are traitors everywhere and Biron will have to find a way to discover who he can really trust. 

As mentioned--this is early Asimov. The makings of the great science fiction author are there, but this is not his best work. The characters aren't as developed as those in later novels and the world-building isn't quite as complete. But the adventure is exciting and the story is good overall--provided the reader remembers it was written in the 50s. The biggest problem is the ending--there isn't really a good resolution to the story. And from what I gather about the next novel in the Galactic Empire series (The Currents of Space), we don't really get any more later. I'd really like to know what happens with Biron, Artemisa, and the rest of the rebels....so if I'm wrong and there is more to their story in another of Asimov's books/short stories, please let me know. ★★ and a half stars. I'll round up on Goodreads.


Friday, May 29, 2015

The Abominable Man: Review

The Abominable Man (1971) is the seventh novel in the Martin Beck mystery series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. It shows Beck facing one of the greatest challenges in his career--challenges calling for quick detective work and professional challenges when his investigation reveals evidence of corruption all the way through some of the highest levels of the force. 

It all begins with the horrific murder of a chief inspector in his hospital room--murdered by bayonet. And it soon becomes apparent that the person responsible has a personal hatred of not only Chief Inspector Nyman but the police in general. As Beck and his team work against the clock to find the madman before he can drastically reduce the number of officers on the force, they find a link to Nyman's reputation for brutal, strong-arm police tactics. Tactics he perfected as a sadistic instructor in the armed forces and used over a forty-year career. Could the madman be someone falsely arrested and abused while in custody? Or perhaps he's a rogue cop who suffered under a harsh Inspector and is looking for revenge. 

Beck and his colleagues finally run the culprit to earth, but the final stand-off with an expert marksman will raise the police body count to at least five and Beck will have to resort to a drastic plan in order to stop the killer before he can claim more lives. The man will be caught--but at what cost? And how much blame rests with a police force which harbored corrupt officers and turned a blind eye to reports of misconduct?

This installment of the Beck series is a hard-hitting novel on a number of levels. It opens with Nyman's very brutal death, but soon turns into a commentary on the method of police work that had its roots in a sadistic drill-sergeant style of instruction and enforcement. Although the reader can't condone the murders, one can still understand the motive. When those who are called upon to serve and protect cause so much harm in one person's life, it isn't hard to understand when that person reaches the end of their endurance. 

Definitely not a puzzle mystery and not entirely a police procedural--although we do watch Beck and his men hard at work gathering the evidence and searching the records for clues to the killer's identity. This works best as a social commentary on the state of the police force in the early 1970s and makes for an absorbing read. But it is also an action-packed police drama--moving quickly from the first murder to the final scene. Sjöwall and Wahlöö are experts at setting the scene and placing the reader right in the middle of the action. ★★★★ for a perfectly paced, police thriller.

This fulfills the "Set Anywhere But US/England" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.




Bones in the Barrow: Review

Josephine Bell's Bones in the Barrow (1953) relies on what a witness sees from his train window to set the wheels of justice in motion. Terry Byrnes is making his slow way to work aboard a train to London. Progress is slow because a crippling fog has made visibility near zero. For just a moment the fog clears as the train sits and waits and Byrnes stares out the window while he contemplates how angry his boss will be over his extreme lateness. He has an unimpeded view of a row of houses along the track. The scene that unfolds before him is like a murderous silent film.

....framed in his hole in the fog, all the dirty windows of the four or five houses were empty. At the next, he saw in one of them the distorted face and frantic figure of a woman. She was in a state of extreme terror; that was clear from her fixed staring eyes and desperate snatching fingers. She was trying to throw up the window....This in absolute silence, as far as Terry was concerned, the window being shut, and the fog all round, still and deep....For a few seconds the woman fought the window. Then Terry saw a dark shape behind her in the unlighted room. She turned her head, her mouth opening in a scream as she did so. A hand struck, and she toppled forward....

By the time he understands what he's seeing, the fog closes in and the train starts moving. There's no time to make any of his fellow passengers see what he's seen. Already very late and reluctant to look foolish before the authorities, Byrnes doesn't report the incident until much later that evening. Chief Inspector Johnson is the only one who takes him seriously, but even he has difficulty finding evidence of any foul play. A number of other suspicious incidents will have to be reported before the event can be properly investigated and solved--but Johnson always comes back to that first report of violence witnessed from a train window. 


Inspector Johnson can only do so much, however, And, after waiting what seems like a very long time to hear what has come of his report, Byrnes winds up confiding his experience to Dr. David Wintringham--Bell's leading gentleman sleuth--a medical man with a penchant for solving crimes. Wintringham adds his efforts to those of the Yard to discover whether the bones belong to the missing Felicity Hilton--whose absence has bee reported by her rather fretful friend--and if her husband was the dark shape in the unlighted room. 

This is, I believe, one of my favorite Bell books yet. Suspenseful puzzle plot that keeps the reader guessing till the end. It comes up just a bit shy in the fair play arena--there are clues if perhaps a bit tenuous, but I did have that "Oh, I should have noticed that!" moment for what was there. Enjoyable ★★★★ outing.

This counts for the "Medical Mystery" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card. And it also serves as a third clue in the Super Book Password Challenge. The clue there is "Bone."



Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Trains & Murder in the Golden Age

 
image from Dover edition of The Passenger from Scotland Yard


Trains often play an important in Golden Age mysteries. Murderers shove their victims from rail carriages or leave them behind after exiting themselves. Sometimes an alibi depends on a railway timetable. Of course, probably the most famous train murder mystery is the Christie classic, Murder on the Orient Express featuring a disparate group of passengers, including the great detective Hercule Poirot, all snow-bound on the luxurious train and trapped with murder in their midst. The train itself and the enclosed, almost locked-room nature of its snow-bound circumstances are central the plot and determining who had the opportunity to murder the malevolent American, Mr. Ratchett.

But the characters don't have to stay on the train for the entire course of the novel for it to be an important element. Like another Christie novel, 4:50 from Paddington (aka What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw), Josephine Bell's Bones in the Barrow relies on what a witness sees from his train window to set the wheels of justice in motion. Terry Byrnes is making his slow way to work aboard a train to London. Progress is slow because a crippling fog has made visibility near zero. For just a moment the fog clears as the train sits and waits and Byrnes stares out the window while he contemplates how angry his boss will be over his extreme lateness. He has an unimpeded view of a row of houses along the track. The scene that unfolds before him is like a murderous silent film.

....framed in his hole in the fog, all the dirty windows of the four or five houses were empty. At the next, he saw in one of them the distorted face and frantic figure of a woman. She was in a state of extreme terror; that was clear from her fixed staring eyes and desperate snatching fingers. She was trying to throw up the window....This in absolute silence, as far as Terry was concerned, the window being shut, and the fog all round, still and deep....For a few seconds the woman fought the window. Then Terry saw a dark shape behind her in the unlighted room. She turned her head, her mouth opening in a scream as she did so. A hand struck, and she toppled forward....

By the time he understands what he's seeing, the fog closes in and the train starts moving. There's no time to make any of his fellow passengers see what he's seen. Already very late and reluctant to look foolish before the authorities, Byrnes doesn't report the incident until much later that evening. Chief Inspector Johnson is the only one who takes him seriously, but even he has difficulty finding evidence of any foul play. A number of other suspicious incidents will have to be reported before the event can be properly investigated and solved--but Johnson always comes back to that first report of violence witnessed from a train window.

Shroud of Darkness by E. C. R. Lorac also begins with a train ride through one of the worst fogs that England, and particularly London, has seen in "half a century." Riding in the same train car we have an upset young man, a psychiatrist's secretary, a large female writer with a deep voice, a businessman who looks very stockbrokerish, and an "eel-like," unsavoury young man who looks a bit like a racing tout. At journey's end the agitated young man is left for dead in the black, "monster of a fog" and the police have one monster of a mystery on their hands. After being beaten sensless, the victim's pockets are rifled and his haversack stolen and the police find themselves faced with a nameless injured man on an evening of near solid blackout when nobody could be expected to notice anybody or anything. 

Once again, the police have to start with very little information beyond what the victim's fellow-travelers can tell them. Fortunately, the secretary and the businessman both prove to be excellent witnesses and Inspector MacDonald identifies the young man fairly quickly as Richard Greville. But discovering who he is doesn't answer all the questions and MacDonald still needs to find out what about that train journey resulted in the attack on the man. Did Greville recognize someone from his past? Or did something else happen? There are other clues to follow, but MacDonald keeps that train journey in mind throughout the book.

As might be suspected by the title, a train trip also plays an important part in Night Train to Paris by Manning Coles. Edward Logan is a stuffy, predictable, highly respectable businessman who just happens to get himself mixed up with secret plans and Russian spies and is killed when he tries to keep out their way by planning an unexpected trip to his brother Laurence in Paris.


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. 

Laurence spends the rest of the book masquerading as his brother and trying to determine what happened before and during that fateful train journey. We know--because we watched Edward from the entrance of the Russian spies to his last moments on the train--but it is still highly entertaining to watch Laurence puzzle things out and, assisted by Britain's master spy Tommy Hambledon, outwit the Russians in the end. Given the reader's knowledge, the focus of this book on the train journey is slightly different from those previously highlighted. In Night Train, the reader isn't trying to figure out what happened to whom (along with the detective), but are waiting to see what Laurence and Tommy must do to solve Edward's disappearance and how soon they will figure it out.

This is my fourth offering in Noah's October 8 Challenge. Noah is a Golden Age Detection (GAD) aficionado and one of my Vintage Mystery Challengers and he's put together a Bingo-style Golden Age mystery essay challenge of his own. It's beginning to look like I just might get that Bingo after all...one more square to go!

  

Challenge Complete: Cloak & Dagger



January 1, 2015 – December 31, 2015

Amy at A Bookish Girl is resurrectied her 2013 mystery reading challenge under a new name--the Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge.* The rules remained fairly straight-forward...just read mysteries--which, given my preferences, is a slam-dunk for me. I aimed straight for the top level: Sherlock Holmes (40 books). I just turned into Holmes this past week and technically completed the challenge--but I'm quite sure that I'll read more mysteries before the year is up, so I'll keep on posting reviews.

*Unfortunately not long into 2015 Amy found herself with a lot going on and decided to take a break from blogging. She gave permission for Elizabeth at Thoughts from an Evil Overlord to take over as host. Click on the new link to join or post reviews.

My list:
1. Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes (1/3/15)
2. The Case of the Painted Girl by Frank King (1/6/15)
3. Police Procedurals by Martin H. Greenberg & Bill Pronzini, eds (1/9/15)
4. Mother Finds a Body by Gypsy Rose Lee (1/12/15)
5. A Dead Man in Istanbul by Michael Pearce (1/14/15)
6. Death of a Dwarf by Harold Kemp (1/25/15)
7. The Golden Slipper & Other Problems for Violet Strange by Anna Katharine Green (1/26/15)
8. A Dead Man in Trieste by Michael Pearce (1/27/15)
9. Death of a Tall Man by Frances & Richard Lockridge (1/31/15)
10. One Touch of Blood by Samm Sinclair Baker (2/5/15)
11. Death Over Deep Water by Simon Nash (2/8/15)
12. Caught Dead in Philadelphia by Gillian Roberts (2/11/15)
13. 13 Steps Down by Ruth Rendell (2/15/15)
14. A Stitch in Time by Emma Lathen (2/17/15)
15. Panic by Helen McCloy (2/22/15)
16. The Secret of Magnolia Manor by Helen Wells (2/24/15)
17. The World's Best 100 Detective Stories by Eugene Thwing, ed (2/26/15)
18. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (3/2/15)
19. Death & Mr. Prettyman by Kenneth Giles (3/6/15)
20. Top of the Heap by A. A. Fair (3/11/15)
21. Night Train to Paris by Manning Coles (3/14/15)
22. The Underdog & Other Stories by Agatha Christie (3/17/15)
23. Playground of Death by John Buxton Hilton (3/18/15)
24. Malice Domestic by Sara Woods (3/26/15)
25. Murder Fantastical by Patricia Moyes (3/29/15)
26. Dine & Be Dead by Gwendoline Butler (3/29/15)
27. The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey (4/1/15)
28. Poison Jasmine by Clyde B. Clason (4/5/15)
29. Murder in the Wind by John D. MacDonald (4/13/15)
30. The Ringmaster's Secret by Carolyn Keene (4/16/15)
31. The Cavalier in White by Marcia Muller (4/18/15)
32. The Wilberforce Legacy by Josephine Bell (4/19/15)
33. The Smiler with the Knife by Nicholas Blake (4/21/15)
34. Safari by Parnell Hall (4/21/15)
35. Call for Michael Shayne by Brett Halliday (4/22/15)
36. The Case of Colonel Marchand by E. C. R. Lorac (4/27/15)
37. The Eye in the Museum by J. J. Connington (5/8/15)
38. Dead Lion by John & Emery Bonett (5/13/15)
39. The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest (5/15/15)
40. The Three Fears by Jonathan Stagge (5/17/15) 41. Gods of Gold by Chris Nickson (5/23/15) Challenge Complete!

Monday, May 25, 2015

1930s Detective Fiction: October 8 Challenge Square #3

Here comes a third entry in my friend Noah's October 8 Challenge. Noah is a Golden Age Detection (GAD) aficionado and one of my Vintage Mystery Challengers and he's put together a Bingo-style Golden Age mystery essay challenge of his own. I'm still not entirely sure that I'm going to meet my goal of one Bingo. Especially since it looks like I'm hopping around the board rather than making a straight line. But...it is looking a bit more promising. AND Noah has dangled a possible prize in front of me that makes me all the more eager to fill in more squares.

Today's entry is a round-up of detective fiction from the 1930s. So far this year, I've read five novels from that decade: The Case of the Painted Girl by Frank King (1931); The Case of Colonel Marchand by E. C. R. Lorac (1933); The Murder of Sir Edmund by John Dickson Carr (1936); Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938) and The Smiler with the Knife by Nicholas Blake (1939). And what these books tell me is that there definitely wasn't just one kind of detective novel to be had at this time.

The Case of the Painted Girl and The Smiler with Knife are the two most closely related. Each of these novels are very thriller-esque and have a bit of the old serials that used to play at the theaters before the feature film. Just when you think the heroes in the the first
have discovered an answer and are getting close to capturing the criminals, up pops another little mystery and they're off on another adventure. And just when you think the heroine in the second has escaped the bad guys once and for all, up they pop again to give chase. Both novels are great fun and require little detective work on the part of the reader. All that's necessary is a sense of adventure and a willingness to sit back and enjoy the ride.
 
The Case of Colonel Marchand is novel in the classic mystery tradition. Lorac (aka Edith Caroline Rivett) makes good use of a standard mystery trope and pulls it off with aplomb and fair play. She displays the clues for the reader and, really, as a long-time reader of Golden Age mysteries, I'm well enough acquainted with the customs of the times that I should have recognized the primary clues paraded under my nose. But I didn't--and that makes it all the more fun. It is a nicely plotted, fairly clued, highly recommended entry in Lorac's mystery offerings.

The last two novels are definitely something a little different. Brighton Rock has a definite edge--no comfy village mystery, no quirky amateur detective, no adventurous cloak and dagger spy thriller. It is obvious why it is a classic in the field. It provides terrific snapshot of the pop culture of the day and shows the reader 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 Rose, the girl who loves him. It is novel that crime aficionados really should read to understand its place in history of the genre, but it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea.

And Carr's The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey is an early example of that field which has lately grown to have a wide following and numerous practitioners--the historical mystery. In Carr's case, the work is heavy on history and not quite as fictionalized as most modern historical mysteries. The book tells the very real story of the murder of a high-profile, well-known London magistrate named Sir Edmund Godrey in 1678. Carr examines the historical evidence and the theories of various historians and other interested parties to weave a fictionalized account of the crime. It is a superbly researched book and he not only gives us what he believes to be the solution to the ultimate questions--Who killed Sir Edmund Godfrey and Why--but he also supplies the reader with eleven other possible solutions complete with historical details that might lead one to at least consider them if not actually believe them. The historical detail accurately brings to life a bawdy, brutal time period full of plots and counter-plots.

So, no matter what kind of detective novel you like--adventure, thriller, classic detective puzzle, historical...or a peek at the realistic (for me, that reads as "bleak") novels yet to come--the thirties would seem to have you covered. And, of course, there are other varieties that I haven't even touched this year.
 

Deep Lake Mystery: Review

my actual copy--no DJ
Deep Lake Mystery (1928) by Carolyn Wells is set in the lake region of Wisconsin. Our narrator Gray Norris is invited to join his old friend, the detective Keeley Moore, and his new wife at their vacation cottage at Deep Lake, Wisconsin for a relaxing month of fishing, swimming, boating, and just getting away from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast.That goes by the wayside when one of the Moore's neighbors is killed under bizarre circumstances behind a locked door. The only way the killer could have escaped the room was by diving from a third story window into the dangerous water below--avoiding hidden rocks and currents that could drag a swimmer under for good. 

Adding to the bizarre nature of the crime is a sprinkling of flowers across the forehead and across the chest of the victim, a crucifix, an orange, a chiffon scarf tucked in around the body here and there like a frame, two crackers, a handkerchief, and a red feather duster emerging from behind the head like a crown. And a nail. Oh, and add one more item to the strange array of paraphenalia - a watch in a water pitcher by the bedside. Almost as intriguing to the detectives are the missing items--two silk waistcoats and a small gilt-edged plate which originally held the orange and cracker.

Norris immediately falls head over heels in love with the victim's niece Alma, a pretty young woman who will inherit the bulk of Sampson Tracy's estate and who, naturally, is a prime suspect. Despite his knowledge of Moore's talents, fairness, and ability to go beyond the obvious, Norris throws all kinds of roadblocks in the way of justice in the crusade to prevent his lady-love from harassment over a murder he just knows she could never have committed. Norris wastes a lot of time and energy playing the complete fool even after it becomes apparent that Moore and the police already know all about Alma...and, in fact, know even more about her than Norris.

This mystery starts out so promising with the bizarre items and the locked room, but it soon turned into a mediocre detective novel. Norris is, quite frankly, annoying. It doesn't even help that he acknowledges, repeatedly, that's he's a fool. Moore could, I think, be a quite interesting detective if his character were developed a bit more fully--unfortunately, that doesn't happen here. And the solution turns on two rather hackneyed devices of detective fiction--which I will refrain from mentioning in case you'd like to give Wells a try yourself. And, of course, it's always possible that a reader fresh to the genre may not be as bothered by the conclusion.

Most frustrating for me is how little importance all the interesting items found surrounding the victim wind up having. The watch dunked in the water pitcher becomes the primary clue--but not for your average mystery reader. You'll need some specialized knowledge about the reactions of those under the influence of certain psychological problems to understand that one....An author such as Ellery Queen would have managed to assign real importance to each of the items--with every one of them revealing a nugget of information about the killer or his/her motive. My reading experience could have been raised by at least one whole star if the promise of the clues had been fulfilled. As it is, ★★ for a fair read of a 1920s mystery.

For more insight on Carolyn Wells and the Deep Lake Mystery in particular, please visit John's blog post over at Pretty Sinister Books. Be warned, John's post is fairly spoilerish because of the nature of his discussion of her work.

This fulfills the "Locked Room/Impossible Crime" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Gods of Gold: Mini Review

Gods of Gold is the debut novel in Chris Nickson's historical mystery series set in 1890s England. It introduces the reader to Detective Inspector Tom Harper who must juggle an investigation into the disappearance of eight-year-old Martha Parkinson, the murder of her father Col Parkinson, and an assignment to help quell the violence expected in connection with the striking gas workers. 

The constable who has taken over Harper's old beat comes to the Inspector with his worries over the missing girl. Her mother is in prison (again) and her father claims he has sent the girl to stay with his sister. A sister that no one ever knew he had. The constable doesn't buy the man's story and neither does Harper once he interviews the man. Before they can make many inquiries, Col Parkinson is found dead the next morning. The description of a couple of toughs who called upon the dead man during the time period when Martha vanished cause Harper to believe that Martha has been sold. But to whom? And for what purpose.

Pressure from above forces Harper's superior to pull him from the local investigation to provide protection for the "black legs" who have been brought in to cross the picket lines and keep the gas works going. Things take a turn for the worse when one of the replacements is stabbed and killed outside the Town Hall and Harper will have to work twice as hard to solve both mysteries before the gas strike violence makes it impossible.

This is a fairly solid beginning to a new historical series. Good background and interesting set-up. I have personal difficulties with children in danger, but, fortunately, there isn't a lot of graphic detail about what happened to the missing girl. Harper and his sergeant, Billy Reed, have the makings of a good team--a little more depth to the characters, which hopefully will come as the series progresses, will add much to the story. The most finely drawn character, even though she isn't in the foreground throughout, is Harper's bride-to-be Annabelle. Perhaps this is because she is based on stories from Chris Nickson's father about a distant relative. ★★ for a promising beginning.
 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Strange Wine: Review

What can I say about Harlan Ellison that I haven't already said in other reviews of other books? This extraordinary author writes with a burning luminosity that most authors only dream of. His writing has an energy and compelling tone that pulls the reader in and sweeps her along with the force of the story. He writes everything from straight science fiction to dark humor to bone-chilling horror. He is hard-hitting and pulls no punches. He parades ideas before the reader, disguising them as fables and stories that seem at first glance to be mere throw-away lines, but they are packed with everything that Ellison expects the reader to know and feel...and ultimately do something about. Whether it is making a change in yourself or getting angry enough about what's going on in the world today (whether that's the today of 1978 when it was written or the today of now) to try and make a broader change in the way things are.

As I've said before, Harlan Ellison is not for everyone. He's not for the squeamish. Or the prudish. You want your fiction all neat and tidy and full of rainbows and sunshine and happily-ever-afters. Ellison is not your man. That's not to say he can't write a happy ending. He can. He does in this collection. But it's not your everyday, fairy tale happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after....and getting there may be a bit more painful than you'd like. His horror isn't based on the non-human, but on the worst behaviors and twisted desires of very human people. He shows us ourselves at our weakest and ugliest and then tells us that we are better than that. That he believes that we could be better than that (who would think it of one of the crankiest, old so-and-sos in science fiction) if we'd only want it badly enough.

Each of the stories in this collection is a winner--making for another ★★★★ outing from an excellent author. If you want a few highlights, then "In Fear of K," "Hitler Painted Roses," "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and the titular "Strange Wine" are not to be missed.

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Harlan Ellison was born on May 27, 1934, so his book counts as my May entry for the Birthday Month Reading Challenge.




Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Three Fears: Review

The Three Fears by Jonathan Stagge (aka Richard Webb & Hugh Wheeler) (1949) is the last novel by the duo to feature Dr. Hugh Westlake. Westlake has been invited by his wartime friend, Dr. Macdonald "Don" Lockwood, and his wife Tansy to spend a month at their home in the Massachusetts resort of Bittern Bay. There will even be entertainment on hand in the form of two rival  acresses--Daphne Winters, with her "five sweet symphonies", budding actresses to whom she gives summer tutelage, and Lucy Millken, ""America's Most Beloved Actress"", one time understudy to the Divine Daphne, now her bitter rival. They expect fireworks and maybe even a cat fight or two, but no one expects murderous attempts to made on Daphne. 

Someone very clever is using the atmosphere to make attempt after attempt on Daphne's life and sanity--using knowledge of her three fears: fear of poison, fear of being closed in, and fear of fire against her. The culprit is relentless and doesn't even seem to mind that innocent victims are collected along the way. Two of Daphne's Symphonies are caught in the killer's web. The first intercepts a poisoned capsule meant for Daphne while they are at tea at the Milliken's house and the second dies in a fire in the summerhouse. Westlake, having previous experience with murders, joins the police in the search for the murderer, but they run into blank wall after blank wall. It isn't until one of the Symphonies makes an urgent phone call to Westlake that he begins to see the intricate plot behind it all.

Of all the pen names taken up by Webb and Wheeler as well as Martha Kelley and Mary Aswell (Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick, and Jonathan Stagge), I think I enjoy the Stagge books with Dr. Westlake the best. This one has a nifty puzzle plot with a nice juicy clue dangled right before the reader's eyes in the opening chapter. I don't think that's a spoiler--most people still aren't going to get it. I know I zoomed right over it. Westlake is a good amateur detective. He's not infallible by any means and the way he works through the twists and turns of the mystery is very realistic. Solid characters--the police chief is perhaps a little bit too inept, but overall the characters are very well done. The rivalry between the actresses adds just the right about of spice and spite to the mix. ★★★★  for a lovely vintage mystery.

Since the first death occurs over tea and cake, this counts for the "Eat, Drink & Be Merry" Square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card--and collects two more Bingos. This is also my second entry for Curt's Crimes of the Century feature. This month is focused on crime fiction from 1949.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Great Dinosaur Robbery: Review

The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest (1970) reads like it was written with a movie deal in mind. Which is convenient because Disney made a movie from the book (One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing) in 1975. I've never seen this particular Disney film with Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov, but the novel's plot reminds a great deal of another Disney film, The North Street Irregulars. As in Irregulars, we have a group of ladies (middle-aged church parishioners in Irregulars and various-aged British-born nannies in Robbery) taking on a group of down-right baddies. 


In the records of crime there have been many great robberies--The Great Train Robbery, for instance--but never has there been a robbery like the The Great Dinosaur Robbery. Five very British nannies who are taking care of their charges in New York City find themselves plotting the biggest heist of them all...the lifting of a 200,000,000-old brontosaurus skeleton from the American Museum. It all begins when one of Nanny Hettie MacPhish's charges falls dead at her feet in the middle of the museum. His last words:

W-W-World security...avoid t-t-total destruction...m-m-museum...the m-m-message..microdot...room th-thirteen...largest beast...don't t-t-trust anyone...Get it to...to...G-G-God save the Q-Q-Queen.

After leaving the nursery, Lord Quincey de Bapeau Charmaine-Bott had become a very important person indeed...a member of the British Foreign Office and the most reliable, trustworthy, discreet, and fearless wearer of the Silver Greyhound, the insignia of the Queen's Couriers. 

The 25th Earl carried word of a top-secret plot by the Red Chinese under Mao Tse-tung to conquer England (and the rest of the world) using the Great Leap Downward plan. He had intended to pass the information (via microdot) on to his contact under guise as a British tourist. But his fellow Courier had not arrived and Mao Tse-tung's minions had pursued him through the museum. In a moment's respite from the gang, the British lord had stashed the secret in one of the museum's displays before collapsing at his former Nanny's feet. It's up to Nanny Hettie and her band of loyal caregivers to find the microdot before England's enemies. But who would have thought it would require stealing an entire dinosaur?

This is a very silly--but fun--take on the caper crime. I mean, after all, can you really call it a crime when a bunch of British nannies are stealing a whole dinosaur in the name of Queen and Country? Not terribly realistic and definitely not a puzzle plot, but I did enjoy myself. I'm pretty sure the Disney movie has toned it down though--there are a few adult scenes (one of the nannies has a lover!) and informational bits that I just can't see making it into a 1975 Disney film. Park your realism expectations at the front cover and settle in for a fun ride with Nanny Hettie and company.... ★★

"You can drive a lorry, Nanny Emily?" 
"I drove a caterpillar tractor during the war..." 
"We heard about that," said Hettie. "At the Land Army Club they said it was the longest furrow ever ploughed....You nearly cut off Devon and Cornwall"

 This counts for the "Made into a Movie" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card as well as making up Clue #2 in the Super Book Password Challenge. The key word is "Dinosaur."