Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Norths Meet Murder: Review

Nobody is going to that much trouble to get murdered. But if you're going to murder somebody, you expect to go to a lot of trouble. I would. [Pam North]

The Norths Meet Murder (1940) is a lovely beginning to Frances & Richard Lockridge's series which features (to varying degrees) Pam and Jerry North as the slightly "screwy," yet classy amateur sleuth husband and wife team and the sharp Lieutenant (later Captain) Bill Weigand and his faithful, often confused sidekick Detective Aloysius Mullins. This first outing is a bit more police procedural than later installments and we spend a great deal of time following Weigand and Mullins around as they hunt down clues and interview suspects. Pam and Jerry appear at the beginning and well as popping up now and again throughout, but this is really Weigand's book.

The story opens with Jerry returning home from work in a rather grumpy mood to find that Pam has decided that they need to throw a party. And the empty apartment on the top floor of their building will be the perfect location "because there was so much room and she had just thought of it." She had already gone up earlier that day and checked out the space (just to be sure) and had cleared the idea with their landlady, Mrs. Buano. All she needs now is for Jerry to tell her what a fine idea it is and to go upstairs with her so she explain all the important details (like where they'll place the bar, for instance). Once he has downed enough cocktails, he is persuaded to go upstairs. But instead of visualizing the party arrangements and the expected guests, he and Pam find an unexpected guest already lounging in the bathtub. Naked. And very dead.

This brings the cops. Lots of cops

"Six cars, every which way," Mrs. North called, excitedly. "They don't pay any attention to one-way streets. Seven cars, and there's going to be a crowd."

It also brings Lieutenant Bill Weigand and Sergeant Mullins. It isn't long before the body is identified and it is discovered that the man moved within some of the same social circles as the Norths. Which gives them a bit of a motive--albeit tenuous. Weigand will sift the clues to find those that point to the true villain of the piece.

It was a great delight to read this once again. I first read it about twenty years ago or so--from the library. And have since gotten my very own copy. When the Mystery Reporter Challenge called for a book that involved a party, I decided it was time to revisit my friends, the Norths. The book is a lot of fun. The dialogue and the descriptions are breezy and delightful. Pam's apparent  non sequiturs keep Jerry, Weigand, and Mullins on their toes. This time around, I was struck by how much I love Mullins and his distrust of screwy murders and even screwier witnesses. I was also struck by the racism in Mullins's treatment of a Japanese servant. I hadn't remembered that from the first reading. I'm convinced that it had a great deal to do with the fact that this book came out during World War II and I hope I'm remembering correctly that there is little of it in later books.

The police procedural nature of the book is decent--although the clues are not quite fair play. There is an interesting alibi involved and the wrap-up has a medium-sized dose of female in jeopardy when Pam realizes who the murderer must be and s/he realizes that Pam has had a "light bulb" moment. Overall, great fun and light entertainment at its best. I originally gave this five stars. This time round, I'm giving it ★★★★ and a half--with a small deduction for the small amount of racism.

In addition to the Mystery Reporter Challenge, this also counts for the "Cat" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

 Mr. North came home early that Tuesday afternoon, and as soon as he came in Mrs. North realized he was in a mood. (p. 1)

[about discovering a dead body] Things happen too quickly to have feelings about them, don't they? I mean, by the time things are over, and you begin to have feelings about the kind of feelings you had. (Pam North, p. 14)

Mr. North himself was now entirely convinced that it had been the murderer who had pretended to be Western Union looking for Mr. Shavely, although he could see that Lieutenant Weigand might, quite reasonably, remain unpersuaded. The lieutenant would, Mr. North thought again, simply have to learn. (p. 32)

[about Lt. Weigand]
PN: I thought derby hats and cigars. But he's just like anybody. You wouldn't think he was."
JN: That's what he keeps Mullins for. Mullins couldn't be anything else and he guarantees Weigand. (Pam & Jerry North, p.37)

[Weigand] speculated on the desirability of another martini. There was, after all, Deputy Chief Inspector Artemus O'Malley. Artemus was no teetotaler; on the other hand, he would view any tendency to stagger with disapproval. (p. 39)

With a blasting you know where you are, and can just round guys up. (Mullins, p. 40)

Thus, although not an unamiable man as Deputy Chief Inspectors go, he growled at Weigand when the lieutenant entered and wanted to know, profanely, where he had been. Weigand said he had stopped ffor a bit of dinner; he tried to make it sound as if he had scooped a sandwich off a counter and chewed as he ran after clues. (p. 43)

Then she decided [Lt. Weigand] was like, more than anyone else, an associate professor at Columbia they had met a few weeks before and who had turned out to be, for a professor at any rate, amazingly gay and frolicsome. (p. 74)

It was unfortunate that murderers were not always unattractive people one could enjoy arresting. (p. 138)

There was, Mullins knew by experience, a time in every case when the Loot began to suspect everybody. It came when things got too screwy even for the Loot, who could take things a lot screwier than Mullins could. Mullins suffered this period, but he understood it. In his idle moments--never as numerous as Mullins would have liked--he experimented with crossword puzzles, and they were always too much for him at a certain point. Then, he had long since decided, the way he felt must be about the way the Loot felt now. (p. 150)

JN: But we couldn't help it. It just happened. It was just the party. And, after all, you can't let murderers just--well run loose. You have to think of that.
PN: But that is theoretical. Just "murderers." But people you know aren't just murderers." She paused, and thought. "Even if they are." (Jerry & Pam; pp 207-8)

...once he knew where to crack, it would be easy. Somewhere in a what he had already discovered, and heard, there was, he felt, a weak spot, if he could find it. But the trouble was that, as a policeman, you had to know first. You knew, and then you proved; once in a great while you knew, but couldn't prove. But evidence was raw, scattered stuff until you could shape it with knowledge. (p. 211)

Weigand remembered Mrs. North's happy assumption that the murderer had left his name; and grinned over it. Murderer's didn't, in his experience, leave their names. Certainly not intentionally; certainly not if they were men as astute as he suspected [redacted] to be. (p. 247)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Titanic Tragedy: Review

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Homes series put out by Titan Books is a rather hit or miss affair. There are several very strong entries in the series and then there are those that would need a great deal of suspension of disbelief to accept them as part of Holmes lore (The Veiled Detective, I'm looking at you--and, to a lesser extent, The War of the Worlds). The series reprints older pastiches such as The Ectoplasmic Man by Daniel Stashower, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes by Loren D. Estleman, and The Giant Rat of Sumatra by Richard L. Boyer as well as presenting newer works like The Man from Hell by Barrie Roberts and The White Worm by Sam Siciliano. The Titanic Tragedy by William Seil, first published in 1996, falls somewhat in the middle--both in terms of printing date and excellence. 

Two things attracted me to this title initially. One: I love looking for good new stories about Sherlock Holmes. Two: The Titanic story has fascinated me for years (well before the movie ever came out...). The combination seemed to promise a real winner.

[Brief pause for a commercial break. You know--it occurred to me while I was letting this review percolate that if all the fictional people who have sailed on the Titanic and lived to tell the tale had actually been there and done that....well, none of the real, live people who survived the tragedy could actually have made it. There wouldn't be room on the survivor roll call. Just a thought. And now back to your regularly scheduled review.]

Seil takes Holmes and Watson, who have retired to Sussex and bees and to Piccadilly and historical novels respectively, and sends them on another adventure. Holmes is called upon to render one more service to the Crown in the form of making sure a set of secret submarine plans make it safely across the Atlantic to the U.S. Navy. He naturally request the companionship of his faithful friend Dr. Watson. The two accompany Miss Christine Norton, government agent and daughter of The Woman, aboard the fateful voyage of the luxurious ocean liner, the Titanic. Joining the travelers are, of course, the historical figures known to be on the doomed ship--Captain Smith and various crewmen, Jacques Futrelle, the detective fiction writer; Mr. Andrews, the ship's designer; and Mr. Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line--but the company also includes the brother of Professor Moriarty, who has an agenda of revenge and mayhem of his own, as well as various anarchists and foreign spies. Some of these villains are after the plans and some are out to sink the great liner. Holmes and Watson will have their hands full fending off various attacks, discovering a murderer, and tracking down the plans after they go missing. And they have to do it before the Titanic encounters an iceberg and fulfills her infamous destiny.

This is an interesting and fairly well-done Holmes story. A bit of the punch is taken from it because we know the ultimate ending--and we're fully confident that our heroes will not go down with the ship. Seil does a very good job adopting Doyle's style and voice and the main characters, for the most part, behave and sound as we expect. He manages to capture the friendship between the two men and he even allows Watson to see through the main disguise which Holmes employs. There is a bit of doubt about the reactions of the ship's crew--but I think we can reasonably suspend our disbelief on a few counts. Seil also introduces us to a rather charming young boy named Tommy who idolizes Holmes and manages to have a brief scene with the Great Detective before boarding a lifeboat. I did find myself wishing that Holmes had taken Tommy somewhat into his confidence and employed him as an onboard Baker Street Irregular. That would have been grand. In genera, an entertaining story and one of the better entries from the mid- to later pastiches included in this series. ★★ and 1/2.

Since this story involves the tragic encounter with the iceberg, this counts for the "Death during a natural disaster" category in the Mystery Reporter's Challenge.

Bodies & Souls: Review

Bodies & Souls (1961) edited by Dann Herr and Joel Wells is a collection of fourteen tales of mystery and suspense featuring Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, Rufus King, and other less well-known authors (at least to me). The collection also has the distinction of containing stories that, loosely speaking, involve Catholics or have a Catholic background. As with most collections there are a variety of story strengths represented with some very good mysteries--such as "The Dark Corner," "The Chocolate Box," "Heaven Can Wait," and "The Secret Garden"--and some very marginal mysteries (as well as those that don't even marginally qualify as mysteries)--such as "The Body in the Basement," "The Green Scarf," and "The Vigil of Brother Fernando." Overall, a decent selection of stories which earns a mid-range score of ★★.

A brief run-down of the stories:

"The Dark Corner" by Frank Ward: This story of the murder of a priest during the rite of confession features Lieutenant Archer, a man with little love for the Church and even less for the victim. But he does know his duty and faithfully follows the clues to find the less-than-saintly killer.

"The Body in the Basement" by Ernest F. Miller, C.S.S.R: A priest, who took up his calling after a failed love affair, is called upon to fill in at a parish in northern Minnesota. While there he will find himself giving last rites to his lost love...under the most unusual circumstances.

"A Diabolic Intervention" by Shane Leslie: A fairly pedestrian story of a haunted house.

"The Chocolate Box" by Agatha Christie: In which Poirot reveals a time early in his career when his little grey cells were not functioning at peak performance. M. Déroulard is found dead after eating chocolates but his death is ruled to be from a heart attack. A young woman in his household comes to Poirot because she is convinced the death was not natural.At a time of strife over the separation of church and state M. Déroulard was a key player as an anti-Catholic and a potential minister and his death could benefit many. Poirot misses a few vital clues concerning the chocolate box...

"Heaven Can Wait" by C. B. Gilford: A mystery author dies and in the process of his check-in at the Pearly Gates he discovers that he was murdered. But the recording angel can't tell him who did it. He insists that he won't be happy in Paradise unless he knows the answer to his very personal "whodunnit" and is granted one day's return to Earth to figure it out. He finds that solving the real-life crime isn't nearly as easy as creating fictional ones.

"The Finger of Stone" by G. K. Chesterton: A short story by Chesterton which does not feature his famous sleuth, Father Brown. But it does feature an outrageous solution worthy of Carr in one of his most deranged moments. A controversial scientist disappears and is presumed dead. But what happened to his body?

"The Patron Saint of the Impossible" by Rufus King: Monsignor Lavigny comes to the rescue of a pair of young lovers when the rather hot-headed young man is accused of murdering his beloved's father. It all depends on a set of fingerprints and how they got to the scene of the crime.

"Too Many Coincidences" by Paul Eiden: As the title might suggest, the coincidences seem to pile up when a loosely-connected group of young women keep turning up at funerals--as the guests of honor. Our hero, Starbuck, is a little too slow on picking up the few clues available to him....

"The Green Scarf" by A. M. Burrage: Another ghost story--this time the discovery of the titular legendary green scarf from the time of the English Civil War calls up dark forces that nearly spell the end of our narrator and his friend.

"Rogue's Gallery" by Mackinlay Kantor: No whodunnit here. Just a fairly straight-forward tale of how an itinerant artist manages to provide the proof the police need to arrest his killer/s.

"The Apples of the Hesperides" by Agatha Christie: A rich collector asks Poirot to discover what happened to his emerald apple-encrusted goblet...a goblet which once belonged to a Pope and which he won at auction but never actually possessed. It's been missing for ten years, can Poirot follow such a cold trail? Mais oui!

"The Vigil of Brother Fernando" by Joan Vatsek: Definitely not a mystery in the crime sense of the word. Brother Fernando spends a night among the dead to learn the value of the living.

"The Secret Garden" by G. K. Chesterton: An impossible crime mystery where, during a dinner party hosted by the great French policeman Valentin, an uninvited guest manages to appear in a garden with only one entrance, accessible only to those who had gained entry to the house. The unknown man not only appears, but gets himself killed for his trouble. In the meantime, one of the invited guests manages to escape the house (thus, apparently, proving his guilt) despite needing to have passed the watchful eyes of Valentin's faithful servant in order to leave. Father Brown is on hand to provide the solution.

"Murder for Fine Art" by John Basye Price: A man fro antiquity confesses to an as yet undiscovered crime.

Since all the stories were originally published before 1960, this collection counts for the "Candle" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Academic Top Tens Plus an Academic Overview

School may be getting out for the summer, but the Tuesday Night Bloggers are donning their academic robes and enrolling in a month of sinister summer school. Throughout the month of June our group of Golden Age Detective aficionados will be taking our examinations and writing papers on the dastardly deeds of academe. Academic mysteries are one of my favorite sub-genres of the field and so I will be collecting the papers here at the Block. If you'd like to join us as we wrap up a month of academic mysteries, please stop by for group discussion and I'll add your posts to the list. We tend to focus on the Golden Age of crime fiction--generally accepted as published between the World Wars, but everyone seems to have a slightly different definition and we're pretty flexible. Essays on more recent crime fiction will certainly not be ignored.

Up next in July--School will definitely be out for the summer and the Tuesday Night Bloggers will turn their attention to deadly potions with discussions of poisons in mystery fiction. We'll be meeting here at the Block again--so, hunt up your favorite cases of poisoning and join us for discussion!
This week's Star Pupils and their essays:
Moira at Clothes in Books: "An Academic Miscellany"
Kate Jackson at crossexaminingcrime: "The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin"
Bill at Mysteries & More from Saskatchewan: "Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald"
Helen at Your Freedom & Ours: "Elegies & Evening Classes"

For Review:  

As I've mentioned, one of my favorite mystery sub-genres is the Academic Mystery. Now, my definition may not precisely coincide with a more accepted or expected definition. For my purposes an academic mystery must have one or more of the following: a professor or teacher acting as the primary (amateur) detective; a professor or teacher as the victim, culprit or essential main character; and/or a school or university setting. My love for this sort of mystery has loaded my shelves with all sorts of unlikely looking specimens. Sometimes I wind up with a real gem and sometimes I shake my head over what I have bought just because the back cover mentions Professor So-and-So or Whatsit University.

And within the sub-genre of academic mystery there is everything from the series with a university setting to stand-alone novels that have professors sprinkled in the mix. Some of my favorite academic series are Amanda Cross' series starring Kate Fansler, Stuart Palmer's inquisitive Miss Hildegarde Withers, M.D. Lake's campus cop Peggy O'Neill, Simon Nash's scholar Adam Ludlow, E.X. Ferrar's retired botany professor Andrew Basnett, Edmund Crispin's eccentric Oxford don Gervase Fen, and Charlotte MacLeod's very funny Peter Shandy series. 
Kate Fansler is a witty, smart, feminist professor who finds herself mixed up in mysteries that often give her creator Amanda Cross (Carolyn Heilbrun, a professor herself) a chance to air her own views on women in the academy. Never preachy, the stories bring to life what it was like for women in the 1960s (and beyond) to make their way in a male-dominated world. This series also highlights Kate's relationship with her husband, Reed. It is one of those true partnerships that one would hope all couples aspire to. Campus cop Peggy O'Neill is more of a blue collar, hardworking policewoman trying to make her way through the mysteries of the ivory tower. She also finds herself in the middle between the academics and the city police. The tension of Peggy's position makes for an interesting story line. Gervase Fen is an eccentric and sometimes absent-minded Oxford don whose adventures are complex and fantastic with sometimes unbelievable solutions, but always fun and funny. I read the Crispin novels for pure enjoyment. The same is true of the Peter Shandy series. These mysteries are not for the who-dunnit fans who must have every I dotted and every T crossed; they are for students of life who want to see their professors as the human and sometimes humorous people they are.

My all-time favorite stand-alone novel is Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night. Focused on a poison pen loose in a women's college, there is no murder in this one, but it is a story of human emotion and what crimes can be done to love and in the name of love. I would probably credit my interest in academic crime to this story of Lord Peter Wimsey and his lady-love, Harriet Vane. That and the fact that I work for a university. It is very interesting to me to read mysteries with an academic setting and see how many types I recognize. There are often characters that read exactly like professors in my own English Department. Other very good stand-alone academic mysteries include Seven Suspects (aka Death at the President's Lodge) and The Open House--both by Michael Innes and Literary Murder by Batya Gur.

Although the two Innes books share the same detective, Inspector, later Sir, John Appleby, there is no other connection between the two. In Seven Suspects, Inspector Appleby is on the grounds of St. Anthony's College and he must confront academic intrigues, scholarly scandals and one clever killer. And it is not a nice quiet, intellectual murder. It is a vulgar and ungentlemanly crime with bones scattered about the room, a grotesque drawing of grinning death's-heads scrawled on the wall, and President Umpleby's head wrapped up in an academic robe. Then in The Open House Sir John's car breaks down on a deserted road. He wanders up a drive in search of assistance. What he finds at the end of the drive is a large house with all the lights blazing merrily away. Candles are lit, champagne is on ice, and dinner is waiting in the dining room. But there is no one to be found to answer his calls for help. In this adventure he faces an absent-minded professor, a mysterious lady in white, South American conspirators, several murders and their victims.

Batya Gur's Literary Murder is one of those chance encounters. I found this one in the bargain bin at Borders (long before it closed, sigh). I was hooked from the first line of the back cover blurb: A star poet at a Hebrew University is beaten to death in his office. It also made a first for academic mystery set in Jerusalem. Ms. Gur's police detective Michael Ohayon is a college graduate, so he is able to move easily in the academic world. This mystery was a delight in many ways, not least because it came up with a new motive for murder (new to me, anyway).
Of course, there are also the less happy chance encounters, such as The Xibalba Murders by Lyn Hamilton. This one-star effort features the death of Dr. Hernan Castillo, an expert in Mayan history, and the investigation by graduate student Lara McClintoch. It sounded interesting when I read the cover blurb, but it just didn't live up to expectations. Mostly because I didn't buy McClintoch as an amateur detective (see link for full review). Another disappointment was Oxford Knot by Veronica Stallwood--a book with somewhat tenuous academic connections (the main character resides in Oxford and some of the series titles do take place in the academic setting), which probably contributed to the disappointment. Having read a previous installment that was more firmly tied to the university, I expected more of an academic tie-in. Now, if you look on Goodreads, you'll see that I'm in the minority with my rating. But, again, I just wasn't buying what the author was selling. Fortunately (for me), most of the books I pick up because the cover mentions Professor So-and-So or Whatsit University turn out to be pleasant reads at least and quite often true delights.

And, finally, here are a couple of Academic "Top Ten" round-ups. Please know that any "Top Ten" lists that I do are for that day only and are subject to change at any time. For those titles which come from an academic series, we'll take it as read that they are standing in for the series as a whole. Also, I've listed these in the order they occurred to me and not necessarily in strict ranking.

Top Ten Academic Mysteries

1. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
2. Bodies in a Bookshop by R. T. Campbell
3. Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross
4. Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
5. Murder on the Blackboard by Stuart Plamer
6. Killed by Scandal by Simon Nash
7. Corpses at Indian Stones by Philip Wylie
8. Seven Suspects (aka Death at the President's Lodgings) by Michael Innes
9. Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin
10. The Shortest Way to Hades by Sarah Caudwell

Top Ten Academic Detectives

1. Hildegarde Withers
2. Gervase Fen
3. Miss Pym
4. Hilary Tamar
5. R. V. Davie
6. Adam Ludlow
7. Andrew Basnett
8. Carolus Deene
9. Theocritus Lucius Westborough
10. Kate Fansler & Peter Shandy (tie)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Murder in Any Language

It doesn't matter if you call it moord (Dutch) or assassiner (French), crimă (Romanian) or cinayet(Turkish), it all translates as the murder of the apparently charming, but oh-so-despicable blackmailing Spanish teacher Gerald Stewart in Murder in Any Language (1948) by Kelley Roos. Haila Troy has no idea that a few weeks worth of free Spanish lessons will land her and her husband Jeff in the middle of yet another murder mystery. After all, who would expect her charming instructor to be found stabbed to death at the very respectable Randall School of Languages? 

That's what happens after Haila receives a phone call from the ebullient Mary Connors. Miss Connors asks Haila if she would mind switching lesson days and times--just this once--so Miss Connor can brush up on a funny story in Spanish to share with her date that evening. Haila is happy to oblige and help the cause of true love...

Mary Connors would be forever happy because I had given her the opportunity to take that last crucial lesson. I was Mrs. Santa Clause. I was Dan Cupid's little helper.

But Haila has to go to the school anyway. Jeff was supposed to meet her there after her lesson and she is unable to get hold of him by telephone to call it off (isn't it amazing how cell phones have changed things?) She arrives early--just in time to be on hand when the body of Gerald Stewart is found with a knife in his chest (unlike the illustration on the cover of the book...). It looks like Mary Connors wanted that lesson time slot for more than just a brush-up on her Spanish. But who is Mary Connors? And did she even really exist? Jeff and Haila will track down several clues in an effort to help Lieutenant Hankins get to the bottom of the mystery--from the diamond and emerald pin that appears and disappears at regular intervals to the dead man's closet chock-full of negligees and stockings...and a very special hunter green and gold embroidered jacket. Other clues include two sets of hairpins, a torn up photograph, a bandaged foot, the need for $5,000 which ceases to exist once Stewart is dead, and a railway time table.

Jeff and Haila Troy are another edition of the husband and wife detective team that includes such examples as Pam & Jerry North; Nick & Nora Charles; and Pat & Jean Abbott, among others. The story is told from Haila's point of view and we get quite a bit of her insights and here inner monologue--which is quite funny. In my recent readings, I find that I enjoy the couple's wit and interactions a great deal more than the Abbots. Haila notices Jeff noticing other women, but she doesn't have the same insecurities and jealousies that Jean Abbott does. The couple make a good team and Haila often spots little clues that help move the plot along.

As the Tuesday Night Bloggers focus on academic mysteries this month, I particularly noticed the theme of respectability. In so many of these academically-inclined books, the headmaster or dean or university president or what-have-you seems more concerned with the school's reputation than the fact that someone has been killed. We must save the good name of the school at all costs! Leonard Randall is the head of the language school. He's 40% businessman and 60% Puritan...and 100% certain that there mustn't be a whisper of scandal in connection with the school's good name. Lieutenant Hankins soon teaches him a thing or two about the course of justice. 

It was a very pleasant reading experience to combine my favorite mystery sub-genre (academic mysteries) with the entertaining adventures of the Troys. ★★ and 3/4. 

This counts for the "Knife" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.