Friday, September 30, 2016

The Clue in the Clay: Review

Holy Harry! Wait till McClennan sees that! He'll tear Mabel Edwards' house down brick by brick with his bare hands. If there's one thing that McClennan hates with his whole insides, it's that fiction kind of detective work. He reads murder mysteries just to tear 'em limb-from-bush at the end! Oh, man! This is something for the books. 

The Clue in the Clay (1938), written under the name D. B. Olsen, was the first mystery novel for (Julia Clara Catherine) Dolores (Birk Olsen) Hitchens. It is one of two mysteries to feature Lieutenant Stephen Mayhew. Mayhew and his lovely wife Sara are on their honeymoon in San Francisco when they run into one of Mayhew's old friends and classmates, Officer Franklin Charles, who is drowning his sorrows at a local night spot. Charles was the man on the scene when an apparent suicide was discovered and he managed to let the one witness he had run off without getting his pertinent information. Needless to say, his superiors were none too happy with him and gave him a couple of earfuls on the subject. Then, when he went home for sympathy from his wife, she got mad at him and went off to let him stew for a few days. It's not clear if it's his wife he's gonna miss or her cooking: "My wife can make biscuits and pies like nobody's business."

As soon as Mayhew hears the full details of the man in the green suit who ran away and the description of how the body was discovered, he's quite sure that this is no suicide. Charles, hoping to get back in good graces, introduces Mayhew to Inspector Bailey. The Lieutenant and Inspector set to work interviewing the neighbors, friends, and relative of Mabel Edwards, the sculptress who was found dead. There are motives simply pouring out every which way from who inherits to who hated whom to who loved whom. And there's something important about the hideous plaster statue of a druid--the last piece that Edwards was working on. Important enough for someone to steal and then return it to the dead woman's house. The two detectives finally pull together enough threads to stage the grand finale, recreate-the-crime scene that Bailey's boss, McClennan is going to hate (see quote above). But Mayhew comes through with the goods and identifies the culprit.

This story reminds me of many a B-mystery movie that I watched on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in days of yore (before the American Movie Channel and Netflix...and even before DVDs). There are so many people in and out of the "murder house," there's the creepy druid statue, there's the long-abandoned mine, there's the mysterious private eye that no one can lay hands on, and there's more people popping in and out of the bushes than several rounds of "Pop Goes the Weasel"--as Hilda, the Swedish maid of one of the neighbors, notes:

Dey were all in de booshes dat day.

And, then, of course there are our heroes, Lieutenant Mayhew and Inspector, constantly getting punched or shot or abandoned at the bottom of mine shafts. It's enough to make you reach for the buttered popcorn. 

This is a great deal of fun. It's full of adventure and fast-moving action with likeable protagonists and plenty of characters to suspect and dislike and hope that they're guilty. Olsen also does a fairly good job providing clues for the attentive reader, making this an action mystery with decent fair play. ★★ and a half.

This fulfills the "Ghostly Figure" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Middle Temple Murder: Review

Frank Spargo is a young journalist who has just finished his shift as dawn breaks across London and plans to make his way home for breakfast and a good, long sleep. As he passes Middle Temple Lane, home to various barristers and the like, he notices Driscoll, a policeman of his acquaintance, looking about him and signalling to another policeman nearby. Sensing a possible story he approaches Driscoll to find out what's up.

A porter has found the body of an elderly man on the steps leading to one of the chambers in the Middle Temple. Spargo hooks up with Detective Sergeant Rathbury who arrives to take charge of the case and they soon find that there is nothing at all on the man to identify him.The only lead is a piece of paper that had slipped into the lining of a pocket and which has the name and address of a young barrister, Ronald Breton. Spargo has recently made the barrister's acquaintance through a newspaper article. Breton, when questioned, claims no knowledge of the man but he becomes interested in the case and he, Spargo, and Rathbury work--sometimes in tandem and sometimes along separate lines--towards the solution.

I first read The Middle Temple Murder (1919) by J. S. Fletcher over twenty-five years ago (back before I did any sort of review on what I read) and when the library finally purged its copy and put it up for sale in its Friends of the Library Used Bookstore I snatched it up so I could own it and read it again. Fortunately, from the mystery-puzzle stand-point, I had very little memory of the story and was able to enjoy myself without knowing the solution beforehand. Fletcher provides us with a very nice early detective novel. His policeman is neither antagonistic towards the amateur detective work of Spargo nor is Rathbury incompetent (as so many fictional policemen are portrayed). Each of the men follow up the clues they find and pool their knowledge. If anyone keeps information up their sleeves, it's Spargo--all in the effort to get a big scoop.

This is a fast-moving story which follows our investigators from one adventure to the next, from one witness to another. There are several features that would become standard in mystery stories--mysterious man from the past killed for unknown reasons, wealthy man of business with mysterious background, the missing child--but here, because it is such an early example, they seem fresh. The main disappointment I have with the book is the denouement. The reveal of the culprit at the end comes much too quickly and with too little explanation. One can just see the motive for the murder, but Fletcher gives the wrap-up very little effort. It's as if he said--"Well, X did it. That's all you need to know." Other than the ending, this is a fine example of an early mystery story and, from what I read on the internet, one of Fletcher's better efforts.  ★★ (I gave it five stars previously.)

This fulfills the "Hand Holding Weapon" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

TNB: More Sayers and Children

The Tuesday Night Bloggers have returned from our August summer holiday and the topic for September is, appropriately enough, Children in Crime. As the little darlings go back to school, we are turning our thoughts to child detectives and even perhaps the evil that lurks behind the innocent faces of childish criminals. If you'd like to join us for discussion of the youngsters in the mystery genre--particularly Golden Age youngsters, but all are welcome--then please stop in every Tuesday as we gather at Kate's place over at crossexamingcrime. Pull up a chair and have a scone or two...

Last week, Kate took a look at "Talboys," Dorothy L. Sayers's short story which features Lord Peter Wimsey and his son Bredon in the mystery of the missing peaches. For my final entry, I'm going to give Sayers another look--starting with the young Lord Peter in "A Tribute to Sherlock Holmes on the Occasion of his 100th Birthday" (from Sayers on Holmes: Essays & Fiction on Sherlock Holmes) and then finishing up with "The Learned Adventure of the Dragon's Head" in which Lord Peter's small nephew Viscount St. George appears and Lord Peter uses clues from a rare book to find a treasure.
The young Lord Peter, who was "rising eight at the time," has what would seem to be his first mysterious adventure when the family cat, a black kitten named Seneca, disappears from the night-nursery. Not only is this Peter's first mystery--but it is an impossible crime of sorts. The children were at their breakfast in the play-room (which held the only entrance to nursery) and they noticed that Seneca had not come out of the nursery to join them for a saucer of milk. 

"Nobody had entered or left the night-nursery except the maid, who affirmed that she had not seen him, although she had done the room very thoroughly. He could not have got out the window, which was securely wired over. The whole house was searched in vain. The grown-ups, in their casual way, said 'He'll turn up all right'; but we children suspected that the maid (who disliked cats) of kidnapping and murder." 

Alarmed for the safety of the kitten, he takes himself off to the celebrated detective's lodgings and presents him with the problem of the missing kitten. After listening to Wimsey's description of the room and the morning's activities, Holmes tells his young client precisely where to look for the lost Seneca. Dr. Watson accompanies him home and Lord Peter finds the cat just where Holmes said he would be. 

There isn't, of course a great deal of detecting going on in this story--and what little is done is done by Sherlock Holmes. But it is a lovely little story and it does show the young Lord Peter with the sense to consult an expert. It also highlights the sensitivity of Wimsey (which will later be his undoing in the war and when helping to send murderers to the hangman) when he bursts into "unmanly tears" at the thought of poor Seneca's predicament.

The ten-year-old Viscount St. George, Pickled Gherkins to his uncle, has a much more exciting time of it when he winds up visiting Lord Peter due to an outbreak of measles at his boarding school and parents who are absent from England. Gherkins accompanies his uncle to a bookseller where he discovers a copy of Cosmographia with lovely illustrations of "a funny man...with a great long nose and ears and a tail and dogs' heads all over his body" and "a man being chopped up in little bits," and other fun, gruesome things to delight a boy's imagination. He decides to buy the book with his pocket money and no sooner gets it home to Wimsey's Picadilly flat then a man comes and wants to buy the book from him. He doesn't want to give the book up and Wimsey has his suspicions about the man's motives and they send Mr. Wilberforce Pope away empty-handed.

Three days later, the viscount experiences "the most glorious and soul-satisfying night that ever a boy experienced. He was almost too excited to eat the [breakfast] kidneys and bacon placed before him [the next morning] by Bunter, whose usual impeccable manner was not in the least impaired by a rapidly swelling and blackening eye." The excitement was due entirely to the presence of burglars in the library--most obviously after the viscount's precious book. And after an exhilarating night catching burglars and seeing his uncle produce a genuine automatic pistol from his handkerchief drawer, Gherkins elevates Lord Peter from the status of "Quite Decent Uncle to that of Glorified Uncle." But the fun isn't over. The Glorified Uncle discovers something in the viscount's book that leads them to an honest-to-goodness buried treasure. 

Lord Peter claims that he's no good with children--that no nurse anywhere would be delighted with his "way with children." But he really is quite good with them. He treats them as intelligent young people who can be relied on to do their part in whatever adventure comes along. Young Gerald Wimsey is allowed equal shares in all excitement and even gets to relieve one of the burglars of his pistol. Lord Peter's nephew quickly recognizes how his uncle catches Mr. Pope out on lies he has told about the book and generally shows himself to be a worthy assistant in the detecting business.

Next month, in honor of Halloween, we will turn our attention to "Crime in Costume." All mysteries that feature costume/disguise/appearance misdirection EXCEPT theatrical mysteries (we're saving that for another time) are fair game.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Death in the Andamans: Review

Death in the Andamans (1960) by M. M. Kaye finds Caroline "Copper" Randal on one of the enchanting Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean in time for the Christmas holidays. She recently has come into a legacy which allows her to take advantage of the standing invitation from her friend Valerie Masson. Valerie is the stepdaughter of the Islands' Chief Commissioner and wants Copper to share the beautiful island locale. At first, the only thing marring this island paradise is presence of Ruby Stock--a married woman, but one who still fancies herself a femme fatale and who forces the attention of every available male to herself. Unfortunately for Copper, this includes Nick Tarrent, the dashing young officer from the Sapphire, docked in the harbor.

But soon there is a bigger problem. A hurricane blows in just as the house guests gathered at Government House are finishing a picnic up on Mount Harriet. The party consists of Copper, Valerie, Valerie's fiance, Charles, Nick and his fellow officer Dan Harcourt, Ruby and her husband Leonard Stock, Rosamund & Ronnie Purvis, John Shilto and his brother Ferrers, Miss Amabel Withers and her on-again/off-again boyfriend George Beamish, the Rector and Mrs. Dobbie, and Deputy Commissioner Albert Hurridge. There is tension in the air--and not all of it is because of the threatening weather. Half the party returns by car and the others are to return in boats. When the sea-faring half finally arrive--soaked and bedraggled because their boats were all swamped in the storm--they are missing Ferrers Shilto, presumed drowned. 

When Shilto's body washes up on shore, it is given a cursory going-over by the nurse and Dutt, the doctor's assistant (the doctor having been stranded off-island in the storm), and pronounced drowned. But Dan Harcourt has his doubts and vows to look at the body more closely himself. Then he turns up dead as well. There is a killer stalking the house party. Who is it? And what is the motive behind it all?

This is another solid mystery outing from M. M. Kaye using her own experiences to inform her novel. Kaye spent a bit of time on Ross, the island in question, just prior to the outbreak of World War II under circumstances very similar. When her party was caught on the island during a storm, it occurred to her what a nice place it would be for a murder--intensify the storm, knock out all communications, and strand a few important people (like doctors) off-island and you'd be all set. So, she did. The story is also up to her usual standard in terms of atmosphere and setting. The reader can definitely imagine the beauties of the island, settle back into the pre-war atmosphere, and then feel the building tensions as the storm approaches.

The mystery itself is presented with a light touch and the blend of romantic suspense is Kaye's forte. There are clues a-plenty and she does a fair job with a variation of the locked room/impossible crime motif. An enjoyable murder mystery with a good try at fair play plotting. There are a few details that are kept from the reader--but astute mystery fans should be able to piece it all together. ★★ and a half.

This counts for the "Country Scene" square on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Seventh Mourner: Review

Moss Magill, Sheriff of Notlaw, Colorado--population 415, if you count two unborn babies; elevation 8,997 feet), finds himself headed to Rowanmuir, Scotland (possibly the last place he ever expected to find his boots and ten gallon hat). His friend Hattie Orchard, a Scotswoman transplanted from the Highlands, has left him $100,000 in her will provided that he travels to her homeland to dispose of her ashes. He must meet up with her other heirs, caravan with them to tote her urn to Inverness, and then to bury her ashes on the top of Bein Biorach (a mountain). Magill is determined to refuse the responsibility and keep his boots safely in Colorado until he hears the rest of the terms of Hattie's will. Hattie left her money to charitable bequests and to several of her relatives and then to Moss and the grandson of the man who wanted to marry her. If the relatives, which includes her sister, her niece and nephew, and her husband's nephew refuse to accept the terms of the will or die, then their share of the inheritance primarily reverts to the charitable bequests...except for her sister Lizzie. Lizzie's $300,000 share would be split by the remaining relatives. It smells suspiciously like an invitation to murder by one or more of the legatees.

And then the Sheriff hears a story about Lizzie being tried for murder, found "Not Proven," and being sent monthly checks by Hattie--checks that have been cashed by a couple with whom Lizzie stays. Why did Hattie never mention her sister? Why doesn't Lizzie cash her own checks? Magill decides that there's too many questions that need answering to stay safely at home as he'd like. So, he packs his bags and takes Hattie on her final journey home to the highlands. Home to where murder and intrigue wait in the Scottish mountains. He may not be ready for what he finds there....and we're pretty sure the Scottish Highlands aren't ready for a western Sheriff. {"Were you in the fillums?"}

The Seventh Mourner (1958) by Dorothy Gardiner is an unusual mystery. The cover has a somewhat sombre, somewhat Gothic look--but the flavor is more comic than mysterious. Following Moss Magill through his adventures in Scotland and discovering the murderer in their midst is more fun than puzzling, more entertaining than mystifying. But it's good solid entertainment and if you are looking for light mystery fare, then this is just the thing. If you don't expect complex plotting and serious sleight-of-hand with clues, then you'll be ready to settle down for a pleasant afternoon's read. ★★ and a half.

This fulfills the "Tombstone" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Home to Roost: Review

Walter Haines will tell you that he has everything he could want. He's a mystery writer who has had substantial success and is now fairly well off. He has married a beautiful lady. They settle down to a nice married life in a snug little house with a secluded garden where they can enjoy each other's company. It's all lovely in the garden, in fact. Until Max Ryland, a self-assured and charismatic actor, comes along and steals his beloved wife, Laura, from him. If that wasn't bad enough, Ryland subsequently dumps Laura and creates a situation where it seems impossible for her to return to her husband. Not that Walter wouldn't take her back. He would--in a heartbeat. But she has been humiliated and has lost respect for the man who wouldn't fight for her when it counted.

So Walter has good reason to hate Max Ryland. And when the actor turns up stabbed to death in his cottage it wouldn't be unreasonable for the police to suspect the bitter husband or the woman he humiliated. But Walter has a iron-clad alibi with passport stamps and receipts to prove that he was safely in Portugal (nursing his broken heart and bruised feelings). The police soon find another bitter man who lost his love to the despicable homewrecker and take him in to "help the police with their inquiries." Imagine the surprise of Superintendent Maude (in charge of the case) when Walter calls him up and asks him to come to his house so he can confess to the murder. 

Who knew it would be so difficult to get the police to accept a confession of murder? Walter will have is work cut out for him to break his own alibi and convince the police that he really could have committed the crime in just the way he claims. But which story is true--the alibi or the confession? And if the former, why would an innocent man confess to a crime he didn't commit? Then the other man insists that Walter must be a lunatic and he confesses.

Home to Roost (1976) by Andrew Garve is a difficult novel for me to rate. Walter Haines is a very self-absorbed man at the beginning of the book. He is forced to realize (when it's too late) that he has treated his wife very cavalierly and taken her for granted. He isn't assertive enough to warn Ryland off when it might do some good and instead runs away from the situation--leaving the field to the other man. When Ryland is killed, we aren't sure if Walter's bitterness has accumulated and he really did devise an elaborate plan, complete with alibi. The plan he reveals to Superintendent Maude is typical of the convoluted machinations that might spring from the mind of a mystery author and, at first, seem wholly impractical. But when forced to prove that it could be true--Walter does manage to prove that it could have happened as he claims. It is also possible that he wants to prove, even if only hypothetically, that he could be a man of action and stand up to his rival. 

The story is far more concerned with the psychology of Walter Haines and how this affects the reader's interpretation of events than it is with any actual crime solving. That is what makes it difficult for me. I much prefer a straight crime novel, complete with clues and a nice tidy wrap-up at the end. Garve gives us no such thing. We think we know the truth at the end--but do we really?

I am sure that those who enjoy mysteries with a psychological bent will rate this higher. But ★★ for a solid story with not quite as much crime solving as I would prefer.

This fulfills the "Car/Truck" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

TNB--Children in Crime: Just a Girl Detective

The Tuesday Night Bloggers have returned from our August summer holiday and the topic for September is, appropriately enough, Children in Crime. As the little darlings go back to school, we are turning our thoughts to child detectives and even perhaps the evil that lurks behind the innocent faces of childish criminals. If you'd like to join us for discussion of the youngsters in the mystery genre--particularly Golden Age youngsters, but all are welcome--then please stop in every Tuesday as we gather at Kate's place over at crossexamingcrime. Pull up a chair and have a scone or two...

Today's entry is an expansion of an essay I wrote originally for Noah's October 8 Challenge last year in which I focused on girl detectives. Although not every girl detective mentioned is actually child-aged, each series when written was generally marketed to the 7 to 12 year old age range. These young women provided strong female characters that girls could relate to and perhaps dream of being like.

 My first acquaintance with the girl detective genre came, as I'm sure it did for many girls, with Nancy Drew when my mom passed her set of six Nancy books on to me. She was, in fact, my introduction to mysteries.  More than than that Nancy and her blue roadster stood for adventures.  My parents have always supported me no matter what.  They believe I can do anything I want--and made me believe it too and taught me that it never mattered that I was a girl.  Nancy was my first reinforcement of that idea in book-from.  She began her adventures at the age of 16 in 1930 and was independent and self-sufficient from the beginning. She was supported by a loving and interested father who had taught her to take care of herself.  When Nancy has a flat tire while out detecting in her roadster, she doesn't have to wait for some strong man to come along and change it for her. She sets to work on it herself. And she's prepared for the dangers of detective work as well. When Nancy first indicates that she wants to try and track down the missing will in The Secret of the Old Clock, Carson Drew doesn't tell her the job is too difficult or too dangerous for a girl.  He just tells her: "Detective work isn't always the safest occupation in which to engage. I happen to know that Richard Topham is an unpleasant man when crossed. If you actually succeed in learning anything which may help the Horner girls, you are certain to have the Tophams in your wool." He warns her of the dangers....but he doesn't warn her off. Throughout the series Nancy finds herself in tight spots and manages to work her way out of them.

Nancy was my mainstay in detective fiction for a long time. She was always on my Christmas wish list and I regularly spent my hard-earned allowance at the local used bookstore on editions of her stories that I didn't yet have. I worked my way through all 56 of the hardbacks and a few of the soft cover stories before leaving her behind for Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. But Nancy wasn't the only girl detective on my list.

Trixie Belden, whose first book was published in 1948, was in some ways a more realistic character for a middle-class girl to relate to. I might have wanted to be Nancy with her roadster and the ability to travel just about anywhere at the drop of a hat, but it was far easier to see myself as Trixie--the tomboyish girl with a quick temper. Nancy is well-to-do and has a wealthy father to support her in all the travels she does--from ski lodges to Hawaii to Scotland to the jungles of Africa. Trixie has to work hard at her chores to earn spending money and is often struggling with her schoolwork. Her trips are usually to visit family. She seems to face more of the ups and downs of teenage life than Nancy does--everything from squabbles with her brothers to dealing with her own insecurities. But the one thing she does share with Nancy is her knack for solving mysteries.

Trixie and Nancy were my girls growing up. Nancy was my ideal and Trixie represented a more realistic view of what I might be able to do if I wanted to set up a girl detective business of my own. But I abandoned them once I got started on Holmes and Poirot and Miss Marple and others. Then, just a few years ago, I found a first edition Judy Bolton story in an antique shop--and, on a whim, I bought The Voice in the Suitcase. That story reminded me of my early love for the girl detectives and I've been susceptible to picking up a few every now and then in recent trips to used book stores...including a second Judy Bolton story The Name on the Bracelet.

Created by Margaret Sutton in 1932, the Judy Bolton series seems at first glance to be very like Nancy Drew. Judy's dad is a doctor and Judy still has her mom and an older brother thrown in the mix. Her family is fairly well-to-do as Nancy's is. But for those who may think Nancy a bit too privileged (rich dad who let her go on all sorts of trips to ski lodges and what-not; her own little roadster; etc), Judy is a bit more down-to-earth. She is employed as a secretary to a local lawyer and has thoughts of marriage and a family--and, unlike most of her fellow girl detectives, actually does marry about half-way through the series.

Another fairly recent acquisition was Dorothy Dixon and the Double Cousin (1933). Dorothy is a lot like Nancy...but even more so, if that were possible. She's just your typical girl sleuth--you know, the kind of girl who can fly planes, pilot motor boats, throw a knife with deadly accuracy, and take the place of an almost-identical twin cousin at the drop of a hat (without ever having met the cousin before and, therefore, without having the first clue how said cousin behaves in day-to-day situations). Dorothy is a mere sixteen years old, but by the time Dorothy Dixon and the Double Cousin takes place, she already has three mysteries under her belt and the local Secret Service agent trusts her enough to take her into his confidence over top secret plans for a super spiffy, super dangerous formula for a brand new explosive. Much adventurous hi-jinks ensue and it all ends readers of these Girl Super Sleuth adventures know it will.

And, finally, my most recent discovery in the girl detective line: Vicki Barr. Unlike Nancy Drew whose mystery-related travels are more pleasure trips turned detective outings, Vicki Barr represents the career girl as girl detective as a side-line. Her detective radar goes off when passengers act strangely or locals in cities along her flight runs seem to be troubled. And her position as a stewardess gives her valid reasons for becoming involved in mysterious circumstances in so many different places. But like Nancy, she is independent and resourceful--representing the modern young woman in the post-war world. Her independence is particularly apparent in The Secret of Magnolia Manor (1949), the fourth book in the series where Paul Breaux uses Creole customs as an excuse to curb his niece's freedom. The story itself is on a par with other girl detective stories of the era. The clues are fairly obvious to those well-read in the mystery genre (and we wonder why they aren't so obvious to those involved in the story), but it is good clean fun with little violence and no murders. Another series that I'm quite certain I would have enjoyed thoroughly when I was in my Nancy Drew phase...and even now I enjoyed the story and the introduction to the New Orleans of the late 1940s  

That's one of the good things about these mysteries. Vicki and Dorothy (or Nancy or Trixie or Judy....) always gets their man--or woman as the case may be. Good triumphs and the criminal is always caught. The clues all come together and it makes for a nice happy wrap-up. They make for very comfortable, feel-good reading...especially for those of us looking for a nice nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Beasley's Christmas Party: Review

Beasley's Christmas Party (1909) by Booth Tarkington is a sweet tale of the Midwest. It opens by introducing us to a young man who has recently come to Wainwright to work on the Wainwright Morning Despatch as a cub reporter. He has high hopes of interviewing Mr. David Beasley, a well-known and well-respected local politician who may have the governorship in his sights. But Mr. Beasley is a quiet, retiring gentleman who doesn't care much for talking and doesn't interview well. Our reporter hero just happens to live next door to Beasley's residence and begins to notice some odd goings-on. Mr. Beasley talks to people who aren't there and holds athletic contests with invisible foes. What's happened to him--has he quietly gone off his rocker? And then Beasley arranges for a grand gala at his house for Christmas. When his political enemies get wind of it, they are determined to spy on the proceedings and make trouble for him among the townspeople. After all, what kind of man would hold such a gala and not invite any of his good neighbors? They're in for quite a surprise.

This is a very sweet and warmhearted story--just right for the Christmas season (yes, I'm a little early!). There is just a hint of mystery, but the story is primarily a romantic little slice of Midwestern life in the early 20th Century. Nice and short--it is a quick and enjoyable read. ★★★★

The Suicide Club & Other Stories: Review

The Suicide Club and Other Stories (1878) is a book of short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson. My edition (pictured) is comprised of a set of three stories which originate with events at a so-called Suicide Club and an additional two unrelated stories. The Suicide Club stories have a definite mystery bent--the reader is wondering if the scoundrel who runs the club will receive his comeuppance from our hero, Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his sidekick Colonel Geraldine. The other two may be described, at best, as adventure tales but with very little standard mystery. I had previously read the "Story of the the Young Man with the Cream Tarts," the first of the Suicide Club tales and I now heartily recommend all three. The remaining two stories are fairly solid--giving the entire collection a ★★ rating.

The Suicide Club--where murder and suicide is a game of chance! The club is comprised of a group of desperate men who long for death but can't bring themselves to commit suicide. Behind the club is a scoundrel who will allow them to join for forty pounds. Nightly they sit around the green baize card table and watch, fascinated, as the cards are dealt out.  For the man who receives the ace of spades--death awaits. And the man who receives the ace of clubs? He will be the murderer!

The "Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts" was bang on. Terrific, mood-setting descriptions and the denouement was perfect. And I love this quote: "There is every reason why I should not tell you my story. Perhaps that is just the reason why I am going to do so." As well as: "My acquaintance with French was sufficient to enable me to squander money in Paris with almost the same facility as in London. In short, I am a person full of manly accomplishments." Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine are, as they are so often, roaming the streets and cafes of London in disguise--seeking amusement. While sitting in a cafe that night, they are accosted my a young man who asks if they will eat any of his cream tarts. If they don't, then he will eat them himself. 

The Prince suspects that there is more to this story than meets the eye and wins the young man's confidence. It seems that the man has come to the end of his rope. He has set out to squander all but his last 40 pounds--he's saving that to pay his entrance fee to a club for people who want to end it all but who don't have the courage to jump or pull the trigger themselves. He and his aide join the young man and discover the scoundrel behind the club. They will chase him down through two more short stories...but will justice prevail?

The remaining two stories "A Lodging for the Night" and "The Sire de Maletroit's Door" are interesting and represent Stevenson's more adventurous and romantic sides than the mysterious. Of the two, I much prefer the latter. "Lodging" follows the adventures of Francis Villon, poet and thief, who finds himself robbed and left in the presence of a dead man. He goes in search of lodging and is welcomed by an elderly man who gives him a bit of a sermon with his dinner. I honestly didn't find the ending to be very satisfying, especially given the overall tone of the story. "The Sire de Maletroit's Door" centers on a fun-loving cavalier who stays out past curfew one night and finds himself followed by the night watch. Rather than face the music, he slips through an unlocked door to avoid a reprimand. He has no idea that the unsecured door was a trap designed to trap the lover of a young woman who lives in the house with her uncle. Uncle takes a severe view of her dalliance, doesn't believe that the cavalier isn't the man in question, and calmly tells him that if he doesn't agree to wed the girl then he will be killed before morning. Will the cavalier take honor to the extreme--dying rather than forcing an unknown and unwanted husband on a lady whose heart belongs to another?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Christie Firsts: Where to Start?

Kate over at  Cross Examining Crime has decided to mark Dame Agatha Christie's 126th birthday with a list of suggestions for first-time Christie readers. She has also issued a challenge to her fellow bloggers to do the same. The challenge in full? To go out on a limb and suggest the best novels to introduce readers to Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, Tommy & Tuppence Beresford, and Superintendent Battle, as well as the best introduction to Christie's stand-alone novels and thrillers. She would love to know which novels you would recommend and if you are twitter adept (which, like Kate, does not include me) the hastag is #ChristieFirsts

I'm going to offer up two suggestions. First is "Christie the Bev Way"--as near as I can recall this will be the route to a life-long Christie (and mystery) addiction using the books that first introduced me to these various characters and types of books. Except for Jane Marple. I do not suggest that anybody get their first taste of Miss Marple via At Bertram's Hotel (explanation to follow)  and I will suggest the second book that I read with our favorite spinster. 

1. Hercule Poirot: My first introduction to the great detective with the egg-shaped head and the fabulous moustaches was when I bought a two-book set of Christie novels at our elementary school's book fair. Up till then, my mystery diet had pretty much consisted of Nancy Drew and I had never hear of Agatha Christie before--but the synopses really grabbed me...especially Murder on the Orient Express. I was so glad that this baffling murder with all those interesting suspects and the exotic train stuck in the snowbank was my first taste of Christie. I loved the interviews with the passengers and the finding of the clues--both real and false. I was hooked. 

2. Miss Jane Marple: Now, it was a very good thing that At Bertram's Hotel wasn't the very first book that I read. As an elementary school child, I just did not get it at all. And my dim memory of reading it was that I was really hazy on what the real crime was about. All that feeling of nostalgia went right over my head. Fortunately, since I had already read MotOE, I knew that Christie could do much better. And she proved it when I read the next Miss Marple book to come my way: A Murder Is Announced. This was much better--small village atmosphere, a room full of suspects, and Miss Marple noticing all things that the police missed. I have always been impressed with the twist--even all these years later when I already know who did it.

3. Tommy & Tuppence Beresford: Despite there being fewer of these, I've always had a soft spot for these two adventurers. It all began with Partners in Crime, the short story collection. These stories where Tommy & Tuppence take over a detective agency and proceed to solve mysteries in the style of (or at least with reference to) various great detectives delighted me.

4. Superintendent Battle: My first introduction to the good superintendent was in Murder Is Easy. But this is more of a cameo appearance and shouldn't really count. My first real experience with Battle was in The Seven Dials Mystery and I was fascinated with him, "Bundle" Brent, and the secret society involved in the mystery.

5. Stand Alone: The first book I read without one of Christie's regularly featured detectives was Ten Little Indians--my library still had an edition with that title rather than And Then There Were None. That book knocked me for a loop. It was actually the first book I read by Christie that didn't feature either Poirot or Miss Marple. I was just a youngster, so I had no idea she had done so many different things. So, that threw me off-stride. And then....when I got to the end and THAT solution. Wow. If I hadn't already been sold on Christie, that book would have done it. And I have introduced several friends who had never read a Christie book before to the author's works using this very book. It hasn't failed to reel them in yet. So--when I'm suggesting just one book to never-read-Christie before folks, this is THE book.

6. Thriller: They Came to Baghdad was the first. I have to admit, thrillers and espionage novels have never been a big draw for me, but Christie does tend to have fairly engaging heroines which help. I'm not over the moon on this one, but, as I point out, this path did keep me headed on the detective-genre journey that Nancy Drew started on.

And that's it....Wait a minute! What about Colonel Race? My first experience with him was Death on the Nile and that's a book that I certainly would recommend highly to any first-time Christie readers. Exotic locale, closed-setting, interesting wrap-up--it's all there. I really like Colonel Race here helping out Poirot--and wish he'd appeared more often. Of course, it's possible I'm also heavily influenced by the fact that David Niven played him in the 1978 film (I adore David Niven).

My alternate suggestion for those detectives who appear more than once? Start with the earliest appearance of each. Whenever possible I do like to read series characters/stories in order. It's nice to see how characters might change over the course of the series. Not that Christie's detectives change a great deal, but I do think there are slight changes over time. One of these days I plan on rereading all of Christie in the order of publication. When I have time for an intense reread....