Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Silence Observed: Review

Silence Observed (1961) is the 19th entry in Michael Innes's Sir John Appleby series. Sir John has risen to the highest echelons of Scotland Yard and is concerned with purely administrative duties. But that doesn't prevent him from being pulled into an active role in the murder of a rare books seller. It all begins innocently enough in Sir John's club (whose motto makes up the title) when two of his friends approach him over "something that is just up [his] street." Charles Gribble produces a sheaf of papers--all forgeries of works purported to be by George Meredith. Gribble isn't complaining about the forgeries. No, indeed. It seems that he has been trying to corner the market on famous forgeries and he's quite gleeful about his purchase. Until he holds one of the sheets up to the light (to point out the cleverness of the forger's attention to detail) and he discovers that somebody has produced a forgery of a forgery. He's still not looking to prosecute, however, he's just going to talk to his "book man" and find out more about the providence of the papers.

Next up, is Sir Gabriel Gulliver, a renowned art expert, who tells Sir John of an odd incident involving an unknown Rembrandt. One of the services Sir Gabriel offers through his art gallery is free inspection of family heirlooms to see if someone has a treasure hiding among their pictures. A beautiful young woman arrives with a painting under her arm and both Sir Gabriel and his assistant, an athletic young art expert, immediately recognize the master strokes of Rembrandt. They try to get the woman to leave the painting for and official indepth evaluation, but she isn't having any. She wraps up the painting and leaves them. Sir Gabriel was intrigued enough to break tradition and try to contact the woman--but he finds that she has given a false name and a fictitious address.

Sir John doesn't see how he can justify any sort of investigation into the two incidents, but his instincts tell him that something is definitely afoot. He's proven right when Gribble's "book man" is shot to death and Sir Gabriel's young assistant is found standing over the body with a gun in his hand. Sir John takes on first-hand direction of the investigation when he discovers that the young art expert was the missing guest at the dinner part Lady Appleby had given that evening. There are just too many links to too many of Sir John's acquaintances for him to stay out of it. When he finds a scrap of a painting which shows only a strikingly familiar eye, it looks like a huge forgery operation is in play. He fully enjoys being back in the hunt and eagerly follows the clues...until his investigations get a little too close to the source and the killer decides to use Lady Appleby as a shield to ensure his/her escape.

This is an unusual police procedural--not that this should surprise regular readers of Innes. He does tend to do things a little differently. We follow Sir John around as he investigates, but he really is not following procedure much. He keeps what he finds close to his chest and doesn't share it with his lead detective inspector at all. Fortunately, for the reader, we are privy to everything he finds and can make the connections necessary to come to the same conclusion (if we're paying close enough attention). Poor Inspector Parker only knows what happens in the few witness interviews that Sir John holds while he's present. 

I did enjoy the way Innes works the forgery theme throughout the book and I just generally enjoy the character of Sir John even though he's a bit eccentric at times. An enjoyable, if different police procedural. ★★ and a half.

This counts for the "Skull" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Challenge Complete: Wild Goose Chase

I actually completed  Bruce's Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017 a couple of books ago, but this month has been challenging in a completely different way--I've had the most difficult time keeping up with my reviews and blog postings. But I'm here to announce that I've finished this fun, category-based challenge. I really enjoyed his Title Fight Challenge last year and finding books to fulfill this one proved to be just as enjoyable. I hope he comes up with another nifty category for 2018.
Here are this year's categories and the titles (with reviews) which I read for each one:
1. A book with a word of phrase relating to wildness in the title – any interpretation of the word “wild” is acceptable (eg: The Call of the Wild, Angry Aztecs, Crazy for You; An Untamed State)
A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hanson (2/18/17)

2. A book with a species of bird (or the word “bird”) in the title: (eg: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Thorn Birds, Turkey: A Modern History)
The Thursday Turkey Murders by Craig Rice (2/13/17)
3. A book with an exotic or far-flung location in the title – fantasy and mythical locations are acceptable (eg: Paradise Lost, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Atlantis Rising)
Battle on Venus by William F. Temple (1/7/17)

4.  A book with an object you might hunt for in the title (eg: Treasure Island, One for the Money, The History of Love, Dreams from my Father, A Monster Calls, All the Answers)
Zadok's Treasure by Margot Arnold (2/22/17)

5. A book with a synonym for chase in the title (or its derivatives: chasing, chased, etc) (eg: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Follow the River, Man’s Search for Meaning, The Night Stalker)
Search for a Scientist by Charles Leonard (2/24/17)

6.  A book with a means of transport in the title (eg: If I Built a CarWalk Two Moons, The Girl on the Train) 
The Body Missed the Boat by Jack Iams (3/6/17)

7.  A book with an object you might take on a search or hunt in the title (eg: The Golden Compass, The Map to Everywhere, Water for Elephants, Team of Rivals )
Dread & Water by Douglas Clark (3/15/17)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Fit to Kill: Review

Have you ever wanted to take a graduate course on solving murders? Hans C. Owen offers you the chance with his 1937 murder mystery Fit to Kill. Set at an unnamed (but very Harvard-like) Eastern university, Professor Percival Trout sets out to teach Sergeant Salvadore "Sally" Cusani--and the reader--a thing or two about the finer points of ratiocination.

Judge Albert Somers comes to "Tap Day" at the university to watch (with pride) as his son is preparing to take part in the the annual tradition by which juniors are chosen (tapped out) for Senior Clubs and Honor Societies. He stands at Bob Somers's window overlooking the courtyard where the ceremony takes place and periodically waves encouragement to his son below. Just moments before Bob is tapped for the highest honor, he glances up and is saddened to see that his father is gone. "He's disappointed and has given it up," he thinks to himself. But when he and Tom Gregory, the senior who taps him as top man for Hammer and Coffin (the oldest of the societies), go to his room to share the news, they find that disappointment wasn't the cause for the judge's disappearance--someone has taken advantage of the fireworks being shot off in random celebration and shot Bob's father.

Sally Cusani arrives at the scene to find several people already on the spot--from Bob and Tom to Dean Mather, an old friend of the Judge's, to President (of the College) Donavan and Professor Percival Trout. Trout has apparently been helpful in mysterious matters before and Sally is eager for his help. Between the two of them, they discover several mysterious items in need of explanation. These include the odd number of hats which have gone in and out of the room, the significance of the chipped brick in the fireplace, the bullet lodged in the leather chair, the missing second bullet, and the apparent murder weapon found in the corpse's trouser pocket. More brutal murders follow and the indications are that they have all been perpetrated by the same hand even though the deaths are  different--death by shooting and two deaths by bludgeoning. It will take some clever ratiocination on the part of both Sally and the professor to bring this murderer to justice.

This short novel looked to tick off quite a few boxes in my mystery lover's wish list--vintage mystery, academic mystery, humor, quirky characters. And, for the most part, it was an enjoyable read. The interactions between Sally and the rest of the characters, particularly Professor Trout, are quite fun. The professor gets to lecture a bit on detection without overdoing it and there is plenty of action to move the story along. Just a couple of items prevent this from the four- or five-star range. The racial and social stereotyping (particularly of Italians this time round) is one difficulty for the modern reader. It's not blatantly derogatory, but it does detract from the enjoyment. The other difficulty is the solution. Without giving too much away, I think I can safely say that readers well-acquainted with the tropes of detective fiction will recognize the use of a common solution. The breezy style and humor of the author makes the acceptance of such a common solution a little easier. ★★ for a solid, entertaining read.

[Finished on 3/22/17] **************
This counts for the "Graveyard" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card as well as my second entry in Rich's 1937 edition of the Crimes of the Century over at Past Offences. If you've got a 1937 mystery on tap, hurry and join us before March ends!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Green Turtle Mystery

I read The Green Turtle Mystery (1944) by Ellery Queen, Jr. long ago and far away (while still in elementary school). I'm quite sure that I picked it out from the school library entirely based on the fact that I had been glued to the television every Sunday when the Ellery Queen series was on. I didn't know then (and it wouldn't have mattered to me, anyway) that Ellery Queen, Jr. was a house pseudonym and didn't really have much to do with the authors of the Ellery Queen novels--or the TV show, for that matter. 

When I found this lovely 1946 Comet digest edition of the book last year at Half Price Books, I decided I needed it--and that I would need to re-visit the story since I had very little recollection of it. This mystery, aimed at children, is really quite enjoyable. Djuna has been sent to the city to stay with Mrs. Silvernails, a friend of his guardian's, while Miss Annie recovers from an illness. While in the city, he makes friends with a newspaper boy named Benjamin Franklin and a reporter by the name of Socker Furlong. Socker is assigned to investigate a deserted house that is rumored to be haunted and to discover whether there's a newsworthy story to be told. Socker's main ambition in life is to do as little as possible in as leisurely a manner as possible and he asks the boys to just make sure the house really is deserted and then he'll just write up what he thinks he would have found because, after all, he "can write a much better story if I don't look at it."

But to their surprise, the boys discover that the house isn't empty. When they stop by there that evening, there are lights shining off and on all over the house. Djuna is brave enough to go right up to the door and knock--and it's opened by a frightened girl who tells him she lives there with her father and shuts the door in his face. The boys go and tell Socker, who is upset to find that his spectacular story won't be able to run and who insists on going to the house. It is now dark and no one answers the door. The girl and her father have disappeared. 

Ben's turtle Waterbury, who was with the boys on the first visit, also disappears into the house and the next time the boys go looking for him, they discover a Spanish-speaking parrot instead. But that's not the oddest thing going on in that house. Djuna will have a run-in with a man with a green feather in his hat, will meet a Secret Service agent, and he and Ben will narrowly escape being run down by a car before he manages to solve the mystery of the haunted house--and to help the Secret Service capture a couple of big-time crooks.

The mystery is pretty obvious--once all the elements are introduced--but all of the main characters from Djuna and Ben to Socker & his managing editor and the Secret Service Agent Sandy MacHatchet are engaging and well-drawn. Even Champ, Djuan's dog, who arrives mid-way through the story to help our heroes, has a distinct personality of his own. There is a great deal of gentle humor and a good atmosphere of thrilling adventure just right for young readers. ★★★★

[Finished on 3/19/17. Still playing catch-up.]
This fulfills the "green item" on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Trixie Belden & the Gatehouse Mystery: Review

Trixie Belden is one of the many young detectives who adventures I followed when I was young. My first taste of "girl detectives" was Nancy Drew and I read as many of those I could get my hands. When a new Nancy Drew mystery wasn't available, I cast about for others.Trixie, whose first book was published in 1948, was in many 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 and spends most of her time in her fictional hometown of Sleepyside-on-Hudson. Her trips are usually to visit her own family or friends or those of members of the Bobwhites (a club consisting of her brothers and friends). 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. 

In our many trips to Route 66, my husband & like to stop and the various flea markets and antique malls along the way. In just such a one last spring, I found the pictured 1951 edition of Trixie Belden & the Gatehouse Mystery by Julie Campbell and decided I needed to revisit the series. When I needed a book involving a building for a couple of my reading challenges, I decided I needed to read it this year.

The Gatehouse Mystery is the third in the Trixie Belden series. She has made friends with Honey Wheeler and she and her new friend have helped Jim Frayne solve a few mysteries regarding his heritage and inheritance and Honey acquired a new brother when her parents adopt Jim. It is now the end of summer vacation and while waiting for Trixie's brothers, Brian and Mart, to come home from their summer of serving as counselors at camp she and Honey decide to investigate the run-down gatehouse hidden on a corner of the Wheelers' property. They've barely entered the building before Trixie's six-year-old brother Bobby trips and skins his knee on something in the hard dirt floor. Upon closer inspection, what she thinks is just a pebble turns out to be a diamond. How did a shiny diamond wind up in the cobwebby abandoned building? 

Trixie begins to imagine jewel thieves fighting over their loot--with a diamond being lost in the shuffle. Is it possible that jewel thieves have chosen the small New York town as the perfect hiding place from authorities? There are clues to be found in the gatehouse including two sets of footprints--rubber soles and leather toes--as well as the question of a certain man's letter of recommendation. When a prowler sneaks into Honey's bedroom while she and Trixie are having a sleepover, Trixie is sure it's the jewel thief looking for the diamond which is now hidden a secret compartment of Honey's jewel box. When the boys come home from camp, they, along with Jim, help Trixie and Honey solve the mystery of the diamond in the gatehouse.

This was just as much fun to read as when I was young. It's really a pretty sophisticated mystery for young people--there's real danger for both Trixie and Jim and, although Trixie does jump to a few conclusions here and there, on the whole she makes deductions based on her observations and the clues at hand. A quite enjoyable walk down memory lane.

 [Finished on 3/16/17--still catching up on reviews.]
This fulfills the "Blonde" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Dread & Water: Review

Dread & Water (1976) is the seventh entry in Douglas Clark's police procedural series featuring Superintendent George Masters and Inspector Bill Green and their crack team of investigating officers. Each of these novels presents the team with unusual murders and/or circumstances to test their mettle. Death by diabetes, induced food poisoning, timed fires, gaseous arsenic poisoning and more are among the unusual cases Masters and company have tackled in my previous encounters with Clark's work. Clark worked full-time for a pharmaceutical company and he used knowledge gained in his work, both information about drugs themselves and medical conditions in general to inform his fictional crimes.

This case takes the team to the Pottersby Research Centre in Berkshire. Three young nuclear physicists--all from the same research team--have met their deaths while on weekend climbing trips. Each man was climbing what should have been relatively easy terrain for men of their experience, but all seemed to simply slip and fall. The first death was immediately ruled an accident. The second met a more intense scrutiny, but the doctor called in could find nothing suspicious. But when the third man falls and is taken to hospital--just barely hanging on to life, Master's team is sent to investigate what is most certainly going to be a third deadly accident. Their brief is to determine if these are just coincidences or if these accidents have been arranged.  

As they begin questioning scientists at the research facility, reviewing a home movie of one of the expeditions, and examining the equipment, they discover that each man used the same equipment pack--number six. There was also a fourth man (also from the same research team) who barely escaped a similar fall. Used to taking a quick nip of brandy when feeling out of sorts, he resorted to his flask when a bout of dizziness hit him and managed to settle himself enough to set his piton to hold him until the dizzy spell passed. That's too many coincidences for Masters and Green and they set out to hunt a murderer in earnest.

This is another excellent installment in this police procedural series. Clark gives us a good taste of the nitty-gritty of police routine (especially with interviews) without making the routine boring. It's always a pleasure to see Masters or Green interview a somewhat hostile or unconvinced witness and manage to put them in their place and/or maneuver them into revealing more than they planned. And, as I've mentioned before, I always enjoy the camaraderie and rapport of Masters' team. Even though younger member come and go (as they receive well-earned promotions), each new member fits in well without being a cookie-cutter underling just filling in a position. Each character is well-defined and brings something different to the mix. 

My one quibble with this case is that Masters comes upon the solution by accident. When he asks for information on a certain subject from the research librarian, she brings him an additional article just because she thinks it might be useful. Yes, of course that could happen in real life, but when a strong theme in the investigation has been "too many coincidences" it's interesting that "just by coincidence" the librarian brings Masters just the article he needs...which he didn't ask for. 

Beyond this minor point, the novel is highly enjoyable. I haven't tired of the Masters and Green team and it doesn't seem to matter that I'm reading these in an absolutely random manner (using them wherever they fit in the zillion challenges I do). For those who enjoy a good British police procedural and can manage to get their hands on any of the series, these come highly recommended.  ★★★★

[Finished reading 3/15/17--I'm playing catch-up on my reviews.]

This fulfills the "Rope" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Murder at Government House

Murder at Government House (1937) by Elspeth Huxley is the first of her Inspector Vachell stories set in the fictional colony of Chania (corresponding to Kenya, Africa). Vachell has come to Africa from Canada and has a much more forthright, almost brash manner than many of the colonials are used to. The inspector is called to investigate when Sir Malcolm MacLeod, Chania's Governor, is found strangled to death in his office in the late hours after a dinner party. It first looks like a locked room murder--guards at the doors, the connecting office door was locked, and Olivia Brandeis, a young anthropologist, was outside the Governor's window smoking and talking with another guest during the crucial time. And Vachell must discover how the murderer got in and out of the office without being seen. There are many among the guests who had a motive to kill the Governor--from those opposed to a proposed merger with a neighboring colony to ambitious government officials who could benefit from the Governor's removal.There are also many clues and red herrings for the inspector to sift through. Olivia Brandeis, having an alibi for the time of the murder, provides much-needed insight on her fellow dinner guests and brings Vachell an obscure, but important clue from a local witch doctor. An official-napping by plane and a high-speed chase--complete with an armed suspect and narrow escapes for our hero and heroine provide an exciting wrap-up.

Huxley gives her readers an interesting look at colonial life in Africa during the 1930s with an excellent look at the tensions experienced by the indigenous people trying to adapt to the ways of the British while experiencing the pull of their African heritage. There is also hints of the tensions breaking in the world with discussions of how the Japanese would love to get a foothold through a concession of some farmland. There is no overt references to the storms of war which are brewing, but the reader's historical hindsight can read between the lines. 

Vachell is a competent investigator (much more so than in Murder on Safari--my previous experience with Huxley's work), but still not a captivating character. I've been most remiss in my review-writing and, having finished six days ago, I find that he has left very little impression on me. Perhaps that is why Huxley's novels are not nearly as well-know as some of her contemporaries. This was an interesting look at colonial Africa and the mystery itself is fairly good--lots of suspects and clues to sift through. What keeps this from being top-shelf is Vachell's lack of, shall we say, flair and the fact that the solution depends on a rather obscure bit of knowledge that is not introduced to the reader until the inspector explains all. One might put the finger on the correct suspect with the available clues, but one would be hard-pressed to see how s/he could have done it without that key bit of knowledge. Not quite fair play. ★★ for a solid, entertaining read.

[Finished on 3/14/17]

This fulfills the "Telephone" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card and is my first entry in Rich's 1937 edition of the Crimes of the Century over at Past Offences. If you've got a 1937 mystery on tap, come join us!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Miss Christie Regrets: Review

In Miss Christie Regrets (2017) Guy Fraser-Sampson not only invokes the Queen of Crime with his title and a thread of investigation, but he manages an adroit bit of sleight-of-hand with a vital piece of cluing that would make Dame Agatha very proud indeed. This is the second novel in the Hampstead Murders series which makes great use of Golden Age detection--tropes as well as character and author references--but incorporates it all into contemporary settings and modern detection.

Miss Christie Regrets find Superintendent Simon Collison back in Hampstead. His career has been fast-tracked by his superiors, who would now like to see him jump into a Chief Superintendent's position at the Crime Academy. But Collison prefers action and investigation and would really like to get a bit more practical experience under his belt before moving any further up the ladder. After all, how can he possibly oversee Inspectors and Superintendents or oversee the training of future detectives if he has little field experience himself. So, he manages a compromise--he's to be a sort of roving reserve SIO (Senior Investigating Officer) and he asks for the next case to come along in Hampstead.

Hampstead has just had a murder, in fact. Inspector Tom Allen and his team are faced with death in a small local museum called Burgh House. Peter Howse, the manager who incidentally lived in the house before it was given over to the National Trust for use as museum, has been killed with the standard blunt instrument.--well, perhaps, not quite standard since it is a 1930s-style police truncheon. The house currently has a prominent exhibition of Constables and the truncheon (and other items) was in the process of being catalogued by Howse for a future exhibit.

Detective Sergeant Karen Willis and her beau Peter Collins are visiting the Constable exhibit when a police constable comes in to tell them there has been "a serious incident" and they won't be allowed to leave any time soon. Willis has been on leave, but immediately produces her identification and helps secure the scene until Allen and the rest of the team arrive. One would think having a detective on the spot would make solving this case easier...but as the investigation moves along it becomes apparent that it is going to be difficult to find evidence to bring the murder home to the perpetrator. Despite rules to the contrary, no one was manning the reception desk for several hours (all of which cover the crucial times) and anyone could have been the third set of footsteps heard by one of museum's "inhabitants" (a professor who has an office there). It could have been one of the husband and wife team who helps take care of the place or it could have been just about anyone who walked in off the street.

Meanwhile, another victim is found at a second iconic Hampstead location--the Isokon Building (Lawn Road Flats to modern folks) site of lodgings which were used for refugees during World War II and a one-time residence of Agatha Christie. This victim is decades old, possibly from the mid- to late-1930s. Collison is given charge of this case and, by chance, learns that the Isokon Building was the proposed subject of the upcoming exhibit at Burgh House. Further connections are forthcoming and Collison becomes convinced that these are not mere coincidences. Is it possible that solving a decades-old murder could also solve the murder of Peter Howse? Dame Agatha Christie just might hold the answer to that one...

I enjoyed Fraser-Sampson's first novel in the Hampstead Series (Death in Profile) very much. It was an excellent introduction to both the series and the series characters as well as a tribute to Golden Age detection in general and Dorothy L. Sayers in particular. When the title for this second one became known, it was obvious that this time a treat was in store for Agatha Christie fans. I was most eager to discover how he was going to tie Christie into a modern day mystery without forcing the issue. I'm happy to report that he has done the job in a very ingenious and believable manner. And, as mentioned above, I applaud him on his Agatha-like ability to parade a necessary clue around before this reader's eyes without my taking notice of it all. Well...at least not taking notice of it in a way that was at all helpful to putting the pieces together. A pleasing mystery with enough possible suspects to keep you guessing.

I was also pleased to see the progression of the characters and to see that Fraser-Sampson has built on the first novel--none of my minor quibbles listed in that review were present. I have thoroughly enjoyed this installment and am looking forward to the next. ★★★★ and a half (mostly because I want to leave room in case the next one is even more spectacular).

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Harry & Bess's Excellent Adventure: Review

I'm absolutely convinced that Matthew Algeo missed a great marketing tool by NOT titling his book Harry & Bess's Excellent Adventure (full stop). I mean, just look at that cover there on the right. Harry & Bess Truman look like they're ready for shenanigans, don't you think? Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip just sounds so normal and researched and boring.

So...Harry Truman was the last President who didn't leave the White House with a cargo of Secret Service to follow him around and protect him. He didn't have a pension. He was expected to lead a fairly public life and yet pay for it all himself. It cost him $10,000 in a single year for postage to respond to his official mail. When he was invited to Philadelphia in 1953 to give a speech regarding anticipated defense spending cuts (he wasn't in favor), he decided to load his car with traveling gear, bring along his co-pilot, Bess, and set off on a cross-country journey. 

Truman loved cars and he loved driving cars. He loved driving them fast--to Bess's dismay. She agreed to the road trip with one caveat: Harry must keep his speed under the limit. Harry hoped to make the trip as a civilian--no fanfare, just him and Bess enjoying a road trip vacation. Unfortunately, even in the years before instant internet access, his face was too well-known and the couple made few stops without having fellow diners or motel customers lined up for autographs--or to just shake the Ex-President's hand. But the Trumans were always gracious to those seeking a few minutes of their time and they soon learned that folks had started missing Harry almost the moment he walked out of the White House. He left office with a low approval rating (22%), but he was repeatedly asked along the way to think about running for another term. 

My husband and I enjoy taking road trips (especially on Route 66), so it was interesting to read about Harry Truman's love for the road. The best of the book is the first hand reports from families who hosted or met the Trumans along the way. Algeo attempted to recreate the journey and this might have been more effective if so many of his stops hadn't been derailed by restaurants and hotels having either been torn down completely or converted for other uses. Several of the stops could have been more interesting if he had planned better--he could have visited restaurants that were closed when he stopped by, for instance. Overall, a fairly interesting read which can be finished in a single sitting.  ★★

Thrilling Stories of the Railway: Review

My edition of Thrilling Stories of the Railway is an abridged audiobook with Benedict Cumberbatch reading a selection of Victor L. Whitechurch's short stories which feature Thorpe Hazell. Hazell is an eccentric gentleman detective of private means who considers himself primarily a railway enthusiast and collector of first editions. He is also a vegetarian and exercise fiend--often extolling the virtues of both to anyone who will sit still long enough to listen. The five short stories chosen for this audiobook were, I think, a fair sampling and give listeners a good idea of what kind of detective Hazell is. Info on the web would seem to indicate that Whitechurch wanted to make Hazell as different as possible from Sherlock Holmes. I would agree that he's different...but not that different. Holmes has a vast knowledge of various subjects from cigar ash to criminals to various sciences. Hazell has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything to do with railways. Holmes is eccentric in his habits--keeping tobacco in a slipper, sticking bills to his mantle with a knife, sometimes not eating or sleeping while he's on a case. Hazell has his bizarre exercises (whirling his arms about like a windmill--often in public) and his vegetarian lifestyle. The stories are also very Holmes-like because Hazell tends to keep clues to himself and spring the solution on us at the end.

Whitechurch does spin a good tale though and the BBC production dramatized the stories well. Benedict Cumberbatch is also an extraordinarily good reader. He brings each character to life and manages a broad range of accents and inflections to differentiate them. In The Affair of the German Dispatch-Box, Hazell must devise an ingenious plan to retrieve a highly sensitive document which has been stolen from the British government. It has found its way into the hands of the German attache and will be guarded on all sides on a train journey. He'll need to be quick to steal it back before it reaches the German Ambassador. In Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture, an entire train car containing valuable paintings disappears from a goods train. Not only disappears--but somehow it has been removed from the middle of the train while the train was in motion. Hazell's skills and knowledge is sorely needed. In The Affair of the Corridor Express, it is a multimillionaire's son who disappears from a moving train. Hazell retraces the journey to find the boy before it's too late. In The Stolen Necklace, a lady begs Hazell to help when the diamond necklace that she borrowed is stolen from her suitcase. Her greatest fear is that the man she loves (who is notoriously short of funds) is responsible. She hopes Hazell can prove her wrong when he retrieves the necklace. In The Affair of the Birmingham Bank,rumors have caused a run on a Midlands bank, so cash reserves are sent for by train. Bank officials suspect an old rival to be behind the rumors and Hazell must find a way to keep the funds safe from train robbery.

It is always a treat to listen to Benedict Cumberbatch and these stories made for enjoyable trips to and from work. ★★ and a half.

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

Challenge Complete: Pick Your Genre

This challenge is about diving into specific genres/sub genres you love or just want to check out in 2017. So, it was a design-it-yourself challenge. We had to read at least 12 books in our chosen genre. I decided to go for 12 books in the Golden Vintage Mystery genre (pre-1960).
Here's what I read:

1. Death at Swaythling Court by J. J. Connington [1926] (1/4/17)
2. Death of a Racehorse by John Creasey [1959] (1/7/17)
3. The Snake on 99 by Stewart Farrar [1958] (1/11/17)
4. The 24th Horse by Hugh Pentecost [1940](1/13/17)
5. The Unconcscious Witiness by R. Austin Freeman [1942] (1/28/17)
6. A Losing Game by Freeman Wills Crofts [1941] (1/31/17)
7. Death Takes a Bow by Frances & Richard Lockridge [1943] (2/5/17)
8. All for the Love of a Lady by Leslie Ford [1943/44] (2/9/17)
9. The Thursday Turkey Murders by Craig Rice [1943] (2/13/17)
10. Episode of the Wandering Knife by Mary Roberts Rinehart [1950] (2/17/17)
11. Search for a Scientist by Charles Leonard [1947] (2/24/17)
12. Death in the Wrong Room by Anthony Gilbert [1947] (2/27/17)
Commitment Completed on 2/27/17

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Body Missed the Boat: Review

In 1947, when The Body Missed the Boat  by Jack Iams was published, the story was set in Brazzaville in French Equatorial Africa [now the Republic of the Congo]. It features the employees at the American Consulate in Brazzaville from the titular Body in the person of the American Consul, Warren Mallory, to our narrator Freddy Benson, the American vice-consul; from Jimmy Beach, the American cipher clerk, to Ma'amselle Yvette Armenois, the luscious Gallic secretary who much prefers taking dictation on Freddy's knees to doing so under the eye of the rigid Mallory. Also in the mix are Hilary Judd, a clever and attractive British woman who has worked for the BBC; Phillippa Darrow, professional big game huntress who is missing one large gorilla by the name of Mama Bu-Bu; Larry Brune, the voice of Radio Brazzaville and although American thinks nothing of making the U.S. State Department look like fools; Hilda Weissman, a harrassed German Jewish refugee, & her devoted boyfriend Boris Chor, a hot-headed young zealot; and Dr. Gailbraith, an elderly missionary with an unrepentant heart when it comes to long-simmering grudges.

Warren Mallory was pretty much universally hated and/or despised. He managed to irritate not only his staff, but the British Consul and British subjects in the area as well as the native inhabitants of French Equatorial Africa. Nobody is really dismayed when he winds up poisoned. They're not even really surprised. But they are surprised that his body has been found stuffed in the cage of Phillipa Darrow's beloved gorilla Mama Bu-Bu. If all had gone according the the murderer's plans, the covered cage would have been loaded onto a boat and been far out to sea by the time Mallory's body was discovered. But the best-laid plans so often go awry and Phillipa Darrow comes to Freddy Benson--breathing fire. She's not the least bit upset that she's got a dead Consul on her hands, but she is incensed that someone let her gorilla loose. And what is Freddy going to do about that?! She's not particularly delighted that Freddy seems more interested in his boss's death than her missing primate. 

The French authorities are called in--in the person of Commissaire Anatole Mauclerc, the "Maigret of Africa." And the hunt is on...for a murderer, not a gorilla. Meanwhile, Freddy has reported the death to his superiors and their answer is not to elevate him to Consul, but to send Ethelbert Stone, Consul to Luanda, to serve as Acting Consul until the matter is cleared up. An FBI man by the name of Flannagan is also rushed out from the States to help Mauclerc clear things up. Flannagan is a big help--ill-prepared for the African climate and soon laid out flat by a good ol' blunt object to the head. It begins to look like someone really doesn't want this murder solved. But everyone contributes a clue here and a tidbit there until Larry Brune provides a surprise radio broadcast to help make all things clear.

This is a fun, light-hearted mystery that is very good for an evening's entertainment. Iams is brilliant at dialogue, characterization, and comedy with a light touch. The setting is unusual and so is the crime. The mystery is intriguing and I might have given the book a full four stars, or possibly more, if there had been more fair play in the solution. If there are clues pointing to the particulars of the whys and wherefores, then I completely missed them. But I don't think so. ★★ and a half.

This lovely Dell Mapback counts for the "Map/Chart" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Deal Me In Week #10: "P. Moran, Diamond-Hunter"

This is my first year participating in Jay's Deal Me In Challenge . In a nutshell--we line up 52 short stories for the year, we match those stories up to a card in a regular deck of card, and each week we shuffle our deck (of real cards) and draw a card from whatever remains in the deck. We're off and running for another week and this week I drew the two of hearts which corresponds to "P. Moran, Diamond-Hunter" by Percival Wilde (from Murder by Experts edited by Ellery Queen).
image credit
In the intro to this story, Dorothy B. Hughes, a well-known figure in the mystery field, tells us that true humor is "rare not only in the mystery writing but in literature as a whole." Humor is a somewhat individual quality particularly when written. While laughter may be contagious among an audience at a performance, readers are generally a solitary breed and if you don't quite see the humor then there isn't anyone else to jolly you along. Hughes finds this story "wondrously funny." I, on the other hand, found myself smiling a bit here and there--but definitely no lough out loud moments (which, to me, would indicate "wondrously funny"). What I did appreciate, as a die-hard mystery fan--particularly of Golden Age detectives, were the references to many of the classic detectives...from Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot to Lord Peter Wimsey and Ellery Queen. There are obvious references and subtle tips of the hat. There is also a clever mystery woven between the humor and the detective homages.

As the title indicates, P. (Peter) Moran is called upon to find some missing diamonds. A group of collectors have gathered for as club for a kind of monthly "show and tell" meeting. First editions of rare books, unique etchings, interesting paintings, priceless stampst...and eleven rose diamonds are all on display. During a short film (depicting one collector's trip to the Gulf to "collect" some fish), the diamonds disappear. A search of the room by those present does not find them. So Moran (who has been taking a detective correspondence course) is asked to try his hand. None of the collectors want to call in a real detective or the police because they don't want any publicity. Moran, with a little help from a brainy dame, manages to come up with the goods.

Anyone who has read the story should recognize the significance of the card image I chose for this one. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Deal Me In Week #9: "Human Interest Stuff"

This is my first year participating in Jay's Deal Me In Challenge . In a nutshell--we line up 52 short stories for the year, we match those stories up to a card in a regular deck of card, and each week we shuffle our deck (of real cards) and draw a card from whatever remains in the deck. Week #9 gave me the King of Diamonds and "Human Interest Stuff" by Brett Halliday (from Murder by Experts edited by Ellery Queen).

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For those of you who aren't quite as into mysteries as I am--if you're going to try a mystery short story, you really should give this one a try. Overshadowing the crime, the story is more about the relationship between the two central characters--our narrator and a man named Sam. The narrator, who has been an engineer responsible for the completion of a railroad line from St. Louis to Mexico, opens by responding to a question from a newspaper reporter. The reporter is looking for a human-interest angle on the execution (next day) of a man who was captured in Mexico for the murder of Bully Branson. The narrator promises to give the reporter an exlusive.

I'm the only person that can give you the real low-down. Me, and one other. But it's a cinch the other fellow isn't going to talk for publication.

What follows is the story of the hunter and the hunted--two men who have so much in common, but who are pitted against each other with the life of one and the integrity of the other at stake. Readers are pretty sure they know the outcome of this contest...be prepared for a surprise.

Jay, I thought you might be interested in these cards.

Our public library hosts an adult reading challenge each summer and winter--with prizes! This year's prize for completing the challenge (which I did) was a custom-made card deck with the library's logo on the back. Unfortunately, no cool artwork on the face of the cards.

Friday, March 3, 2017

February Wrap-Up and P.O.M. Award

I'm ready for 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 and handing out the coveted P.O.M. Award for the best mystery. So, here we go--let's take a look at January....

Total Books Read: 12
Total Pages: 2,526

Average Rating: 3.17 stars  
Top Rating: 5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 75%

Percentage by US Authors: 92%

Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  0%
Percentage Mystery:  92% 

Percentage Fiction: 92%
Percentage written 2000+: 17%
Percentage of Rereads: 0%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's eas
y to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}    
Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 5--one final post coming (17%)

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. January found me with seven mysteries--which is pretty good considering that I was participating in two science fiction reading events and was reading non-mystery books to wrap-up a challenge that ended in January. Here are the mysteries read:

Death Takes a Bow by Frances & Richard Lockridge (4 stars)

All for the Love of a Lady by Leslie Ford (3 stars) 
Spice Island Mystery by Betty Cavanna (3 stars) 
Deception Island by M. K. Lorens (2.5 stars) 
The Thursday Turkey Murders by Craig Rice (2.5 stars) 
Episode of the Wandering Knife by Mary Roberts Rinehart (3.5 stars) 
A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen [Fictional True Crime] (3 stars) 
Zadok's Treasure by Margot Arnold (4 stars) 
Search for a Scientist by Charles Leonard (4 stars) 
Death in the Wrong Room by Anthony Gilbert (3.5 stars)
The Blank Wall by Elixabeth Sanxay Holding [DNF]

I had another successful mystery-reading month with ten of my twelve logged as straight mystery fare and one fictionalized account of one of the most sensational murder trials of the early twentieth century. Not quite as many strong entries as last month, but there was still plenty of good entertainment to be had. The biggest disappointment was the Lorens book. I'm a sucker for an academic mystery and I had high hopes for Deception Island--unfortunately it didn't deliver. But three of the mystery novels garnered a four-star rating: Death Takes a Bow from the Lockridges; Zadok's Treasure by Margot Arnold; and Search for a Scientist by Charles Leonard (aka Mary Violet Heberden). 

The Lockridges always deliver an entertaining story and Death Takes a Bow is no different. They are really very good with dialogue and it's very entertaining to "listen" to the interactions of Jerry and Pam (and her nieces...Pam's way of thinking/talking seems to run in the family ) as well as Weigand and Mullins. I can't say that the mysteries are ever very taxing to the seasoned crime fiction reader, but they are always interesting and entertaining snapshots of New York during the time period. A great escape read. Unfortunately, Frances & Richard have taken home P.O.M. honors in the past...so let's move on to the next contestant.

Search for a Scientist features Paul Kilgerrin who is a particularly personable private eye/spy. He has wry sense of humor and, even though he's in a ruthless and rather amoral game, he has some very human moments with those he comes in contact with. He sometimes questions the game he's participating in, but never backs down from his commitment to the government. Not a true mystery--it's quite obvious who is behind the counterfeiting and how it connects to Kilgerrin's scientist. It's also fairly obvious who the scientist is once you meet all the characters--but there's plenty of action/adventure and it's definitely worth the read for the scenes where Kilgerrin hooks up with a master burglar for bit of late-night breaking and entering. At the end of the escapade, the expert expresses dismay that Kilgerring will not be staying much longer in France: "A pity. With training, I could make Monsieur into a really first-class professional."  

Which leaves us with this month's P.O.M. Award winner:

Zadok's Treasure provides the reader with a nearly complete package--high adventure and narrow escapes in the desert, a closed set of suspects, a classic investigation with our two amateur detectives following up clues to discover the culprit, and a dramatic wrap-up scene with Toby confronting the killer from his hospital bed. Arnold does a fair job of producing a fair play mystery although Toby does hold a couple of clues close to his chest in Holmesian fashion. For the most part, however, Arnold gives us an enjoyable academic cozy with well-developed characters--particularly her detectives Toby and Penny. For those of us who are well-acquainted with the pair, it was fun to see Penny riding to the rescue for once.