Thursday, August 31, 2017

Salt Is Leaving: Review

Dr. L. H. (Lionel Humphrey) Salt wants nothing more than to leave the depressing mill town of Birkden behind him. He's a middle-aged widower who likes whiskey, cigars, books, and music. He plans to leave for warmer climes. And he'll gladly do so as soon as he can find out what has happened to one of his patients. Noreen Wilks has been missing for three weeks and nobody seems particularly interested. The police assume she's just one of these flighty girls who has run off with a man or headed off to London for a more exciting life than what can be found in a backwater mill town. But Salt is pretty certain she must be dead--or nearly so. Because Noreen has a rare kidney disease that requires special medication and treatment and if she doesn't check in with a doctor on a regular basis, she will die.

Noreen isn't the only one missing though. Maggie Culworth's father, an unassuming owner of a bookshop, has disappeared as well. He's never gone away without telling Maggie and/or her mum and now he's packed a small suitcase and headed for Birkden. Maggie's determined to find out what has happened and when a letter leads her to the rooming house where Noreen Wilks used to live, she hears the name Dr. Salt mentioned in connection with the missing girl. Not sure how he fits in, Maggie goes to Salt for help finding her father. The doctor becomes convinced that there is more to the disappearances than meets the eye and assures Maggie, that while he believes Noreen to be dead--most likely from foul play--he is just as certain that her father is okay.

Their investigations lead them to reexamine the suicide of a young man who was in love with Noreen, run-ins with some local toughs who want nothing more than for Salt to leave town, and a wild evening at a local night spot which ends with Salt finding the final resting spot of his young patient. With everyone from the local police to the man who runs the town to small-time punks trying to run him out of town, Salt is even more determined to discover who wanted his patient dead. Of course, he does so and reunites Mr. Culworth with his worried family.

Dr. Salt is a rather enigmatic character--very self-assured and imposing, he certainly isn't going to be intimidated by the big shot who runs the town or the police or the local toughs who threaten him if refuses to leave; and yet he is very attentive to Maggie and ready to play the hero when they're in danger. I have to confess, I thought he was much older than a youngish middle-age, so when he and Maggie wind up together at the end I was a bit surprised. I think I got it into my head that the reason he was giving up his up practice was retirement (so I'm thinking he's in his sixties). Not that this had  much to do with my enjoyment of the novel--but it's part of my impressions.

Salt and Maggie make a good team and they work well together, so it's not surprising that they wind up a couple (once you figure out the age gap isn't that big). Their personalities play well off of each other as well. The rest of the characters are also well-drawn and the mystery plot is fairly good, though I do think the motives are a bit convoluted. Overall, an entertaining story by an author with a flair for characters and diaglogue. ★★ and a half.

[Finished on 8/22/17]
Published in 1966, this fulfills the Suitcase/Briefcase category on the Silver Scavenger Hunt card.

Every Second Thursday: Review

When the neurotic Vera Foster is found dead from a drug overdose with a picture of her beloved father (now deceased) under one hand and the last postcard he ever sent her under the other, it is assumed she has committed suicide while in a depressed state after a bout of sciatica. She had attempted suicide once before--immediately after her father's death--and it doesn't seem strange that she's tried again and succeeded.

The police investigation reveals no reason to suspect foul play. Vera's husband Gerald is polite and industrious--he worked his way up from the working class and turned his father-in-law's business into a very successful enterprise. There are no whispers of infidelity or strained relations. The doctor's evidence supports a verdict of suicide and the inquest finds that perfectly acceptable. Everybody, including Chief Inspector Kelsey, agrees that it's a very sad thing, but understandable from a woman such as Vera. Kelsey leaves the inquest ready to put the case behind him...until he observes a brief glance between Gerald Foster and the temporary companion-nurse Edith Jordan. An exchanged half-smile, a tiny nod from her, and a small gesture of success from him--it's all over in a flash and then they're back to calm and dignified composure. But once he sees it, Kelsey tells his Sergeant wasn't suicide. I'll take my dying oath on that. they pulled it off between them. Foster and Edith Jordan. It was murder.

And he sets off to prove it. He'll have a devil of a time with it. The case is closed. He has no official sanction to ask anyone questions. But he and Sergeant Lambert squeeze in the time around their other cases to investigate. Kelsey soon realizes that there were a lot of questions that weren't asked simply because it looked so obviously like suicide. Kesley and Lambert slowly build a case only to find it falling apart in their hands...until a chance encounter breaks things wide open.

An entertaining read. Not a classic whodunnit--we know who the culprits are from the beginning, but the real suspense lies in watching Kelsey and Lambert try to prove what the Inspector knows to be true. It looks for all the world like the Foster and Jordan have put together the perfect little murder and the officers have their work cut out for them to find any connections (previous to the nurse/companion being hired). There's no love interest, no breath of scandal to connect the two. Emma Page (pen name for British author Honoria O’Mahony Tirbutt) has put together an interesting character study of not only the villains, but the investigating officers and the supporting characters. ★★

[Finished on 8/20/17]

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

Monday, August 28, 2017

What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!: Review

I hadn't read What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! (1957; APA: 4.50 From Padddington) since I went on my first Agatha Christie binge in late elementary school. I read everything the Wabash Carnegie Library had by Christie. Since then, I've watched all sorts of filmed versions of the story from Joan Hickson's perfect Miss Marple to Geraldine McEwan's okay-but-not-quite-right version to Margaret Rutherford's comic relief, much too energetic, steal-the-murder-witness-role-and-tack-it-on-to-my-role, and who the heck is Mr. Stringer (other than the star's husband) anyway Marple. [Don't get me wrong--I enjoy the Rutherford movies, but for what they are--which isn't a Christie-style work but mystery-comedies].

Christie's original story finds Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy on her way by train to visit her dear friend Jane Marple. At one point in the journey, her train comes along side another on a parallel track and a blind flips up just in time for her to witness a murder. A man with his back to Mrs. McGillicuddy is strangling a blonde woman in a fur coat. She reports what she has seen to a ticket collector and then later pours out her story to Miss Marple. But there is no evidence of the murder--no body was found on the train when it was searched. No body was found along the tracks. No one has reported a missing passenger.  

Miss Marple and Mrs. McGillicuddy do a bit of investigation using maps and train journeys to figure out where the body could have been shoved off the train and either not be found in the official search or have been collected and removed by person or persons unknown. They fasten on a spot adjoining the grounds surrounding Rutherford Hall which belongs to the Crackenthorpe family. The next thing on the agenda is to find a way to scout out the property and institute a search for the woman's body. Of course, Miss Marple (Margaret Rutherford's portrayal notwithstanding) isn't up to traipsing energetically about and she's afraid they'll have to give things up--when she suddenly remembers Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a young, exclusive, private housekeeper of Miss Marple's acquaintance. 

Lucy is intrigued by Miss Marple's plan for her to apply as housekeeper/help to the Crackenthorpes (whose cantankerous patriarch, Luther, makes it difficult to keep extra help) and stating that she wants the job in order to be near her ailing "aunt." Lucy goes undercover--managing to provide her usual top-notch housekeeping and cooking services as well as tracking down various clues (a bit of pale fur and compact) that lead her to a grisly discovery in one of the outbuildings. The placement of the body suggests that somebody who knows Rutherford Hall well is responsible...but would that be Cedric Crackenthorpe, the lusty, artistic son who lives on an island and says he has no use for women? Or perhaps Harold Crackenthorpe, the City gentleman whose affairs may not withstand close scrutiny? Or Alfred Crackenthorpe who has been mixed up in various shady deals and who has just managed to escape the heavy hand of the far. Or  Bryan Eastley, the widower son-in-law who doesn't act nearly as grown up as his ex-fighter pilot medals would indicate. Of course, there's also Dr. Quimper who's always hanging about--tending to Luther Crackenthorpe and keeping a benevolent eye on Emma Crackenthorpe, Luther's devoted daughter cum nursemaid/companion. 

But who is this unidentified woman who has been unceremoniously dumped in a sarcophagus stored amongst Luther's collection in the outbuilding? Is she the French wife of the eldest Crackenthorpe son Edmund? Edmund died in the Great War and had written of a woman he met and planned to marry. The family always thought he had died before tying the knot, but a recent letter purporting to be from the Frenchwoman Martine with claims of a marriage and an announced intention to visit Edmund's home has them wondering. There's also a missing ballerina who fits the description of the dead woman, but what would a ballerina have to do with the Crackenthorpes? It's all a muddle and two more deaths will follow--but with Lucy acting as her eyes and ears, Miss Marple is able to see her way to the solution and hand the murderer over to Inspector Craddock before s/he can chalk up any more victims.

Although this book is not one that I usually think of when trying to come up with a "Top Ten Christie List," it is a delight for various reasons--mostly to do with the characterizations. The relations between the Crackenthorpes tops out the list. Christie manages (in a very short novel) to imbue each of the Crackenthorpes with distinct personalities highlighted through conversations, their interviews with the police, and their reactions to the events surrounding the murder. The two boys (Crackenthorpe's grandson, Alexander, and his friend) also make things interesting as they try to play detectives and discover clues on their own.  And, of course, Lucy Eyelesbarrow really steals the show with her detective work and the way she manages the household. 

The other item that I really enjoyed was the way Miss Marple traps the murderer. That final scene is really quite well-done and is more interesting than some of these denouement scenes where we gather all the suspects together, show how each one could have done it, and then, finally, point the accusing finger at the real villain. She stage-manages it perfectly so that Mrs. McGillicuddy can exclaim "That's the murderer!" in grand dramatic form. ★★

[Finished on 8/18/17]

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Best Max Carrados Detective Stories: Review

Max Carrados is a blind detective who owes his ability to solve mysteries to the honing of his other senses. He relies on his profound senses of hearing, smell, and touch to aid him in "seeing" what others miss. His abilities do tend towards the super-power side of things (especially his supposed ability to "read" print if it has made enough of an impression on the page and the font is large enough. But the stories are interesting enough and I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for them. As with all short story collections, the Best Max Carrados Detective Stories has a mixed bag of proficiency--giving the collection ★★ for a mid-range rating. My favorites are "The Knight's Cross Signal Problem," "The Disappearance of Marie Severe," and "The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage."

A run-down of the stories:
"The Coin of Dionysius": This appears to be the first case in which Carlyle consults Carrados. He is relying on Carrados's knowledge of coins and special skills to help him determine if a rare coin is real or fake.
"The Knight's Cross Signal Problem": When a train accident occurs, the signalman swears that the signal showed red for danger and the engineer swears it was green for proceed. They are both right and Carrados proves how this can be.
"The Mystery of the Vanished Petition Crown": Another rare coin case. This time it disappears at auction and it looks like either a young female journalist or the attendant who showed her the coin must be the thief. Carrados, naturally, can "see" other options.
"The Holloway Flat Tragedy": Mr. Poleash comes to Carlyle with a story of a jealous lover of a shop girl he (Poleash) has flirted with and spurned when she pressed him for marriage. (He's married.) He's sure the man is out to get him. When Poleash is found dead, Carrados suspects a much deeper plot.
"The Disappearance of Marie Severe": Inspector Beedel asks for Carrados's help in the case of a missing schoolgirl. Carrados not only discovers the secret of the girl's whereabouts, but helps bring her family back together.
"The Mystery of the Poisoned Dish of Mushrooms": A young boy dies from poisoning. Did his uncle slip poisoned mushrooms into his food so he could inherit in the boy's place? Carrados doesn't believe the police are seeing the whole picture.
"The Ghost at Massingham Mansions": Instead of haunting a spooky old house, this ghost haunts a fairly new building of apartments. Its favorite occupations are turning on the gas lamps and running a bath. Carrados doesn't believe in ghosts--but who could be lighting the gas and running the water in an empty locked apartment?
"The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage": Lt. Hollyer is convinced that Mr. Creake married his sister for her money and asks Carrados for his help. The detective discovers a sinister plot to do away with Mrs. Creake and they must act fast to prevent it from being carried out.
"The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor": A mystery featuring the robbery from several safe deposit boxes in a Lucas Street depository known colloquially as "The Safe." To gain access, box holders must pass through several barriers--both real locks and bars as well as secret passwords known only to the owners. Carrados uses his extraordinary senses to quickly solve the puzzle.
"The Ingenious Mr. Spinola": Mr. Spinola is said to be a great mathematician and inventor. He has produced an automaton that can play rubicon piquet--and win with astonishing regularity. Is it a legitimate enterprise or an elaborate swindle? Or neither? Carrados can tell us.

[Finished on 8/17/17]

All stories first published in 1927 or earlier. This fulfills the "Carriage/Wagon" on the Golden Scavenger Hunt card.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Happy Valley Mystery: Review

The Bob Whites (minus new member Dan Mangan, who must work hard to catch up on schoolwork so he can stay in the same class as Jim and Brian) are off to Iowa for a Spring Break adventure. The Beldens' Uncle Andrew stops by Sleepyside for a visit on his way to Scotland. When he finds that his niece, nephews, and their friends will be at loose ends during their school holiday, he offers to send them all to his sheep farm in the Midwest.

Uncle Andrew expects the kids to learn about sheep, have some fun helping out around the farm, and maybe enjoy a dance at the local high school. But as soon as Trixie hears that her uncle's sheep have been disappearing at regular intervals, she knows that she and the Bob Whites have another job to do...and another mystery to solve. There's a mysterious bearded man to check out, a hired hand who acts a bit suspiciously, and the men who are selling sheep carcasses on the cheap for the school's barbecue. And what about the mysterious lights in the dark and dangerous Walnut Woods nearby?

Trixie's curiosity lead her, Jim, and Honey into a dangerous situation when the river starts rising and the bridge washes out behind them. But the brave threesome manage to get themselves to safety atop a barn and Trixie spots the sheep-rustlers from their perch. Once she and her fellow Bob Whites are rescued, she convinces her uncle's manager to send the police after the crooks and saves the day for Uncle Andrew's farm.

This was one of my all-time favorite Trixie Belden stories when I was growing up. Iowa is close enough to Indiana that it brought the story into familiar territory for me and, of course, I loved that it ends with Jim presenting Trixie with the silver ID bracelet and telling her that she's his special girl. The added danger at the end made it all the more exciting--but safely exciting because we all knew that Trixie, Jim, and Honey would be okay in the end. When I spotted this vintage edition at an antique mall last year, I knew I had to get it and revisit the adventure with the Bob Whites. The stroll down memory lane was well worth it and I enjoyed going back to a simpler time in my mystery reading. It was a lot of fun to visit again with Trixie and the Bob Whites. ★★★★ then and now--for nostalgia's sake. 

[Finished on 8/16/17]

This fulfills the "Any Other Animal" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

The Black Dahlia: Review

The Black Dahlia (1987) is James Ellroy's fictional re-telling of the true murder case from Hollywood of the 1940s. On January 15, 1947, Hollywood was shocked when the brutally murdered body of Elizabeth Short was discovered in a vacant lot on South Norton. Ellroy uses the facts of the horrendous crime--a crime in which Short's nude body, mutilated and cut in half, was dumped like so much trash--and creates Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, two LA cops obsessed with the Black Dahlia and finding the right culprit even if it means going against the city establishment.

Bucky and Lee--known as Fire and Ice--are former boxing rivals who, after an interdepartmental boxing match, brings kudos and financial support to the department, are assigned as partners as warrant officers. One of their investigations takes them to the South Norton area on the morning that Short's body is found and Lee wangles their way into the murder investigation. Lee's obsession with the crime stems from the death of his younger sister years earlier and Bucky is concerned for his partner and obsessed with finding redemption through his work on the force and through his relationship with Lee and Lee's beautiful lover. 

Lee squirrels away files on the investigation and stretches himself to the limit (not sleeping or eating as he should) hunting down leads. When Lee disappears, Bucky continues the investigation and discovers secrets that help him find what he believes to be the solution.  But it's a solution he won't be able to produce officially and his investigation may cost him dearly professionally.

This is an intense, noir retelling of a very nasty crime. Ellroy invests a great deal of insight and intensity in his story--which is even more evident when you read the afterword to this edition and realize that Ellroy's mother was also the victim of a rather horrific crime. While noir is not my usual fare and I don't do a great deal of true crime (or even fictional true crime), Ellroy does write a compelling novel. His build-up of a case and possible solution to a crime that remains unsolved even now is convincing and well-constructed. It's easy to see why this has made one of the "1001 Books to Read Before you Die" lists even if I may not appreciate it as fully as those with a taste for noir and true crime. ★★

[Finished on 8/8/17--I'm still struggling to catch up on my reviews and I'm afraid that until I do, the reviews are going to be a little sparser than usual....]

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Big Grouse: Review

The Big Grouse (1986) comes late in the Masters & Green police procedural series by Douglas Clark. Masters's specialized detective team has long been together and gotten used to one another. But that's all going to change. Detective Sergeant Reed is given a promotion that has been due for quite a while and Masters is preparing to select a replacement when he is told by the Assistant Commissioner that a replacement has already been selected for him. Masters is a bit surprised--he's always had a pretty free hand with his team till now. But it seems that when the AC arranged for Bill Green to stay on after retirement age as a special member of the team, he agreed that the next time an opening came up he'd arrange for a qualified female officer to be appointed. And so Detective Sergeant Tippen joins the team.

There are adjustments to be made on all sides. This is the first time Masters has taken on a Detective Sergeant that hasn't been vetted by either himself or Green and it may take a while for Sergeant Tippen to get used to Master's demanding standards of meticulous memorization and brilliant, logical analysis of evidence. She doesn't have a great deal of time to settle in, though. The Assistant Commissioner drops a typically puzzling matter into Masters's lap. The AC's wife is worried about a missing relative and won't stop pestering her husband until he shows her that an attempt has been made to investigate. He intends for Masters to do a bit of simple spadework--just enough to convince the wife they given it the ol' college try. 

Masters thinks it's a perfect assignment for the new team member. Do a bit of digging, type up a meticulous report, and they can dust their hands and be done with it. Except...Sergeant Tippen does her job a bit too well and the team is pushed into a full-blown investigation. Masters becomes convinced that the relative, a lead salesman who did quite a bit of traveling, has come to a sticky end. But it's a bit hard to prove when there's no body in evidence. Sergeant Tippen gets thrown into a full-scale Masters-style investigation in which the team is expected to come up with the straw to make the bricks of a murder conviction. It isn't long before they discover that the missing man may not have been the paragon of a husband his family believes and that a motive for murder may lie in his past. Motive leads to where the murder might have taken place which eventually leads to the discovery of the body and the capture of the killer.

This late entry in the series is a fair to middlin' example of the Masters and Green police procedural. The usual ingredients are all present--Masters and company expected to produce rabbits out of hats without any rabbits in the vicinity. The team gather for frequent brain-storming sessions, Tippen gets the hang of total recall reporting, and Masters draws upon an esoteric clue that helps point the way. A generally entertaining story with a small drawback--coming in the mid-1980s, it shows us some less-than-favorable views of women detectives in the workforce and Bill Green comes across as a little patronizing with his insistence on calling the new team member "Petal." Knowing the characters as well as I do after reading so many of the books, I don't think Clark intends Bill Green to sound quite as patronizing and chauvinistic as he does--but that doesn't change the tone. I definitely don't recommend this one as a starting point. ★★ and 3/4 --I couldn't justify a full three for this particular outing. [And that cover--I mean, really, couldn't we have come up with something more interesting?]

Fellow-blogger, Noah has also given his take on this one over at Noah's Archives (along with a few others that he thinks it better to avoid)...stop by and see what he has to say.

[Finished on 8/4/17]

Monday, August 14, 2017

Challenge Complege: Clocks, Cogs, & Mechanisms

R. A. Vucci is hosting the 5th annual Clocks,Cogs, and Mechanisms Reading Challenge this year. When this challenge was first created, the world of steampunk was still fairly unknown, but not new. This is a genre that has been inspired by the works of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and H.P. Lovecraft to name a few. For those who have never experienced steampunk, a typical steampunk novel takes place in the Victorian era and involves lots of steam-powered technologies ahead of their time. There are variations and other time periods that fall into this category, but the Victorian era ones are the most common.

There were the levels to this challenge:

Brass Gears: Read 1-3 books
Flight Goggles: Read 4-7 books
Button-up Boots: Read 8-11 books
Clockwork Corset: Read 12+ book

I don't read a lot of steampunk, but I have enjoyed my brief forays into the genre. So I decided to go light and committed to the Brass Gears level. I finished that up on August 2nd (finally got my review done!). Thanks to R. A. Vucci for hosting this one.
1. The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton (5/23/17)
2. Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard (8/2/17)

Johannes Cabal the Detective

Johannes Cabal the Detective (2010) is the second novel in Jonathan L. Howard's series featuring the steampunk necromancer. I picked it up at the Friends of the Library Bookstore last December primarily so I could have a second book for the Clocks, Cogs, & Mechanisms Challenge. It helped that it was advertised as "Steampunk meets the classic Sherlockian mystery in this rip-roaring adventure where anything could happen . . . and does." The premise sounded very intriguing.

Johannes Cabal is (as mentioned) a necromancer--he knows all sorts of arcane methods to bring the dead back to "life," albeit very briefly and often (at least in this particular installment) to what seems to be very little purpose. Even in a world of steampunk, his talents are not, shall we say, fully appreciated by the average man or woman on the street and most governments find his occupation distasteful to say the least. Which would be why our first sight of Johannes in this story is of him being held prisoner by the court of of Mirkarvian Empire for attempting to steal (oh, pardon me, "borrow" indefinitely) a rare and mysterious book, the Principia Necromantica, from a local university. 

The Emperor's personal bodyguard was content to allow Johannes to rot away in prison for the remainder of his days, but then the Emperor dropped dead just as plans were being hatched to rouse the peasants into pledging their support for destroying the enemy (that would be anybody the Emperor and company pointed out to them) and taking over whatever neighboring countries they could. How handy to have a necromancer hanging out in the dungeons who can reanimate the Emperor long enough to proceed on schedule. Of course, it will then be necessary to do away with the pesky necromancer immediately thereafter.

Johannes is brought forth from the dungeon, performs a bit of necromancy hocus-pocus, and in the confusion that follows (sometimes reanimations just don't go quite as the customer plans...especially when payment will be in blood--Johannes's), he manages to out-fence the bodyguard and escape. It helps that the re-animated Emperor has somehow incited the peasants to revolt against the Empire instead of wreaking havoc in the Emperor's name. The necromancer heads to the Aeroport, spies a government official preparing to board the newest Aeroship to fly under the Mirkarvian flag--a ship that looks like a cross between a dirigible and an aircraft carrier. Most fortuitously, the government official bears a striking resemblance to our hero and Johannes puts him out of commission, swipes his travel documents and boards the Princess Hortense as Herr Gerhard Meissner, an agricultural civil servant.

He makes it on board without incident and all seems to be going well until he is recognized by the feisty Leonie Barrow--a woman with good cause to dislike him and every reason in the world to denounce him. But she doesn't. Johannes has to wonder what's up. But before he can worry about that for too long, a fellow passenger is dead. It is an apparent suicide; it looks like the man has thrown himself out the window to his death. But Johannes notices a few details that seem to add up to murder and not suicide. He's even more sure when someone tries to toss him off the aeroship as well. He and Leonie team up to try and get to the bottom of the mystery aboard the Princess Hortense. Johannes Cabal is not the only person on board who is not who he seems to be....

Howard has written an entertaining novel of adventure and intrigue filled with sly and witty humor, intelligence, and a fine sense of the absurd. He makes references to adventure, detective, and horror genres with the greatest of ease. It's true that Johannes Cabal is not a warm and fuzzy kind of protagonist. He really doesn't like his fellow human beings very much, but one can't help but like him and root for him to find the person who tried to toss him overboard and discover what's really going on aboard the Hortense. The grand finale which Johannes handles with all the panache of a Hercule Poirot denouement is terrific and the interactions between Johannes and Leonie are worth the price of admission. Overall, the characters are unique and interestingly handled. ★★ and 1/2.

[I'm still dreadfully behind on my reviews--this was finished on 8/2/17.]

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Murderer's Choice: Review

Murderer's Choice (1943) by Anna Mary Wells begins with two cousins sharing dinner at a fine restaurant. Frank Osgood has been cautiously enjoying the meal hosted by his cousin Charles. He's waiting to find out what the catch is. Because there's always a catch when it looks like Charles is being nice to him. The two cousins have been at odds since they were young--with Charles always acting superior and despising the younger boy. Nothing changed when they became men...except they saw little of each other. And now, suddenly, Charles is treating him to dinner. What does he have up his sleeve?

When the brandy is served, Frank finds out. His cousin tells him in the most pleasant way possible that he has taken out a life insurance policy and made Frank the beneficiary as well as having made a will in Frank's favor. (Now Frank knows something is up). Then--within the next six months--he plans to commit suicide and arrange it so his cousin will be tried, convicted, and executed for his murder. He even encourages Frank to tell whomever he likes; after all, who will believe him? Frank is quite sure that Charles is fully capable of arranging things just the way he wants. He knew his cousin hated him, but he never imagined he hated him enough to kill himself just so he could take Frank out as well.

Frank lives in terror, trying to imagine what his cousin's diabolical plan might be--and then Charles dies and the death is determined to be natural causes. Frank knows there must be some false evidence somewhere that points to him and rather than wait for the ax to fall, he hires the Keene Detective Agency to investigate. The Agency assigns Grace Pomeroy, formerly a psychiatric nurse, to take the case. She listens to Frank's odd story and, not quite believing it, she begins to investigate. She can find no evidence of an insurance policy or a will. She does find evidence that Charles squandered his money on something, but there's nothing to show what that something was. She's pretty sure he paid off a doctor to say he had heart trouble and set up a ruling of natural causes, but she can't find anything to show that he planted some twist that will finger his cousin as a murderer. 

The investigation digs up a woman who claims to be Charles's wife, a housekeeper who wants the money promised her  by Charles, and the possibility that Charles was poisoned. But was he? And, if so, who did it? Did Frank do it to strike early and prevent his cousin from framing him? Does that even make any sense? There are plenty of twists and turns in the Wells novel and a surprise ending where Grace employs clever questioning and her knowledge of human psychology to find the solution. 

This is an enjoyable and quick read. Grace Pomeroy is one of the few female private investigators and her background as a psychiatric nurse serves her well in her venture into the detective business. She brings quick insight and a very human touch to her work and finds a very humane solution to the mystery. ★★ and 3/4--almost four.

John has reviewed this one as well over at his very fine blog: Pretty Sinister Books. (That's where I first heard of it...I finally got my hands on it and have gotten 'round to reading it.)

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

The Mirror Crack'd: Review

I returned to Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd (1962; APA The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side) after first reading it from the public library when I was in junior high. I've since seen the Joan Hickson version as well as the star-studded production with Angela Lansbury playing Miss Marple and have picked up my own edition of the book so I can revisit the original story.

This story takes Miss Jane Marple into the world of movie stars and a local modern Development when actress Marina Gregg buys Gossington Hall from the widowed Dolly Bantry and brings her director husband and American entourage to live in St. Mary Mead. Jason Rudd, the husband, hopes that living in the small English village will give Marina a bit of quiet and stability--something that has been missing in her life. Marina decides that St. Mary Mead is just perfect and that she wants to really be a part of village life--so she agrees to host the annual fete in aid of the St. John's Ambulance. The party is going well--lots of games and entertainment on the grounds and Marina invites some select guests to come inside to be greeted and to see the house.

It's all going well that is until silly Heather Babcock, connected to the St. John's Ambulance, is introduced to her idol, Marina Gregg. Heather launches into a long and enthusiastic story about how she has already met Miss Gregg before--long ago when Marina was entertaining the troops. Dolly Bantry notices that Marina is no longer really listening to the babbling woman--she's staring over her shoulder with a "frozen" look on her face. When she later describes the scene to Miss Marple, they are reminded of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott:

Out flew the web and floated wide;
     The mirror crack'd from sided to side;
"The curse has come upon me," cried
     The Lady of Shalott.

Just moments after finishing her story and being offered a drink by her idol, Heather Babcock is dead. It doesn't take long to discover that she's been poisoned. But who would poison Mrs. Babcock? She was a self-absorbed woman; nice enough and not at all mean-spirited, but not really thinking about how her actions or words might actually affect others. There doesn't seem to be a motive to kill her, however. Then it's discovered that her drink was spilled and the drink which had the poison in it was Marina's. As Miss Marple mentions when she first hears of the poisoning..."perhaps it was the wrong murder." Now the police are racing to find the killer before they can rectify their mistake and kill Marina after all. But they're going to need pointers from everyone's favorite spinster detective before they arrive at the right solution.

This one continues to delight even after a reread (and watching the filmed versions multiple times). It is interesting to come to it knowing the solution and to watch how Christie practices her art of misdirection. The basic plot is one used in other stories, but I'm always intrigued at the many different ways she was able to use the same idea. 

She also gives us a Jane Marple who has aged and has to come to terms with her advanced years and the changes in St. Mary Mead. The novel is as much social commentary on the post-WWII-era as it is a murder mystery. Given Miss Marple's frailer health, the doctor has suggested she have a companion and Miss Marple is driven to distraction by the woman her nephew has employed for her. She has to find a way to ease Miss Knight out and find someone to live in who won't treat her like an imbecile child. This side story provides Miss Marple with a different way to approach the murder investigation--she isn't as mobile as she once was and all the information has to come to her--through Dolly Bantry and through Inspector Craddock. It is Miss Marple doing her best armchair detective work since The Tuesday Night Club stories.

★★★★  for an entertaining read and interesting social commentary.

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Challenge Complete: Craving for Cozies

Craving For Cozies 2017 – Reading Challenge
The challenge runs from January 1, 2017 and ends December 31, 2017
There are several levels of participation (click link above for more info or to join). I joined up for the lowest level
Peckish – 1 – 10 Cozy Mysteries 
because it fit in with the other cozy challenge I signed up for which requires 10 books. I did go a little beyond my original plan which put me in the Famished category.
My List:
1. Murder at the Masque by Amy Myers (1/16/17)
2. Zadok's Treasure by Margo Arnold (2/22/17) 
3. Nun Plussed by Monica Qull (3/30/17)
4. Death with Blue Ribbon by Leo Bruce (4/20/17) 
5. Grounds for Murder by Kate Kingsbury (4/26/17) 
6. The Vanishing Violinist by Sara Hoskinson Frommer (4/30/17) 
7. The Polka Dot Nude by Joan Smith (5/2/17) 
8. Murder at Teatime by Stefanie Matteson (5/9/17) 
9. The Ghost & the Dead Deb by Alice Kimberly (6/16/17) 
10. Publish & Perish by Sally Wright (6/22/17)
11. The Barker Street Regulars by Susan Conant (7/20/17) 
12. Lie of the Needle by Cate Price (7/28/17)