Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Hellfire Conspiracy: Review

The Hellfire Conspiracy (2007) is the fourth entry in Will Thomas's excellent historical mystery series set in Victorian London. The intellectual, yet physically strong inquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn, a former Oxford scholar who was falsely imprisoned, are clearly cast in the Holmes and Watson and/or Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mold. Thomas has steadily built the characters and their relationships (to each other and to other recurring characters) over the course of the series and this installment gives readers a more in-depth look at the events leading up to Llewelyn's imprisonment--ultimately bringing Llewelyn face-to-face with the man he views responsible. Barker manages to set up a way for his assistant to get his own back.

But on to the mystery. The adventure opens with a visit from a distraught major from the guardsmen. Major DeVere's twelve-year old daughter Gwendolyn has disappeared from offices of the Charity Organization Society. Mrs. DeVere did volunteer work there and would bring Gwendolyn along to expose her to life outside their upper middle-class ways. As Barker and Llewelyn investigate, they discover that while Gwendolyn is the first middle class child to disappear there have been several lower-class girls who went missing and were later found dead--strangled and violated. Though the detectives work as fast as they can, they do not find DeVere's daughter in time to save her from a similar fate and Barker begins to suspect that a serial killer is at work. His suspicions are confirmed when he begins receiving taunting letters from a "Mr. Miacca"--a name taken from a grisly children's fairy tale about a child-eating bogeyman.

Barker leaves his comfortable home and sets up in an empty Bethnal Green warehouse so that he and Llewelyn can keep watch over the neighborhood where "Mr. Miacca" has been at work. Their efforts lead them to a revival of the Hellfire Clubs of earlier times and they must determine if the club is behind the killings or if someone is making use of their rituals as a cover for a more deadly game. 

As usual, Thomas does an excellent job immersing the reader in the world of Victorian London. He brings in pertinent social and political topics and uses them to good effect to propel the plot. What I always appreciate is the way he introduces such topics and informs the reader on them without making it seem like a lecture or an info dump. He weaves the information into the story so the reader learns what's needed (should they not be familiar with the topics), but does not feel overwhelmed. I also enjoy the development of our two detectives and the background that is gradually filled in during the course of each book. Learning the details of Llewelyn's previous difficulties makes his character far more interesting.

The mystery is not overly complicated. Seasoned mystery readers may well spot the villain of the piece before Barker and Llewlyn tracks them down, but the plot is woven so well and the is so well-written that it shouldn't dampen your pleasure much--if at all.  ★★★★

[Finished on 6/1/18]

Sunday, June 24, 2018

DeKok & Murder by Installment: Review

DeKok & Murder by Installment (1985) by A. C. Baantjer finds Inspector DeKok a bit disgruntled at the beginning of the novel. Not that this is unusual. The older cop has an allergy to the new-fangled things that have been trying to encroach on his well-worn methods. He's never really got used to buzzing around in cars--he didn't mind riding a police bicycle. He liked writing up his reports in long hand and now the department wants them submitted on computer-written pages. And that's where we, the readers come in, Baantjer is complaining about how much more work the computer reports are (not for him, of course--he wangles it so his younger partner Vledder does the honors)--that handwritten reports encouraged officers to be straightforward and succinct resulting in shorter reports and less work. Vledder argues that now he can write up once and print out all the copies needed for various departments and senior officers rather than copying it out by hand every time.

As he and Vledder debate the merits of the computing age, the watch commander Kuster comes along with something new for DeKok to be disgruntled about. An eighteen-year-old boy has been brought in on a cocaine charge and DeKok & Vledder are the only detectives available at that time of night so DeKok's protests that this is a job for narcotics fall on deaf ears. But then his own ears perk up when Kuster mentions that the boy also had huge amounts of money (translated by our 2006 translator as "a hundred thousand Euros" which doesn't jibe with the 1980s) taped around his waist. DeKok wants to know what a boy that age is doing with that much cash. His curiosity leads him and Vledder into a case with a series of sinister murders which are somehow connected to the boy and his money...and his brother who soon dies from AIDS.

Various members of a golfing club begin to die--each bashed over the head by an oddly-shaped weapon. It's no spoiler to tell you that it's a golf club--even the most dense reader must figure that out before DeKok. Yes, dear reader, the members of the golf club are done in by a golf club. Is there special significance in that? I'll never tell. What DeKok and Vledder must discover is what is the connection between the young men and the dead men. Why were the men wearing necklaces with the wrong astrological sign? And why has the murderer targeted them?

This is another interesting entry in this series from the Netherlands. Plenty of background color. Several quirky local characters. The mystery isn't breath-takingly original but DeKok is and he and Vledder are really what makes these books. I enjoy DeKok's methods and his peculiar take on police work. Good solid ★★  effort. 

[Finished on 5/30/18. One of these days I'm going to get caught up on my reviews....]

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Mystery of the Blue Train: Review

The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) by Agatha Christie

Ruth Kettering's father, the wealthy Rufus Van Aldin, loves only one thing more than he loves making money--his beautiful, willful daughter. The only time she really disappoints him is when she becomes involved with men. Her first love affair was with a scoundrel, Armand the Comte de la Roche. He managed to break that up successfully, only to watch her marry Derek Kettering--a British man in line for a title but badly in need of money. When Kettering breaks her heart by becoming entangled with a Parisian dancer, Van Aldin purchases a priceless necklace containing the famous ruby, "Heart of Fire," hoping it will distract her enough to enable him to persuade her to sue for divorce.

It seems to work, though Ruth seems curiously reluctant to be rid of her husband, and he puts things in motion--notifying Kettering that he may want to consider a settlement. Kettering knows that a divorce suit may ruin him financially and that it will be difficult to fight a case supported by the Van Aldin wealth, but he refuses to consider coming to terms, telling Van Aldin that he may find that Ruth has a counter-suit to answer. Ruth is evasive when her father asks her to be honest with him about her affairs and the matter is far from resolved when she sets out on a trip to the Riviera aboard the luxurious Blue Train.

There is plenty of intrigue on the train. Ruth has her own affairs to sort out and is on her way to meet her own lover, Armand who she never really got over. And, unknown to her, Derek and his dancer Mirelle are also on the train. Monsieur Hercule Poirot, the famous detective, has also chosen the train for a journey. There is a possibility that a famous jewel thief, the Maquis, is on the train as well--perhaps with his sights set on the legendary ruby. Katherine Grey, a young woman setting out on her first adventure after coming into a small inheritance, may find herself in the middle of a much bigger adventure than she could have imagined. Ruth Kettering will die. The rubies will disappear as will her maid. And Katherine Grey will find herself attracted to two men--one of whom might be a murderer. Poirot is, naturellement, called upon to give his expert aid to solve the crime.

One of the things I like best about this Christie novel is the characterization--particularly of Katherine Grey and Derek Kettering. Katherine is a very strong character and Christie gives her a more complete background than many of her characters get. She is a very solid, down-to-earth person who has played the supporting role for most of her life and is just now getting a chance to spread her wings on her own. But there is a sense of humor and a strain of knowledgeable common-sense running through her that makes her very interesting. She is amused at Poirot's interest in her reading habits and she is perfectly aware of the ulterior motives behind her distant cousin's invitation to stay. Kettering, while being presented as an aristocratic wastrel, begins to make us wonder whether the spoiled daddy's girl was more to blame for the marriage going bad than he. I particularly like that he says no to the pay-off (bribe, as he calls it)--knowing that daddy can bury him in court no matter what evidence of counter-suit he might bring should he stoop to do so.

Poirot is, of course, Poirot and follows his own path even when the police are at first convinced that the Comte is the villain of the piece and then, when that falls through, going so far as to arrest Kettering. Poirot is not so sure that the motive is as evident as it appears and he produces the correct one...and the correct villain... with his usual panache. ★★★★

[Finished on 5/28/18. I spy with my little eye through the magic of Goodreads that Kate @ crossexaminingcrime has read this in the past and it would be a blunder of the first order if Agatha's biggest fan, Brad @ ahsweetmysteryblog, had neglected one of her stories (he hasn't)--so this counts for the "read by a fellow blogger" category on the Just the Facts Challenge.]

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

By the Light of the Study Lamp: Review

I read a couple of Dana Girls mysteries when I was young (and those books are packed in a box somewhere)--but I really couldn't tell you a thing about them, unlike the Nancy Drew books I read. So when I saw a few titles on one of our antique mall expeditions, I decided to get them and give the girls another try. By the Light of the Study Lamp (1934) was one of the books I picked up--a good place to start since it's the first of the series.

In their first adventure, Louise and Jean receive a surprise present from their Uncle Ned--a beautiful antique study lamp that they plan to use when they return to Starhurst (their boarding school). But not long after they open the present, the lamp is stolen from their home. The girls are disappointed and arrive at Starhurst in a subdued mood, but are heartened when Mrs. Crandall, the head of the school tell them that they have been assigned the second-floor study room that they had requested the previous term. Their good fortune earns them an enemy in Lettie Briggs, a spoiled rich girl who had set her sights on that very room. Later, they cross her again when they spy a lamp that looks like their stolen present in a local antique shop and buy it. [Lettie had been in the shop earlier, wanted the lamp, but thought the price too high.]

It winds up that their lamp...and their study the center of an old mystery. Their friend Evelyn Starr used to live at Starhurst--when her family was wealthy and owned the property. But misfortune struck, the family jewels were lost, and Evelyn's brother can barely afford to send his sister to the school in their old home. There are clues to be found in the study and the Danas are led through a maze of crooked shopkeepers, crafty gypsies, and a suspicious handyman before they solve the mystery and come to the aid of their friend.

The Dana Girls are obviously molded in the pattern of Nancy Drew (though they are orphans and don't have a wealthy father to provide all their needs). The mystery is very like those solved by Nancy and the girls show the same resourcefulness and independence. This is a fun, simple mystery from a simpler time. I will say that I don't particularly care for the "mean girls" story line--where Lettie is set up as their rival and enemy. I just don't think that particular angle works well and it definitely is unnecessary. If this remains a prominent story element, then I'm not sure how many Dana Girls I will pick up (and read) in the future. ★★

[Finished 5/25/18]

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Love Songs of Sappho: Mini Review

My delight is the exquisite.
    Yes, for me, 
Glitter and sunlight and love
    Are one society.
So I shall not go creeping away
    To die in the dark:
I shall go on living with you,
    Loving and loved.
[from #158]

The Love Songs of Sappho (translated by Paul Roche) is made of Six Books with 171 fragments and full poems. Few of Sappho's poems come to us in their entirety and that is unfortunate. It is unfortunate because what little remains shows Sappho to be a master of the lyric form--providing passionate passages full of the joy of life and loving as well as pain, sorrow, jealousy and regret associated with love unreciprocated or gone wrong. Her words are memorable even when they aren't all there. Roche provides a beautiful translation as well as a very informative essay which gives us as full a portrait of the classic poet as possible. ★★★★

 ********* a side note...who knew that "damp as a dishcloth" had its origins in the fragments of of Sappho's poetry?

         I am as limp
as a wet worn-out dish cloth 

[Finished 5/23/18]

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Body in the Basket: Review

The Body in the Basket (1954) by George Bagby finds our author and narrator on holiday in Spain. He's waiting for his friend Inspector Schmidt to arrive when he has a couple of odd experiences. First, he watches a fellow American steal an oyster knife from their waiter's oyster cart and slip it into her handbag. When the waiter is disciplined by the outraged MaĆ®·tre D', George can't help but stick his two cents in--leaning over and asking the girl if she hasn't had her bit of fun and shouldn't she hand over the knife and get the kid out of trouble. Her English escort comes charging to her defense and all but calls George out for a duel. Later he gets a young street boy out trouble and into a taxi only to be thanked by being slugged over the head and left in alley where people think he's drunk.

You wouldn't think that these incidents would lead to an unknown dead man in a large basket being delivered in George's name to his hotel--just in time for Inspector Schmidt to help him open it. But there you are. A large basket IS delivered to George at his hotel and it DOES contain an unknown man in a Guardia Civil uniform. It is only through the help of Schmidt (who just happens to be toting around a document from very high-ranking officials telling his Spanish counterparts to grant him every courtesy) that George is not dragged off to have the "truth" squeezed out of him by the Spanish military police force.

Schmitty and Baggy (what adorable nicknames...) work furiously to find out who the man in the uniform is, why he was sent to Baggy, and what Sally (she of the oyster knife) has to do with it all. Then Sally disappears, a ransom note appears, and Baggy & Schmitty are off on the trail of apparent kidnappers and...possibly spies. 

I'd not read anything by George Bagby (Aaron Marc Stein) before. This was really quite a lot of fun. Not much in the way of classic detection--though Schmitty does put in a bit of good fancy investigative footwork--and there's not much in the way of clues strewn about for the reader to pick up on. But there's quite a bit of action and an exciting finish. Bagby does well with the characters and gives us a good feel for Spain in the post-WWII years. Definitely good entertainment and I look forward to the two other Bagby books sitting on my TBR shelves.  ★★★★

[Finished 5/22/18]

Rear Window: Review

This Rear Window collection of stories (2001) by Cornell Woolrich contains stories from 1969 and earlier. In addition to the title story, there are an additional twelve stories, primarily from his best years when his stories appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly, Argosy, and Black Mask (among others). Overall, a fine collection of short stories with a mix that ranges from straight mystery to dramatic psychological suspense.

"Rear Window": Originally titled "It Had to Be Murder" and the story the HItchcock movie was based on. If you've seen the movie, then you've got the basic plot. But there are definite differences in the original story. Jeffries has no girlfriend doing his running about for him. He has no nosy female housekeeper--he has a houseman--and he's the one who operates as Jeffries's legs. [I have to say that while the story is enjoyable--I much prefer the film. The characters are fleshed out and it's more interesting seeing everything from Jeffries's point of view out the window.]

"I Won't Take a Minute" is one of Woolrich's variations on the-lady-vanishes story. Our narrator is Kenny, engaged to the beautiful Stephanie. She's just given her boss her notice and one of her tasks during her final week is to drop off a package after work when they're supposed to be heading out for a night on the town. Kenny doesn't like it much (he thinks they take advantage of her good nature), but she convinces him that it "won't take a minute" for her to pop into the apartment building and hand over the package. Then they'll be on their way. But the minute turns into several and then some more and Kenny realizes that something has gone very wrong. 

"Speak to Me of Death": Ann Bridges, niece of the wealthy John T. Bridges, comes police headquarters seeking help for a rather bizarre situation. Her uncle has become convinced, after consulting a man who supposedly has second sight, that he will die on a certain day through Death at the jaws of a lion. Now the Bridges live in the middle of civilization--nowhere near lions of any sort--but her uncle is convinced and the closer the day comes, the more nerve-wracked he grows. She wants the detectives to keep her uncle alive until after midnight on the chosen day--then, when her uncle sees that he has survived, life can return to normal. But sometimes you just can't escape fate no matter what strange shape it might take.

"The Dancing Detective": Apparently this is one of Woolrich's more frequently printed stories because I have read it in a few collections. In this, Ginger, a dance hall girl, loses her best friend when a killer makes a habit of killing girls from the dancing halls. Nick, the policeman on the case, takes a fancy to Ginger and when the killer sets his sights on Ginger, she has to hope that Nick will get the messages and clues she's left behind--before she becomes another "Poor Butterfly" in the killer's collection.

"The Light in the Window": A soldier, having just returned highly disturbed from the war, decides to surprise his girl by showing up at her apartment unannounced. He arrives when he thinks she should have just gotten home from work, but the apartment is dark. Thinking she's just running a bit late, he waits outside for her. Then, suddenly, her light comes on and he meets an old friend coming out of the building who boasts suggestively of the "time he's had". The soldier is convinced his girl has been unfaithful and he goes to her apartment on the alert for proof of her guilt. And if she's guilty...she's going to have to be punished.

"The Corpse Next Door": An irritable man slugs the man in the next apartment when he discovers him stealing his milk from outside the apartment door. Horrified that he's killed the man, he drags him through the open door (the neighbor's) and stashes him in the Murphy bed. But as time goes by and no one has discovered the corpse, he becomes a bit unhinged--especially when a new couple moves in next door.

"You'll Never See Me Again": Another variation on the-lady-vanishes. This time newlyweds Ed & Teresa ("Smiles") Bliss have one of those silly arguments that turn into an "I'm going home to mother!" moment. "Smiles" walks out on him, promising that he'll never see her again. When he goes, shamefaced and hat in hand, to apologize to her, he finds that she's not there and she's apparently disappeared off the face of the earth. It looks like she might have been right....

"The Screaming Laugh": A man who was known as a very disgruntled fellow who never cracked a smile, let alone laughed at a joke has died--apparently from laughing too hard. The local doctor can find nothing to suggest anything but natural causes, but he reports the unexpected death to the local sheriff, as required by law. But when Deputy Traynor arrives at the scene, he just can't accept that Eleazar Hunt died after reading the book of really bad jokes dropped by the side of his chair.

"Dead on Her Feet": A policeman is sent to breakup a dance marathon because the sponsors are suspected of being flim-flam artists. When he gets there, he discovers that one of the contestants is, quite literally, dead on her feet. It looks like the only one who could have done it is her partner....but the cop has other ideas.

"Waltz": (a very short story, not to be confused with Waltz Into Darkness): A young society girl is all set to elope with her young man. They plan to take off in the middle of the dance hosted by her parents. Bu Wes gets just a trifle agitated when she starts babbling to him about the detective who has crashed the party because there's a crook running loose in the neighborhood. Maybe a thief--maybe a murderer. But why should they worry? No one will interfere with them--after all they're not murderers. 

"The Book That Squealed": [adapted for radio on Suspense in 1945 as "Library Book" with Myrna Loy!--found HERE on youtube.] A rather uptight librarian finds herself in the middle of a mysterious adventure when a best-seller (please hear that with all of Prudence's disapproval) is returned to the library with pages missing. Though she disapproves of trashy best-sellers, she disapproves of book vandalism even more. Her determination to hunt down the culprit leads her into much bigger things.

"Death Escapes the Eye": An editor for a magazine falls for the slush-pile author she and her co-editor chose to fill a hole in their latest issue. But she has competition from the man's on-again, off-again first wife. Even when she disappears.

"For the Rest of Her Life": A very dark story about a woman who falls for and marries a sadistic wife-beater. She finds what looks to be an escape with a young, loving man--but what she expects for the rest of her life may not be what she gets.

[Finished 5/16/18]

Some of the stories in this collection have been adapted for film or television--most notably the title story "Rear Window" as well as "The Dancing Detective," "I Won't Take a Minute" (as "Finger of Doom"), and "For the Rest of Her Life."

Challenge Complete: Craving for Cozies

As with the Cruisin' Thru the Cozies challenge, I chose to go with the lowest level on Dollycas's Craving for Cozies Challenge--I was just feeling a little peckish. I've completed my 10 and as I read more mysteries this year, I will add any more cozies that come along.

Peckish – 1 – 10 Cozy Mysteries 

My List:
1. Lament for a Lady Laird by Margot Arnold (2/3/18)
2. Another Woman's House by Mignon G. Eberhart (2/10/18)
3. Beverly Gray's Secret by Clair Blank (2/13/18)
4. With Blood & Kisses by Richard Shattuck (2/23/18)
5. Payoff for the Banker by Frances & Richard Lockridge (3/15/18)
6. Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (3/24/18)
7. Murder Out of Turn by Frances & Richard Lockridge (3/27/18)
8. Death of a Hoosier Schoolmaster by Marlis Day (4/10/18)
9. A Vow of Penance by Veronica Black (4/11/18)
10. Mrs. Malory & the Lilies That Fester by Hazel Holt (4/13/18)
Challenge Complete! (still reading)

Challenge Compete: Crusin' Thru the Cozies

I somehow missed logging that I had completed this year's version of Yvonne at Socrates’ Book Reviews'  Cruisin’ Thru the Cozies Challenge. We were allowed to choose either the cozy categories (as she designed the challenge last year) or we could read any cozies of our choice. I prefer redto leave things open and went with the cozies of choice version with a commitment to the first level--Snoop.

Level one (Snoop) - Read a total of 10 books

Here are the Books Read for the Challenge:

1. Lament for a Lady Laird by Margot Arnold (2/3/18)
2. Another Woman's House by Mignon G. Eberhart (2/10/18)
3. Beverly Gray's Secret by Clair Blank (2/13/18)
4. With Blood & Kisses by Richard Shattuck (2/23/18)
5. Payoff for the Banker by Frances & Richard Lockridge (3/15/18)
6. Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (3/24/18)
7. Murder Out of Turn by Frances & Richard Lockridge (3/27/18)
8. Death of a Hoosier Schoolmaster by Marlis Day (4/10/18)
9. A Vow of Penance by Veronica Black (4/11/18)
10. Mrs. Malory & the Lilies That Fester by Hazel Holt (4/13/18)
Snoop Complete! (4/13/18)

I will still be reading mysteries this year, so any cozies that come along will be added to the list as well. We'll see how high I get.

Untidy Murder: Review

In Untidy Murder (1947) by Frances & Richard Lockridge, Pam and Jerry North must use all their intuition and sometimes goofy logic to help their friend Lt. Bill Weigand solve the murder of art director Paul Wilming and find Bill's wife--who has been snatched by two sinister yet hopelessly misguided thugs.

Dorian Hunt (aka Mrs. Bill Weigand) is invited to the snazzy offices of Esprit magazine to deliver examples of her fashion drawings. She has high hopes of selling her work to the art director, Paul Wilming, once he has a chance to see what she can do. He never gets that chance. Just moments before Dorian is shown to his office, he is on his way out the very high window of his office. The first policemen on the scene assume he jumped--though why he'd choose to do so right before an important appointment is anybody's guess--and they handle the case as a suicide, soon sending Dorian on her way home.

But when Lt. Bill Weigand arrives home, she's not there. He immediately back tracks over her day...landing at the offices of Esprit magazine and the tail-end of the "suicide" investigation. As soon as Pam North hears about it, she's certain that Dorian must have seen or heard something and the murderer has grabbed Dorian to prevent her from sharing her knowledge with the police. The rest of the story is race against time as Bill gathers evidence that points to murder in the hopes that it will lead him to his wife. The point of view moves back and forth between Bill & the Norths and Dorian & her captors until it leads to a surprising climax which explains exactly who did what with what and to whom.

The vast portions of shifted point of view are a departure for the Lockridges. Other stories find brief passages (usually when Pam finds herself in danger because she's jumped without looking), but this book follows Dorian vs. her captors for much longer periods of time. It really was very nice to get more of her point of view since she so often plays a very minor supporting role to her husband and the Norths.

The Lockridge books--not only the North series, but Heimrich and the others as well--are some of my comfort reading. I pick them up when I want light entertainment and an enjoyable read. Sometimes a very clever twist or plot point is included, but that's definitely not the point of these books for me. If I want clever plots that might mystify me, I'll turn to Christie or Carr...or others. But the Lockridges provide me with comfortable reads with old friends. ★★ and 1/2.

[Finished on 5/9/18]