Monday, April 29, 2019

The March Hare Murders

The March Hare Murders (1949) by Elizabeth Ferrars

Murder strikes the sleepy, seaside village of Wellford. David Obeney has come to his sisster's home in Wellford to recuperate from a mental breakdown--brought on by his experiences in the war. He doesn't expect to find one of his least favorite people in the world, Professor Verinder, whom he regards as responsible for the death of the girl he loved.

When Verinder is found murdered with David's own service revolver and the only witness is left injured without being able to identify the killer, David is the obvious and (from the village's point of view) most desirable suspect. After all--he had a known grudge against the man and he's an outsider, so they wouldn't have to worry about it being "one of us." The circumstantial evidence piles up against him and it begins to look black for David, but Inspector Upjohn from Scotland Yard isn't ready to accept the easy answer; particularly since it appears to have been contrived to point towards Obeney.

And it's not like there aren't other reasons that someone might have wanted the professor out of the way. He's revealed to be an unfaithful husband and to have been involved in smuggling rare first editions out of the country. There's a hint of blackmail in the offing too.  

Most of the mysteries I've read by Ferrars were written in the 1970s with my favorites featuring Andrew Basnett, retired professor of botany. This particular novel seems to play more to the suspense crowd than the straight mystery. In fact, David Obeney reminds me of the young heroines from Mignon G. Eberhart novels--nearly always in stressful circumstances and generally regarded as the prime suspect by their contemporaries. The net keeps pulling tighter round them until the hero (or in this case the inspector) finds a way to prove our suspect innocent. 

The suspense here falls a little flat. It's quite obvious that David isn't going to prove to be the villain in the case and it's not too difficult to figure out who it is. A little too cut and dried with one small surprise at the end. ★★ and a half.

Deaths = 3 (one shot; one shoved off a cliff; one poisoned)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Lord Peter Views the Body

Lord Peter Views the Body, is a delightful gathering of stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. The hard copy version has twelve stories while this particular audio version (read by Ian Carmichael) is missing three of the originals--including one of my favorites, "The Learned Adventure of the Dragon's Head." I have put together a brief note on each of these fun stories. Not a lot of detail, but that's to be expected with short stories. Sayers does manage to pull the reader right in regardless. ★★★★--but, then, I am biased. I love all things Wimsey and I especially love all things Wimsey when read by Ian Carmichael.

"The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers": A story of jealousy and a well-known sculptor's plan for revenge. Fortunately, Wimsey is on hand to prevent the artist from completing the second half of his masterpiece.

"The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag": A high-speed motorcyclist gets a nasty surprise when he opens a bag picked up from a cloak room.
"The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker": Wimsey uses a lovely bit of sleight of hand to silence a blackmailer.
"The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention": Wimsey delves into the mystery of the death coach--a ghostly coach pulled by headless white horses and driven by a headless coachman.
"The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps That Ran": His lordship solves a murder by noticing which way the footsteps ran.
"The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste": Will the real Lord Peter please stand up? Or at least correctly identify six varieties of wine. A story of not one, not two, but three Wimseys.
"The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach": Great Uncle Joseph chooses an unusual hiding place for his wealth.
"The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face": Wimsey solves a murder using clues provided in the discussion amongst his fellow train travelers.
"The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba": Lord Peter is reported dead....and events that follow lead to the capture of a gang of criminals.

Deaths =  Five: two strangled; two drowned; one stabbed
First line (of the first short story): The Egotists' Club is one of the most genial places in London.

Trixie Belden & the Mystery on the Mississippi

Trixie Belden and the Mystery on the Mississippi (1965) by Kathryn Kenny finds the all but one of the Bob-Whites (Diana is vacationing with her parents) in St. Louis, Missouri. The friends are invited by Mr. Wheeler, Honey and Jim's dad, to travel with him as he takes a business trip. While they have every intention of having a good, old-fashioned vacation--visiting a space rocket exhibit and following in the footsteps of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, you know that wherever Trixie goes, she's sure to stumble across a mystery that just needs solving. In this adventure, she and Honey haven't even gotten settled into their hotel room before it starts.

A briefcase with papers was left behind in their room and a very rude man bursts in and snatches it--accusing the girls of trying to steal his property. After he leaves, Trixie discover more papers in the trash can--graph papers with odd drawings on them just like those in the briefcase. She and Honey become convinced that the man is a spy and the papers have something to do with the top-secret space program. When they keep seeing the man and his fancy car as they go about their vacation, Trixie is even more convinced that he's at the bottom of something nefarious. She doesn't know how right she is and soon she and Honey will face their most dangerous situation yet.

Trixie Belden is one of the many young detectives whose adventures I followed when I was young. I may not have been quite as dedicated in collecting her books as I was Nancy Drew--I have all of the original hardback Drews--but I was definitely on the hunt for Trixie stories when a new (to me) Nancy Drew mystery wasn't available. 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 anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat, but it was far easier to see myself as Trixie--the tomboyish girl with a quick temper. I admired Trixie's determination to learn detecting as a skill so she and Honey will be able to open the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency when they are adults.

Rereading this particular story, I'm struck by how intense the danger really is. I didn't remember the villains in any of the Trixie stories being so particularly nasty, but this villain is discussing the ways in which he considers murdering the two girls. It is quite intense for a young adult/childrens story from the time period. Of course, since it is a story aimed at the pre-teen crowd, the girls are rescued and there are no murders, but the deaths he contemplates for them are very unpleasant. I was also struck by the way Honey disagrees with Trixie over whether another person is involved with the plot. It's my recollection that Honey is very loyal to Trixie and her hunches and instincts about people. This time, Honey's insistence that she knows "people pretty well, and I'd trust her with anything.  She's so motherly." leads the girls into the trap that comes near to ending their detective careers.

Still--this was a very entertaining read and it was fun to go back and revisit a book from my childhood. ★★★★

First entry for  the 1965 Club bookish meme.
Calendar = May: title with word beginning with "M"

Monday, April 22, 2019

A Girl of the Limberlost

A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) by Gene Stratton-Porter

The heroine of Stratton-Porter's book is Elnora Comstock, a sixteen-year old girl who lives at the edge of Limberlost swamp in northern Indiana with her widowed mother. Elnora is a bright, beautiful (both inside and out) girl who longs to make a better life for herself. She has gone as far as she can in the local school and makes plans to attend the city high school. Her mother is a depressed, embittered woman who has never shown Elnora a mother's love--in part because she blames the girl's birth for her husband's death. Elnora was born the night her father died in quicksand in the swamp and Katharine Comstock is certain she could have saved her beloved if she hadn't been in labor at the time. Despite Katharine's coldness, Elnora has grown to be a kind, compassionate girl who is wise beyond her years. This is partly due to her nature, but also to the loving kindness of their nearest neighbors, the Stintons. 

Katharine begrudgingly tells her daughter that she may go to high school (provided all of her chores get done either before or after school) and that all has been arranged. But Elnora's dreams look to be dashed before she's even begun--she arrives at the school dressed (to the city kids' eyes) in outlandish clothing, with no books, and without having the out-of-city registration fees paid. Her mother knew the books and fees would be required but didn't tell Elnora and didn't bother to tell Elnora. In fact, she hoped the girl would be so disheartened that she'd refuse to go back. It's obvious that Katharine doesn't know her daughter. Elnora learns that there are those that will pay good money for natural specimens (moths, cocoons, and the like) as well as arrowheads and she sets about selling what she has and making plans to collect more. An even bigger break in family relations comes when Elnora needs just one more moth to complete a collection that will fund her college enrollment. How she and her mother reach an understanding and become a real well as how Elnora wins over her city classmates and gains the love and admiration of a good man comprises the rest of this classic story. 

I grew up reading and rereading one of Stratton-Porter's other classics, Laddie. It was, in fact, one of my all-time childhood favorites and it still resonated with me when I reread it just a few years ago (see review at linked title). Whether my continued love for the book was primarily from a sense of of nostalgia or that it is just a much better told story (Laddie was published four years later), I can't say for sure. But I do know that I did not enjoy Elnora's story nearly as much as I did Little Sister's. It's possible that part of my difficulty stems from my inability to understand Elnora's mother. I simply cannot understand how someone could spend 16 years (and more...since the events of the book take place over several years) blaming their child for something that was absolutely not their fault. How a mother could be so cold and unloving to their own daughter. It is also quite possible that I would have appreciated the story more if I had first read it near the time I first read Laddie.

There are many reasons to appreciate the book--its lessons on self-reliance and belief in oneself, for one. I certainly do appreciate Elnora's thirst for knowledge and the desire to better herself. It was very good to read a story about an intelligent young woman's whose sense of self and purpose was strong enough that she refused to let obstacles (like her mother's refusal to help) stand in her way. And she manages it without becoming bitter. A good solid story that I wanted to like much more than I did. ★★

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Murder at the Mardi Gras

Murder at the Mardi Gras (1947) by Elisabet M. Stone

Maggie Slone, a reporter for New Orleans' leading afternoon daily newspaper, is assigned to cover the Mardi Gras festivities for the first carnival since the lifting of Prohibition. It is a wild night--even more so than usual with everyone toasting the end of the long dry spell. Hopping from one night spot to another, she finds herself at the famous Le Coq d'Or cafe and a witness to a grand dust-up among a group at an adjoining table. It is obvious that the trouble revolves around a femme fatale type. Gaston, the cafe's owner, has been sharing a drink with Maggie and he declares the woman to be a bad one.

No, I don't really know them. But I do know her kind. she is bad. Bad through and through. She is evil, M'selle. All evil.... [Maggie protests that the woman is lovely.] Lovely? Not at all, M'selle. To be sure she is of great beauty, but it is a cold hotness of beauty which puts into a man a devil which may drive him mad.

Next day, Maggie is sent out to cover a suicide by gas and Gaston is proven correct for one of the men, who had shown himself madly obsessed with love for Nita, is the dead man. Maggie sees a chance for a scoop and quickly writes up the story with an angle on Nita. Who is this mystery woman? And where has she disappeared to while her lover did away with himself? That last question is answered just a few hours later when Nita is found strangled to death. 

Maggie's nose for news tells her that there is a connection between the two deaths and she sets out to beat the police and rival reporters to the story. She is spurred to even greater efforts when a young girl--who had promised Maggie a secret about Nita's death--is attacked and hospitalized. The reporter's zeal for a good story and her ambition to show up the cops lead her straight into trouble and cause her to jump to a few unhealthy conclusions. Unlike many amateur detective novels, Maggie doesn't wind up showing the police how to do their jobs. She almost gets the right answer...but it's the police who get their man in the end.

Stone plays havoc with the amateur "girl detective" trope of the 30s and 40s. No nicely brought up young lady, she. She fights with her mother, is exasperated with her sisters, and regularly flouts the house rules. Maggie Slone may be a lone girl reporter in a sea of male newshounds, but she's no Beverly Gray*. She's foul-mouthed and fiery-tempered and it's a wonder she ever gets a story out of anyone. She apparently solved a murder in a previous novel--but here she digs up all sorts of clues and manages to put the wrong spin on them. So, she's definitely not infallible. 

I'm in two minds about this one. On the one hand, the mystery is well done. I totally missed a clue displayed for all the world to see early on. It's hidden in plain sight so nicely that I doubt many would catch on. But...I found Maggie to be a distraction as a lead character. Her personality is a little too much and it really detracts from the story itself--especially for the period in which it is set and was written. I don't necessarily want a mousy little girl detective--but Maggie seems to want to out-drink and out-swear the boys without any real reason given for her behavior. It's not as if the men around her are constantly telling her not to try and make it in a man's world. The only blow-back she gets is from her friends (and one man who'd like to be more than a friend) that she's putting herself in too much danger. Which--she is. ★★ for a good, solid mystery.

*Beverly Gray is a standard girl detective cast in the mold of Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton and others. Middle to upper middle class and with a nice, solid family life. She starts out her detective career in college and later takes on a job as a reporter--solving mysteries along the way.

All Challenges Fulfilled: Just the Facts, Mount TBR Challenge, Birth Year Challenge, Craving for Cozies, Cruisin' Thru the Cozies, Cloak & Dagger, Print Only, Strictly Print Challenge, 52 Books in 52 Weeks, Outdo Yourself, How Many Books, Medical Examiner, Charity Challenge
Deaths = 4 (one gassed/poisoned; one strangled; one stabbed; one shot)
Calendar = Other February Holiday (Mardi Gras was in February in 1934)

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Pocket Detective: 100+ Puzzles

I am so ashamed. After the lovely Kate Jackson arranged for me to receive a review copy of her The Pocket Detective: 100+ Puzzles last year and I somehow put it aside to "do the review later"...I never did it. How on earth did I manage to forget to sing the praises of this terrific little book of brain teasers, crossword puzzles, word searches and the like? Needless to say, I'm going to do it now!

The Pocket Detective puzzle book is perfect for those who enjoy both Golden Age detective novels and word puzzles. Jackson has collected a variety of puzzles--everything from quizzes related to the content of various Golden Age mysteries that have been recently reprinted under the British Library Crime Classics imprint to crosswords and kriss kross puzzles to spot the difference puzzles based on the covers of those mysteries. I've always enjoyed word puzzles of all kinds, so having a book of puzzles based on my first reading love--mysteries--was especially delightful. There are definite pluses to the "pocket-size" of the volume--it is very portable and you can easily slide it into a pocket, bag, or purse to pull out at any moment when you need something interesting to do while you wait. The only drawback to the size is in regards to the cover-related puzzles. The sizing on the covers make it a little more challenging to spot the differences (especially for those of us who aren't good at that kind of puzzle anyway....). Overall, a fabulous little book of puzzles! ★★★★

And good news for puzzle and mystery fans...a second volume is in the works and due out this coming Fall--hopefully in time to be given as stocking stuffers.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Gallows Court: Review

From the book flap:

LONDON, 1930
Sooty, sulphurous, and malign: no woman should be out on a night like this. A spate of violent deaths – the details too foul to print – has horrified the capital and the smog-bound streets are deserted. But Rachel Savernake – the enigmatic daughter of a notorious hanging judge – is no ordinary woman. To Scotland Yard’s embarrassment, she solved the Chorus Girl Murder, and now she’s on the trail of another killer.

Jacob Flint, a young newspaperman temporarily manning The Clarion’s crime desk, is looking for the scoop that will make his name. He’s certain there is more to the Miss Savernake’s amateur sleuthing than meets the eye. He’s not the only one. His predecessor on the crime desk was of a similar mind – not that Mr Betts is ever expected to regain consciousness after that unfortunate accident...

Flint’s pursuit of Rachel Savernake will draw him ever-deeper into a labyrinth of deception and corruption. Murder-by-murder, he’ll be swept ever-closer to its dark heart – to that ancient place of execution, where it all began and where it will finally end: Gallows Court.

Gallows Court (2018) is a bit of a departure for Martin Edwards, though those of us in the GAD (Golden Age of Detection) world shouldn't be surprised. Edwards is the author of two modern mystery series: one featuring Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin and the other set in the Lake District and featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind. But Edwards is also very much a GAD man--serving as eighth President of the Detection Club, an office filled by the likes of G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie. He has also helped bring vintage crime classics back into the public view by introducing British Library Crime Classic reprint editions of various long-forgotten GAD authors, providing a guide to such crime classics in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and giving us the history of crime fiction between the wars in The Golden Age of Murder. With Gallows Court, Edwards uses his extensive knowledge of the Golden Age period and accepted tropes to create a historical novel that both pays homage to the conventions and atmosphere of the mysteries of the period and turns some of those conventions on their head.

In fact, it wasn't until I started totting up the number of deaths (for the Medical Examiner Reading Challenge) that I realized just how far this had strayed from some of the conventions of GAD mysteries. Generally speaking, the bodies don't tend to pile up in the detective novels of the 1920s and 30s they way they do here--unless you're Agatha Christie and plotting a house party on an isolated island where the guests will die one by one. But Edwards spins such a terrific, twisty tale that I didn't mind that it's a bit more corpse-laden and grisly than my usual GAD fare. The characters are well-done with interesting motives and realistic reactions to the situations they find themselves in. An absorbing and atmospheric historical mystery that kept me reading--I finished it in one day and enjoyed every minute. My only slight quibble is that, as a GAD mystery fan, I had anticipated fair play in the solution. There is an element to the ending that I didn't find to be quite fair. Nevertheless, it was a satisfying ending with a bit of poetic justice delivered to the villain of the piece.  ★★★★

All Challenges Fulfilled: Virtual Mount TBR, Calendar of Crime, Alphabet Soup Authors, Alphabet Soup, Historical Fiction, Cloak & Dagger, Print Only, Outdo Yourself, How Many Books, Medical Examiner, Mystery Reporter, Print Only, Strictly Print
Deaths= 18 (two strangled; two shot; one poisoned; three burned to death; two stabbed; one drowned; one gassed; one hit by a car; one beaten to death; one car crash; three tortured to death)
Sept = pub month

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Man in the Brown Suit (Spoilerific Review)

The Man in the Brown Suit (1924): 

Pretty, young Anne came to London looking for adventure. In fact, adventure comes looking for her—and finds her immediately at Hyde Park Corner tube station. Anne is present on the platform when a thin man, reeking of mothballs, loses his balance and is electrocuted on the rails. The Scotland Yard verdict is accidental death. But Anne is not satisfied. After all, who was the man in the brown suit who examined the body? And why did he race off, leaving a cryptic message behind: "17-122 Kilmorden Castle"?

I am currently on a mission to reread Agatha Christie's work in order of publication. Having just started this year, I'm up to The Man in the Brown Suit. I first reviewed this one back during my first full year of blogging (pre- most of my challenges); nearly at the same time of year, in fact--March. If you'd like to see my thoughts at the time or a little more complete synopsis of the plot, then please click on the title. I'm not going to rehash the plot here. Instead, I'm going to look a little deeper at a point (that is a major spoiler--and could possibly spoil another Christie title) that struck me during this reading that just passed me by in previous readings. So, if by chance you've not read this particular Christie novel and haven't read all her big titles, by which I mean the highly recognized titles that break/bend the Golden Age rules of detection a bit, then you might want to give this review a miss.

First off, before we get to the spoiling bits, I'd just like to say that I enjoyed the novel much more this time round. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy it last time--I did--I just wasn't as enthusiastic about it as say, Yvette over at In So Many Words (who said so in the comments of that previous review). Perhaps I was in a more adventuresome mood this year. But I thoroughly enjoyed Anne's sense of adventure and longing for excitement after being cooped up with her father for so many years.

But on to the spoils of reading....What struck me so forcibly during this reading was Christie's use of the unreliable "narrator" in the extracts from Sir Eustace Pedler's diary. It is an early version of her "breaking" the very first of Father Ronald Knox's Ten Commandments of GAD rules:

The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know. [emphasis mine]

Of course she bent this same rule with even more abandon in one of her most highly recognizable titles--resulting in some criticism from mystery fans (and fellow authors) over her rule-breaking. Dorothy L. Sayers came to her defense, saying that "It is the reader's job to suspect everybody." And much has been made (again, in her defense) that there are clear breaks in the narrative and enough ambiguous language to indicate that we haven't been shown all of the criminal's thoughts.

This happens again with Sir Eustace and his diary. Readers zip along in the narrative, reading the diary excerpts in between Anne's narrative and, generally, accepting the two parallel stories at face value. But Christie (through Sir Eustace) goes out of her way to tell us that he really shouldn't be trusted. He admits to wanting to make up stories in the memoirs that he's writing but his secretary, Guy Pagett, keeps a firm grip on the truth and prevents him. Of course, we should be aware that Pagett probably doesn't oversee the personal diary entries in quite the same way--but it doesn't (or at least it didn't occur to me the first time I read it). He also tells us that while we may learn things (possibly disreputable) about other people, he's certainly not going to be indiscreet and allow readers of his memoirs--or, presumably, his diary--to learn disreputable things about him. 

A diary is useful for recording the idiosyncrasies of other people—but not one’s own.

Another tip-off that I missed the first time around. But then, as crafty as Christie was, there was nothing to prevent her from playing a double-bluff and creating a totally different, and for purposes of the crime totally innocent secret for Sir Eustace to keep out of the diary.

Great fun and even more enjoyable because of my sudden epiphany over the diary. ★★★★

All Challenges Fulfilled: Calendar of Crime, Medical Examiner, Just the Facts, Mount TBR Challenge, Color Coded Challenge, Century of Books, Cloak & Dagger, Print Only, Strictly Print Challenge, Brit Crime Classics, Outdo Yourself, Mystery Reporter, How Many Books, Six Shooter

Calendar of Crime: Jan = events
Just the Facts: diary excerpts
Deaths: one fell on electric train tracks; one strangled

Thursday, April 11, 2019

When in Rome/Opening Night

Normally when I read/listen to a book that contains two separate novels, I count it as two books done. However, the BBC Radio play productions of When in Rome/Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh has condensed the action down in such a way that I don't think it would be fair to claim two books. So, this audio edition will go down as one. I've already read the hard copy of Opening Night (Night at the Vulcan) and reviewed it [click title for review]. I'll just give the brief synopsis that came with the CD case:

In Opening Night, a leading actor is found gassed in his dressing room. It looks like suicide, until it transpires that he was widely detested. Inspector Alleyn quickly realises that almost everyone in the theatre had a motive for his murder.

When in Rome finds Inspector Alleyn ostensibly on holiday in Italy. Of course, in reality he is there on an undercover mission to track down international drug-dealers. His thoughts turn to murder when one of the members of his tour group is murdered and the very shady tour group leader disappears in a most mysterious manner.

Perhaps it is because I did just read the full novel, but it seemed to me that the radio drama of Opening Night was scripted much better than When in Rome. The cuts and condensation seemed to have little effect on the flow of the plot. And I enjoyed the cast's performances immensely. When in Rome seemed much more disjointed to me. Because so much was cut Alleyn appeared to be making deductions from absolutely nothing at all. One moment they find a dead body and the next moment he's confronting the killer and telling them exactly what they did and when. But all of the clues and evidence have not been produced for the listener. Conversations were jerky and broken which left me with a general feeling of bafflement.  ★★ for the production as a whole--primarily for Opening Night.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Mossflower: Review

Mossflower (1988) is the second book in Brian Jacques's Redwall series about the brave deeds of the woodland creatures in and around Redwall Abbey. But it is also a prequel to the first book, Redwall. It tells the foundation story which gives background on what the Mossflower Wood was like before the abbey was built and how it all came to be. At this time, the woodlanders are suffering under the cruel paw of Verduaga Greeneyes, king of the wildcats, and his even more vicious daughter Tsarmina. Tsarmina is so greedy for power that she arranges for her father's death and places the blame on her more peaceful brother Gingivere. 

When the oppressed creatures who live in the shadow of Kotir, the wildcats' castle, go hiding in the woods, Tsarmina declares all-out war. She will have serfs and slaves to pay tribute and work for her evil hordes or they will all die. The woodland creatures are fighting back the best they can, but are losing hope. Then along comes a brave mouse by the name of Martin the Warrior. He is captured after a vigorous fight (one against many), but escapes the dungeons of Kotir with his new friend Gonff the Mousethief. After helping the woodlanders mount a few battles, Martin is persuaded by Bella the Badger to lead a party to search for her father Boar the Fighter who left on a quest and never returned. Martin sets out with Gonff and Dinny the young mole to bring back help to defeat Tsarmina and her villainous vermin. Martin leaves a young warrior with a broken sword and returns to Mossflower with a reforged weapon, newfound friends and fighters, and the resolve to defeat the evil queen.

I read this one to fulfill my final category for the Book Challenge by Erin 10.0: Read a book that is a friend or family member's favorite book. My son has never been a great reader--but he fell in love with the Redwall series when he was young and I wanted to use one of his favorites for this category. He initially thought of Triss or The Legend of Luke, but when it came down to it he finally decided on Mossflower. It's easy to see why he loved this one. It has it all--big battles, hand-to-hand combat, sneaky mice getting the better of the evil cat Queen, rat pirates, a quest for an ancient hero, and a final take-down of Tsarmina that is earth-shattering (quite literally). There are also tremendous themes of friendship and loyalty; love and loss; and the constant struggle (especially for Martin) between needing to fight to protect those he loves and not wanting to kill needlessly. Great lessons for young readers wrapped in a delightful animal fantasy world that kids (if they're anything like my son) will want to visit again and again. ★★★★

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Opening Night: Review

Opening Night (aka Night at the Vulcan; 1951) finds Ngaio Marsh returning to the world of theatre--comfortable home turf for an author who claimed the theatre as her first passion. This time Marsh focuses on the back-stage antics going on as the players at the Vulcan Theater prepare for the opening of a new play by a brilliant, but difficult playwright. We see everything through the vantage point of Martyn Tarne, a young actress-in-waiting who has recently arrived from New Zealand with the hopes of landing a part on a London stage. After making a discouraging round of the theater casting calls, she comes to the Vulcan just a tad too late to audition for a part. She's down to the last bit of her money and has no idea what do when she overhears Bob Grantley, the business manager, frantically calling round for a replacement dresser for Helen Hamilton--the play's leading lady.

Helen's dresser has been rushed to the hospital and Grantley needs a substitute quick. Martyn needs a job--at this point any job will do and she offers herself as dresser. She immediately finds herself in a seething cauldron of backstage emotions and interactions. Helen Hamilton is married to the leading man, Clark Bennington. Bennington is an aging, alcoholic actor who is thoroughly disliked by just about everyone...including his wife. Helen has been having an affair with Adam Poole, the Vulcan's actor-manager. Bennington's niece, Gay Gainsford, has been cast in a rather important role--as a blood relation to Pool's character who (supposedly) looks remarkably like him and is a somewhat depraved version of himself. She's been making a rather bad showing in the part (not helped by the fact that she really looks nothing like Poole) and is having a case of the nerves. Dr. John James Rutherford, the playwright and another thoroughly unpleasant man, is having fits over Gay's inability to play the part, making himself generally disagreeable to all and sundry, and is quoting Shakespeare at everyone. J. G. Darcy and Parry Percival, the remaining actors, add their nerves and emotional outbursts to the mix.

Martyn's arrival doesn't help matters. Because you see, she does look like Poole (they wind up being second cousins or some such) and could absolutely play the part. To Gay's dismay, Martyn is made her understudy in addition to the dresser's role and on opening night, Gay has a fit of hysterics and is unable to go on. Martyn, of course, steps in to save the day and winds up being a sensation. She barely has time to take in her good fortune (and all the applause) when Clark Bennington doesn't show up for his curtain calls and is discovered dead in his dressing room. To the actors, it has every appearance of suicide. But when Inspector Roderick Alleyn arrives from the Yard, he is not convinced. And, of course, he and Inspector Fox will find all the clues and discover the culprit.

There were several things that I enjoyed about this one: The opening scenes with Martyn--learning of her journey round the theaters and her bad luck at the auditions; her interactions with the fellow-hard luck actress outside the Vulcan; and her conversations with Fred Badger, the nightwatchman. In fact, I liked Fred Badger so much that I kind of hoped that we'd see more of him. But, alas. Jacko, Adam Poole's right-hand man and jack of all trades is also an interesting character--again, particularly in his interactions with Martyn. Overall, I'd say that I enjoyed the characters' interactions with each other--barring a few jarring exceptions (Gay Gainsford gets on my last nerve, for instance). I really do think Marsh was in her element when writing about the theatre and the people of that world. She creates interesting and realistic characters and it's evident that she's writing from experience. ★★★★

All Challenges Fulfilled: Mount TBR Challenge, Print Only, Strictly Print Challenge, Just the Facts, Calendar of Crime, Alphabet Soup, Ngaio Marsh Challenge, Print Only, Strictly Print Challenge, 52 Books in 52 Weeks, Brit Crime Classics, Outdo Yourself, How Many Books, Six Shooter, Medical Examiner

The 1965 Club: One Week Reading Event

Simon (Stuck in a Book) and Karen are getting us set for another spring reading event. In less than two weeks, they will kick off the 1965 Club--in which we read and post about as many books first published in 1965 as we can.

Looking over my TBR stacks, I have about ten books that would qualify. I'll list them here and we'll see how many I can squeeze in for the Club.

The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy by Robert Arthur
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories Not for the Nervous edited by Robert Arthur

A Selection of Poems by E. E. Cummings
Cut Thin to Win by A. A. Fair 
African Adventure by Josephine James
Is Skin Deep, Is Fatal by H. R. F. Keating
The Hiding Place by Carlton Keith
Trixie Belden and the Mystery on the Mississippi by Kathryn Kenny
The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout
The Willow Pattern by Robert van Gulik

Thursday, April 4, 2019

A Knife in the Back

One way to know that you are reading a cozy mystery is to use a handy-dandy checklist. If you can tick off a high percentage of the the boxes, you most likely have a cozy mystery in your hands. Here's a sample that applies to A Knife in the Back (2002) by Bill Crider:

Cozy Mystery Checklist
Plucky heroine/hero (hereafter known as PH) who is not a professional sleuth [✔]
Either an unsympathetic/antagonistic police officer (often not the sharpest knife in the drawer) who resents interference &/or thinks the PH did it OR a friendly/indulgent police officer who allows PH to investigate to their heart's content (who may or may not be the PH's significant other) [✔]
PH or PH's friend/loved one is initially thought to be the killer and PH must investigate to save the day [✔]
PH has frolicsome feline or cuddly canine [✔]
PH is involved in some sort of hobby/profession that mysteriously attracts dead bodies like they're going out of style (knitting/baking/stamp collecting/antique dealer/bookstore owner/etc) [  ]
PH has close-knit group of friends who help (to greater or lesser extent) the investigation [  ]
Takes place in a small town/village [✔]
Generally speaking little or no graphic violence (murders usually happen "off-stage") [✔] (although there is a bit more rough and tumble at one point in this book than usual)

So, yeah...we've got us a cozy mystery on our hands. And a fairly low-key one at that. Not that there aren't murders. There are. And not that there isn't some violence--see comment above. But our heroine, Dr. Sally Good definitely has a method of investigation. 

Dr. Good is the Chair of the English Department at Hughes Community College. Up till now she's been a bit standoffish both professionally and romantically speaking--due to still being in recovery from losing her beloved husband. But. She has finally taken the plunge and agreed to a date with fellow professor Jack Neville. She's still wondering if going out with a colleague will be a good idea when word reaches her that a much despised college trustee, Ralph Bostic, has been murdered. And Jack is the prime suspect. But only because his hand-made knife was found plunged in Bostic's back. When Detective Weems seems pretty certain that the evidence points Jack's way, Sally naturally decides to jump into the investigation and prove that her would-be date is no killer. And how are we going to do that? By talking to all the campus gossips to find out who the other possible suspects are and then confronting each one until one of them decides to murderously confront Jack (with an eye to having him "kill himself" in remorse for his evil deeds). That's how we prove who the killer is.

This is a pretty middle-of-the-road academic mystery. It's not too taxing (no intricate puzzle plot to figure out) and is mildly entertaining for a quick read. I can't say that the plot was strewn with clues, so if you figure out whodunit it won't be because your detective's eye spotted all the pointers. But it was a decent story--especially when you consider how rare it is for a male author to write a female protagonist...and to do so in a convincing manner (see one of my early 2019 reviews, The Winter Women Murders for an example of how NOT to do it). ★★

All Challenges Fulfilled: Craving for Cozies, Cruisin' Thru the Cozies, Mount TBR Challenge, Calendar of Crime, Alphabet Soup, PopSugar, Monthly Motif, Cloak & Dagger, Challenge Throwback, Print Only, Strictly Print Challenge, Outdo Yourself, How Many Books, Mystery Reporter, Medical Examiner

Calendar of Crime: July = author's birth month
Medical Examiner: 2 deaths = one stabbed; one hit on the head

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

April 2019 Calendar of Crime Reviews linky provider (in the name of "improvements") has limited the number of "parties" I can have open at one time. This means that I'll have to close each month's link-up earlier than anticipated. I'll try to keep up with getting the new links prepared--but please be patient. Each month will go live as soon as possible. I may have to rethink my link-ups for next year...

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April 2019 Virtual Mount TBR Reviews linky provider (in the name of "improvements") has limited the number of "parties" I can have open at one time. This means that I'll have to close each month's link-up earlier than anticipated. I'll try to keep up with getting the new links prepared--but please be patient. Each month will go live as soon as possible. I may have to rethink my link-ups for next year...

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April Mount TBR Reviews linky provider (in the name of "improvements") has limited the number of "parties" I can have open at one time. This means that I'll have to close each month's link-up earlier than anticipated. I'll try to keep up with getting the new links prepared--but please be patient. Each month will go live as soon as possible. I may have to rethink my link-ups for next year...

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April Key Word Reviews linky provider (in the name of "improvements") has limited the number of "parties" I can have open at one time. This means that I'll have to close each month's link-up earlier than anticipated. I'll try to keep up with getting the new links prepared--but please be patient. Each month will go live as soon as possible. I may have to rethink my link-ups for next year...
April's Key Words:  Shower, Time, Bunny/Hare, Basket, Cross, Hunt, Parade, All, Where

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April Just the Facts Reviews linky provider (in the name of "improvements") has limited the number of "parties" I can have open at one time. This means that I'll have to close each month's link-up earlier than anticipated. I'll try to keep up with getting the new links prepared--but please be patient. Each month will go live as soon as possible. I may have to rethink my link-ups for next year.

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The Man Born to Be King: Review

In The Man Born to Be King (1943), Dorothy L. Sayers brings her literary powers to bear on the life of Christ. She follows His story from birth to Resurrection and Ascension--combining the texts from all the Gospels into one seamless, coherent story. Her radio drama play cycle (12 in all) brings the story of Jesus of Nazareth to modern, mid-20th Century listeners in language and situations that, while remaining true to the scriptures, modern audiences recognize. she couched her dramas in such a way that the British public of the 1940s could picture themselves in the story and recognized the behavior of the participants as very like people they knew.

One of her goals in creating this play-cycle was to reveal events as if they were happening for the first time. Her introductory notes explain that everyone who has read the gospel accounts always view the events from a post-resurrection point of view. The tendency is to look at the doubters and wonder how on earth could they not have known who Jesus was...but they didn't have the advantage of years of hindsight and ability to study the New Testament. It's like we all turned immediately to the last chapter of a mystery where the detective goes through all the evidence that proves who did it and then we go back and wonder why all those people in the story didn't automatically know that Mr. Smith was the villain of the piece.

Most of the people who didn't recognize who Jesus was were just ordinary people going about their everyday business. If the boy next door whom you had grown up with and known all your life left home and you started hearing stories about how he was performing all kinds of miracles--would you immediately believe. Or would you say, who Johnny? Why, I remember when he was running around in diapers. How could he be turning water into wine? Sayers allows us to understand how those people felt and why it was so hard for them to believe.

She gives us an in-depth view of the disciples and other major figures--thoughtfully bringing forth their humanity in all its flaws and best moments. She provides a very convincing argument for how Judas, who had been chosen as one of the twelve, could betray the man he believed in.

I have yet to read any of Sayers' work that has not been thoughtful, interesting, and--where needed--well-researched. She infuses her serious writing with wit and humor while never losing sight of the serious issues involved. ★★★★

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Teaser Tuesday: Opening Night

Sponsored by The Purple Booker (click link for meme guidelines)
Back again for Teaser Tuesday (two weeks in a row!) Here's this week's contribution:

"Then I tell you. Yes, I would like to see this little freak play your part because she is in fact a little freak. She has dropped into this theatre like an accident in somebody else's dream and the effect is fantastic."

~from Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh