Thursday, April 30, 2020

The April Fool's Day Murder

The April Fool's Day Murder (2001) by Lee Harris

Willard Platt isn't known as the jolliest, kindest man in Oakwood. He's started lawsuits and played hardball with neighbors and the city over land rights, for instance. And he is very nasty to Christine Bennett and her small son when Eddie accidentally runs into him at the local supermarket. But he does have at least one redeeming quality--his love of the theater and his support for the local school's drama program. His sense of the theatrical leads him to stage his own "murder" as an elaborate part of the drama club's April Fool's Day scavenger hunt. But someone else decides to have the last laugh and repeats the performance later that afternoon...only this time it really is murder. 

Chris finds herself involved in another recent murder (as in my previous read) when she is the one who notices the "dead body" the first time. She's gone to the garden supply shop across the road from the Platt home and sees what she believes to be a corpse. She doesn't touch him, but when Willard doesn't respond, she rushes home and calls the police. And then is thoroughly embarrassed when told it was all part of the elaborate April Fool's shenanigans on the part of the drama club. Later that afternoon, her friend Melanie calls to tell her that Willard Platt is dead. But Chris isn't having any--she doesn't like April Fool's jokes in general and is really tired of them this year. Mel is so insistent that it's really true that Chris calls her policeman husband. Yes, Willard Platt really is dead this time. 

At first, Chris doesn't want to get involved. The joke in the morning really shook her up, but the more she hears about the situation and the more she thinks about it the more interested she gets. This is especially true after she spies an older woman walking along the road at night and offers her ride--only to discover that she is Willard's widow and she's determined to go see her son even though she no longer drives. She hasn't been able to reach him and he hasn't been to see her since receiving the news of his father's death. Chris is appalled that the son hasn't rallied round his mother and even the fact that he was estranged from his father doesn't convince her that he would abandon his mother in such difficult circumstances. She soon learns that there's more troubles in this family than the current death--including the accidental death of the Platts' grandson when his grandmother lost control of the car (this explains why she no longer drives). Chris keeps coming back to that previous death. But why would someone kill Willard if his wife was the one responsible? 

But, of course, there's also the father and son relationship to consider. Roger has never gotten along with his demanding father and he finally decided to break with him completely when he realized he would never meet Willard's unreasonable standards. Did something recent happen to make killing his overbearing father seem necessary? And then there's the owner of the garden shop and nursery. Mr. Vitale had what he thought was a deal to get more land and expand his nursery, but Willard Platt put a stop to that. Was the land worth killing over? Chris will need to sift through these possible motives and more details from the past before coming up with the solution.

I remembered this one a little better than the others I've reread recently. I was quite sure I knew the motive and knowing the motive had two suspects in mind. Even with a pretty good idea of who did it and why, I still enjoyed this one very much. I particularly like the twist on the April Fool's joke. I know that I've read other books that feature a joke or plan that goes wrong (or gets used to do wrong), but it's an interesting plot device nonetheless.  ★★ 

Deaths = 2 (one auto accident; one stabbed)

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The New Year's Eve Murder (a bit spoilerish

The New Year's Eve Murder (1997) by Lee Harris is the ninth book in the Christine Bennet series. I'm steadily making my way through the books that I haven't yet reviewed on the blog and/or used for challenges previously. New Year's Eve finds Chris, her husband Jack, and new baby invited to a party and overnight stay at the home of their friends, Arnold & Harriet Gold. While there, Arnold receives a distressed phone call from another friend--Ada Stark. Ada's daughter Susan is missing. Susan's boyfriend, Kevin, dropped her off in front of her parents' house the afternoon before New Year's Eve. She planned to spend the night and then go to a New Year's Eve party with him. But it appears that she never got into the house. No one has seen her since she got out of Kevin's car and he drove away. 

Of course, since Susan is of age, the police don't go full-throttle looking for her. Adults can change their minds about what they want to do and where they want to be. But Chris talks with the boyfriend and the mother and she realizes that this isn't a case of an adult woman deciding to run away from her obligations. Something must have happened after Susan got out  of the car, but what could have happened on a public street in broad daylight? Once she starts digging, she finds that things aren't quite what they seem. It appears that Susan did go off on her own and apparently paid a farmer a month's rent on an abandoned farmhouse. When Chris follows that lead, she finds what she dreaded she might....a dead body. But even that isn't what it seems.

Spoilers ahead--- read at your own risk

This mystery veers a little from the usual line for our former nun. Normally, Chris is looking into murders and mysteries from the past (some more historical than others, but never "just yesterday). Having her come across a fresh corpse is something new and a question of identity gives it even more of a spin. 

The first time I read this (closer to the published date), I noted that this wasn't my favorite of the series but didn't explain why. This time I can say that while the twists were interesting and so was the investigation, the ending falls a little flat with the introduction of a surprise suspect. There really isn't any way for the reader to figure out how this particular person might have a motive. It isn't until the very end when Chris starts connecting dots (that were invisible up till that moment) that you can see how s/he might be involved. Other than that, this is another good entry into the series and still well worth the time. ★★ 

Deaths = one beaten with a shovel
Calendar of Crime = December (New Year's Eve)
Mystery Reporter = How (mistaken identity)

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Life & Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton

The Life & Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (1944) by Magdalen King-Hall is a book of parts. The first half of the book is a serial ghost story that is supposed, I guess, to whet the reader's appetite for the second part where we learn about the awful things that Lady Barbara Skelton got up to in the 17th Century. I think what King-Hall was trying to do was produce a kind of reading "time machine" effect--we start in the then present-day where Nazi bombers have managed to pretty much destroy Maryiot Cells, the one-time home of the notorious Lady. The locals aren't too upset bout the destruction of a manor house that has been considered cursed for years. The landlord of the Red Lion is even heard to say, "those Nazi ---s did one good job, anyhow, when they put a finish to that place."

She takes us back through the generations, relating incidents of hauntings which seemed to be more severe whenever any addition or renovation was planned on the house. It seems that Lady Barbara doesn't like the idea of anyone messing with her home. [Though given her story, I can't for the life of me figure out what she cares so much about the place.]

The second half of the story tells about the wicked lady herself. A rare beauty, born with more intelligence and thirst for excitement than was good for her in the times she lived, we meet Barbara when she's preparing to wed Sir Ralph Skelton. It's an excellent match and all that a young woman of her time could hope for. For some reason, Barbara thinks that getting married is going to lift her out of the humdrum life she's led up till now--learning manners and to dance and other feminine occupations to make her marriageable material. It doesn't matter that she doesn't love Sir Ralph; it's all going to be perfectly thrilling. But if she's paid any attention at all to the lives of the married women around her, one has to wonder where she got the idea that getting married was the gateway to some grand, exciting adventure.

Needless to say, she's sorely disappointed. Once married, her life settles down into one long gossip session with various female relations all while "sitting on cushions and sewing a fine seam." Can you say bored? Barbara is bored out of her ever-lovin' mind. She takes up card-playing (within the family circle) and manages to lose her most prized possession--a necklace left her by the mother who died when she was young--to her much-hated sister-in-law. That's when she has her brainstorm--she'll dress up like a ruffian and waylay her sister-in-law's carriage and steal back her beloved necklace. She manages to pull off the robbery and has such an exhilarating time that she takes up a secret life of crime. Of course, the excitement is like a drug to Barbara and she has to commit more daring and more dangerous feats to keep riding high as it were. She's soon caught in a life of robbery, adultery, and even murder. But it all goes well for Barbara...until she makes the mistake of falling in love and this leads to tragedy.

my copy
I have to say this wasn't quite as good as expected (especially after looking at the Goodreads reviews)--the portion focused on Lady Barbara just didn't hold my attention. Although--I did feel badly for the way things ended for her. That was a knife twist of a different sort (sorry to be vague--but spoilers). My favorite part of the whole book was the portion dealing with Lady Sophia Skelton, who was haunted by her predecessor nearly 100 years after Barbara's death. The letters Lady Sophia writes to her husband about the incidents are delightful and I quite honestly could have read an entire book focused on Lady Sophia. 

The historical details are are also interesting and King-Hall does a fine job differentiating the the various time periods covered--from World War II era to Victorian to Regency to the 17th Century. All very interesting. So--for Lady Sophia and the historical detail, I'm giving ★★ and 1/2.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Nobody's Perfect

Nobody's Perfect (1969) by Douglas Clark

Adam Huth, the chairman of Barugt (pronounced Barf--seriously?) Pharmaceuticals, would seem to be the exception that proves the rule. When he's found poisoned at his desk in his office, Inspector Masters and Sergeant Green from the Yard are called in to discover who wanted him dead. As the investigation goes on, it appears that everybody thought Huth was perfectly fine. He seemed to put his people before profits. He tried to make decisions that were in the best interest of people--even though those decisions ultimately were best for the company as well. Everyone who works for him has positive things to say about him. Even his wife, though they don't share a bed any more, seems to think quite a bit of him. The Scotland Yard team has to dig quite a bit to find any dirt that will stick and to find a motive urgent enough to spawn a murder.

Overall, this is a so-so beginning to what I consider to be a really good police procedural series. I'm actually really glad that I didn't read these in order because I don't think that this would have reeled me in the way later books did. You would think it would because this is actually more of a classic mystery than the later books--which focus a bit more on the interesting and out-of-the-ordinary ways to knock off people you'd like out of the way. Clark came from the pharmaceutical industry himself, so he was able to come up with all sorts of ingenious ways to kill. Nobody's Perfect has a more straight-forward poisoning and is more concerned with motives. This is probably the most interesting part of the book--though I have to say I find the motive chosen as the driving force to be a little thin. Maybe it would have been more powerful in 1969, but it seemed to me that there were stronger motives OR the one chosen could have been handled a bit differently to make it stronger

But what I found most disappointing was the introduction of Masters and Green. I knew from reading the later books that the team-up had started pretty rocky and the competition still rears its head once in a while, but at bottom they are good guys who respect each other. Here--there is none of the respect. And, quite frankly, they both are irritating and annoying and downright unlikable--until the final two chapters. Then, we get just a gleam of the people we'll know in later installments. ★★ for a good plot and interesting investigation of motives. There are also some well-drawn characters among the pharmaceutical employees that make this worthwhile.

Deaths =  (one poisoned)
Calendar of Crime: October (primary action)

First Line: It was a bright Tuesday morning in October.
Last Line: Masters took her arm and escorted her out of the office.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Chinese Nightmare

Chinese Nightmare (1947) by Hugh Pentecost

Johnny Curtain, a former POW in WWII and a pretty darn good piano player, wakes up, disoriented in a hospital in Chunking. He starts putting together his memory--traveling by plane and ferry towards a gig playing music for GIs stationed in China, noticing a man in disguise that joins him on each stage of his journey, realizing with a jolt who that man in disguise is, trying to convince Major Hardwick of the American forces just whom it was he saw, and then a drink in a bar that made him feel awful woozy...

Then, after he's gotten himself sorted, he starts listening to the ramblings of the man in the bed next to him. He seems to have lost someone named Lydia. When this man finally comes fully awake, he tells his story--he met this perfectly lovely girl on the plane and he made a date to have dinner with her after the conference he'd come for. But when he went to pick her up at the hotel address she'd given him--they claimed no such person had registered with them. The airline claimed that no such person had flown with them. Lydia has vanished into a puff of smoke. And now he'd had this infernal accident and couldn't follow up on the mystery any more. Would Johnny be willing to check the story just once more for him--to either prove that Lydia really had existed or to convince him that he'd somehow managed to dream her up?

Johnny's game and sets off to look for Lydia. And finds himself even further embedded in the mystery that started with the man in disguise.

Pentecost packs quite a lot into this tiny digest-size story. Mystery, murder, action, Nazis, spies and counter-spies, treachery and double-crosses...and even romance. He manages to set it in China without turning it into a latter-day Yellow Peril story and gives the whole thing a slam-bang (literally) finish. Very enjoyable, fast-paced little novelette. ★★★★

Deaths=  5 (one poisoned; four shot--and a whole slew more who are nameless and therefore can't count who are blown up)
Vintage Extravaganza Gold: Rule #5 (Chinaman)

First Line: It was like coming back from death.
Last Lines: I hope you weren't kidding when you said you like the piano. You're going to hear an awful lot of it the rest of your life.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Ebony Bed Murder

The Ebony Bed Murder (1932) by Rufus Gillmore

Our narrator, who is apparently a journalist or writer looking to write up murder mysteries for publication, has gone to Griffin Scott's home to get the inside scoop on what really happened in a previous murder (referred to as "the Lopez murder"). Scott, who is an advertising man by day, moonlights as an amateur detective While there, Scott is called upon by D.A. Hutchinson to join him at the site of a new mystery: the death of Helen Brill Kent. And for reasons mysterious to me, Scott takes the narrator along for the ride.

Helen, a beautiful woman, has been known for the way she has gone through five husbands--marrying and discarding them and collecting as much as possible in divorce settlements. She's found shot in her own ebony bed after prematurely leaving a birthday celebration in her honor. Her relatives and the police (in the person of Sergeant Mullens) insist that it's suicide due to neuralgia but Scott immediately recognizes signs that point to murder. 

Investigation shows that there are several motives for murder hanging about the Brill Kent premises. She had given the boot to her leech-like father and brothers--cutting them off without anymore handouts. She had also given notice to her "stage-mother" friend and confidante who had helped her build the image that had drawn in monied men like flies to honey. There was also a mysterious man whose voice was heard in Helen's bedroom after she left the party--who was he and what motive might he have had? Scott will have to work quick if he's to prevent the police from following up the wrong clues and arresting the wrong person.

I can't decide what to think of this book. At the beginning I was sure that this thing had originally been written in a foreign language that had a vastly different grammar and word arrangement system from English and then translated by someone who transcribed it word by word with no regard for how it would read/sound. The writing was stiff and ungainly. Word choices jarred--someone please tell me how eyes can "bristle." And when were penguins ever glum and how did we know?

But then we settled down into the story and--though the writing was still not stellar--things picked up. The murder seemed to be ingenious--after all, how did the murderer manage to get their victim to sit there calmly and let them shoot them in the mouth without a struggle or a peep? The amateur was going to hunt the clues and break alibis and generally show the officials how it's done. Except....he didn't. For pages and pages Griffin Scott didn't seem to get anywhere. Or when he did, it didn't matter. And Sergeant Mullens takes the prize for most obnoxious, pig-headed, single-minded policeman that I've had the (a--hem) pleasure of meeting in fiction. Once Scott convinces him that the death couldn't possibly be suicide (and that took some doing, let me tell you) then he latches onto a suspect and absolutely nothing will make him think about anything else. Every single clue Scott picks up either gets twisted to point to the suspect of choice or is simply ignored as if it doesn't exist. 

The narrator of the book (the Watson character) is also annoying as all get-out. How many times does Scott have to tell him that he (Scott) doesn't believe that Mullens' favorite suspect (a lovely young lady that our narrator has a soft spot for) is guilty before he'll believe Scott and trust that Scott is working towards the truth--which will, incidentally, clear the lovely lady? I got tired of the narrator-in-shining-armor jumping all over Scott every time he (Scott) asked a question that Mr. Narrator (apparently Gillmore himself) feels makes things look sketchy for the lady.

The best part of the book is Scott's interview with the man who was next on Helen's husband list. Watching him outsmart the man who manipulated both Mullens and Hutchinson into leaving him out of it was a treat. This is when things really started to get good and I have to hand it to Gillmore for a nice plot with an even better ending. I just wish that the first 2/3rds of the book had been better. It's been said that this was written in the style of S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance novels--but there's far more tough-guy talk going on here than you'll find in a Vance story and Scott is nowhere near the gentlemanly amateur of a Vance. He's a down-to-earth adman who just happens to have a Batman-like cave full of gadgets, gizmos, and chemistry projects. ★★

Rick @ Reading the Mystery League has also read this title please visit his site for another review of The Ebony Bed Murder.

Deaths= 3 (one shot; one pushed off roof; one jumped out window)
Mystery Bingo: Card #2--Weapons: push/fall; Red Herrings: 2nd weapon

First Line: On the night of the first shocking tragedy, I pushed the bell to Griffin Scott's duplex apartment.
Last Line: Shah sat up on his lap. He began to make an elaborate toilet for his new home.

Other quotes:

If words was bullets, only one man, woman, or child would be alive today. (Sgt. Mullens, p. 43)

When conceit was handed out, you must have been there with a moving van. (D.A. Hutchinson, pp. 62-3)

 Most people fondly priding themselves that they're analytical are only suspicious. (Griffin Scott, p. 116)

How does that look to you? It looks like dirty work of the dirtiest kind to me. (Narrator, p 157)

A moan, a shriek of warning from me. Both wasted. (p. 193)

The Passover Murder

The Passover Murder (1996) by Lee Harris

This installment in the Christine Bennett mystery series finds our ex-nun getting involved in a mystery from her friend Melanie's past. When Chris attends the Passover celebration of Melanie's family, she learns about a Passover dinner from 16 years ago when Great-Aunt Iris went to the door to let in the Prophet Elijah and never came back. Iris's battered body was found two days later in an undesirable part of Manhattan. The police were unable to find anyone with a motive and so the case is still open. Chris is persuaded to look into the murder by Melanie and her mother--even though she feels that the family patriarch (whom she just met, but already likes very much) would rather that old secrets stay buried.

Despite the reluctance of Iris's family and friends to answer questions, Chris is able to read between the lines and uncovers a surprising suspect that the police overlooked. Little clues and passing comments lead to a big reveal, though it would take a reader with psychic powers to figure out the complete story before Christine . I'm not complaining, though--Harris's characters are good and the plot is solid. And these mysteries are nice, comfy reads for when you don't want to puzzle over complex plots and intense drama among the players.  ★★ 

Deaths = One (beaten to death)
Calendar of Crime = April (Passover cups on cover)
Mystery Bingo
Card #1: Weapon = Bare Hands; Crime Scene = Car; Red Herrings = Ex-husband

First Line: "What I'm really trying to say," my friend Melanie Gross said over the telephone, "is that it's going to be a slightly crazy experience, but I think you'll enjoy it."

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Valentine's Day Murder

The Valentine's Day Murder (1996) by Lee Harris (Syrell Leahy) 

Why would three grown men take off across the frozen expanse of Lake Erie on a hike to Canada? That's what everyone asks when Matty, Clark, and Val (Valentine) set off across the lake after celebrating Val's birthday. The men disappear--leaving only a hole in the ice and a red scarf behind. Was it really a harmless challenge gone wrong? Or did one of them set out across the ice with murder in his heart on Valentine's Day? 

Right after the disappearance, Val's wife asks Christine Bennett to look into the mystery because she's sure her husband is still alive even though the police are certain all three perished that night. But Chris's life is pretty full already--she's expecting her first child and she & her husband Jack have just hired builders to put an extension on their house--so, she turns the woman down. Later, after the ice thaws, two bodies are found and one of them was shot. Now the police are willing to believe that Val is alive, but they also think he's a murderer. His wife is just as certain he's not a murder as she was that he is alive and she wants Chris to prove it.

Chris is reluctant at first, but Jack urges her to go ahead ("You know you're interested"). Soon, she's knee-deep in another investigation and it isn't long till she realizes that nothing is exactly what it seems. The answer is even more tragic than the apparent murder between old friends.

I've really enjoyed digging into these mysteries again (I know...what about all the books you haven't read at all? Shhh. I'm comfort reading.). Interesting characters and interactions and this book packs a few surprises at the end that may have been timely in the 90s, but they're actually even more relevant today. As I noted in my previous re-read (The Christening Day Murder) these may not be clued in the way an armchair detective might like, but they are good little mysteries with solid plots--and just right for quarantine comfort reading. ★★ and 1/2.


Deaths = 3 (one shot; one drowned; one smothered)
Calendar of Crime = February (Valentine on cover)

First Line: When the phone rang that beautiful spring day, I think I knew before I answered who would be on the other end.
Last Line: Maybe the murder on the lake wasn't my last case after all.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Christening Day Murder

People live with their consciences better than we like to think. And guilt rarely leaves a mark that you can see. If it did, the police would have an easier job. Unfortunately, guilt isn't like a scar or a scarlet A. ~The Christening Day Murder (1993) by Lee Harris

Christine Bennett, former nun and sometime amateur investigator, is invited to the christening of the son of a childhood friend. Maddiie Stifler Clark was the last baby to be christened at the St. Mary Immaculate Church in Studsburg before an Army Corps of Engineers flooded the town to create a reservoir. Now, thirty years later, after a drought has dried up the lake, the town and church have reemerged and Maddie wants her son to be christened in the church. It's a happy occasion that is marred when Christine discovers a skeleton hidden under the basement stairs. Someone was shot, killed, and buried with the church under all that water 30 years ago. There's little evidence with the remains and no one seems to have gone missing from the small-town residents. But when Christine starts questioning the former inhabitants why does she feel like they're all hiding something from her?

Long after the official investigators give up on identifying their Jane Doe, Christine keeps digging and decides that she needs to focus on people who weren't really from Studsburg but who just worked there. After a couple of false starts, she finally discovers who the skeleton under the stairs was and why someone thought she was worth killing.

Nearly all of the Christine Bennett mysteries have at least one foot in the past. She excels at doing research and asking the right questions to jog people's memories. But most of the past memories have ties to current events. The Christening Day Murder is entirely focused on the events of 30 years ago, so Christine's work is really cut out for her and finding the answers to long-buried questions puts her skills to the test.

This was the first book in the series that I read many moons ago (long before blogging took over my life) and it was a pleasure to reread it after digging through boxes in the garage. I like that Christine is a tenacious investigator, but she is also more cautious than a lot of the amateur detectives in these cozy mysteries. She doesn't charge into situations without a thought for danger--her boyfriend Jack always knows where she's headed and who she plans to talk to. She's level-headed and compassionate--wanting to help people along the way in her investigations. Here, she manages to bring together a mother and daughter who haven't seen each other for 30 years. 

The clues pointing to the particular killer aren't quite what an armchair detective might want, but overall this is a solid mystery with an interesting background and unusual motive for the silence of the townspeople. Quite good. ★★ and 1/2.

Deaths = one (shot)
Calendar of Crime = July (Independence Day)

First Line: It began with a phone call out of the blue, a voice I hadn't heard for many months.
Last Line: It was a receipt fro a .38-caliber revolver bought by Candy Phillips before she came to Studsburg.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Grey Flannel Shroud

The Grey Flannel Shroud (1959) by Henry Slesar was awarded the Edgar for Best First Novel in 1960. Slesar used his backgrond in advertising to set up a murder mystery set in the advertising world. This gives the agency a very real atmosphere and is one of the highlights of the book. It features Dave Robbins, a young ad man, who finds himself in charge of one of the Hagerty Taits Associates biggest campaigns. When the Burke Baby Food's account manager is sidelined due to a heart attack, Dave gets his big chance. But will the new position be the death of him?

He soon soon discovers a few mysteries surrounding the newest Burke Baby campaign--from the mysterious firing of the photographer assigned to the account to a large, unexplained payment to "A. G." Those connected to the account begin dying and he feels like a target himself after a near fatal subway incident even before he took the account and poison in his nerve medication after the assignment. The clues continue to pile up and they all seem to point towards his boss, Homer Hagerty. His girlfriend, Janey--who is the boss's niece and a darn good ad illustrator--insists it can't be Uncle Homer (insists quite loudly and angrily and often), but if it's not good ol' Uncle Homer, who is it? And why did they have it in for David before he was even assigned to the account?

As far as the whole Edgar award thing goes--I'm just going to tell you up front that I'm not entirely convinced...But then I just stepped aside for a moment to check on the other nominee that year (A Dream of Falling by Mary O. Rank) and I guess of the two, yeah, give it to Slesar. [But seriously were there no other contenders out there in 1959?]

It's not that Shroud is a bad book. It's not. It's got a perfectly decent plot line as far as it goes. The initial set-up around the Burke Baby (for which I read the Gerber Baby) is actually pretty good. But the reveal on the motive isn't. The entire last chapter is a bit of an anti-climax to be quite honest. And the relationship between Dave Robbins and Janey Hagerty doesn't do a whole heck of a lot for me. The blurbs make it seem like she's integral to Robbins figuring out what's going on at the ad agency. but all she seems to be there for (in terms of the mystery) is to argue with Dave every time a bit of evidence comes up that makes her uncle look guilty. ★★ and 3/4--just not quite a three-star effort by my reckoning.

Deaths = 4 (one fire; one heart attack; two shot)
Vintage Scattergories 2013 Gold #1 Colorful Crime

First line: It was his first morning on the Sword's Point railway platform, and Dave Robbins looked about him with interest.
Last line: "Virus," Louise said. "Isn't it terrible how it gets around?" [Much too apt for the times we live in.]

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Curtain for a Jester

Curtain for a Jester (1953) by Frances & Richard Lockridge was the perfect book for me to read this week. The primary action takes place on April Fool's Day--or rather in the evening. Byron Wilmot lives in the penthouse apartment atop the building where Pam and Jerry North also live. They've "met" Wilmot exactly nod to in an elevator ride. For no discernible reason he invites them to a little party that he's giving in honor of All Fool's Day.

They are well aware of Wilmot's reputation as a practical joker--after all he owns the Novelty Emporium where one can buy all sorts of joke products and costumes. And, as Pam notes in the first line of the book (below), one can expect everything from rubber spiders to snakes with springs in them. One doesn't expect the doorbell to have been turned into a screeching woman or the door to be opened by a man apparently holding his head in his hand. Yes, they know right away that Wilmot's party isn't going to be a typical drinks and dancing affair.

Not everybody enjoys the jokes, however. Two of Wilmot's employees, John Baker and Martha Evitts, arrive in full costume as a boy in rompers and an old witch. Which would be fine if the party had actually been a masquerade ball instead of a formal affair. They were none too pleased with their boss's cruel twist on their age difference. And then there was Clyde Parsons, Wilmot's nephew, who came as he was (quite casually dressed) after an urgent phone call told him that his uncle might be dying and wanted to see him to "make things right." Then, as a climax, the lights go out and it appears that a burglar is on the rooftop outside the french doors. Arthur Monteath, an acquaintance of the Norths, is called upon by Wilmot to help nab him. He's thrown a gun and in the confusion winds up shooting him. Fortunately, it's not a real burglar but a dummy. Wilmot thinks it's uproariously funny that he's made Monteath think he's killed a man. Later that night, there is a killing--but Wilmot's no longer laughing. He's dead with a knife in his chest. 

Pam North winds up making the "squeal" to Acting Captain Bill Weigand. She insists that if he can just find out where a red-haired man fits into the scheme of things that he'll be able to solve the murder. You see, Wilmot had gone to a great deal of trouble with that dummy--he gave it a red wig and a scar. Not that anyone else noticed the scar. As she points out to Weigand, this wasn't meant to look like a dummy; "this was meant to look like a man. That, she said was the point. 'This one was meant to be somebody. Else why the red hair?'" As is the case so many times, Pam is right. But there's more to the plot than just the red-headed Weigand will discover.

The Lockridge books are my light, fluffy mystery reads. They're comfortable and breezy and don't take a lot of brain power. I pick them up when I just want something fun or when I'm having trouble getting into my reading. I had quite a reading slump going there for a while (10 days on the same 190 page book) once the COVID-19 crisis really hit the US and I needed something comfortable. So, I read Stand Up and Die and once that was done pulled out Curtain for a Jester. They were just what the doctor ordered. Fun reads with good character sketches that I could easily read in a day or so and get myself back on track. The ending scene of Jester in the dark novelty shop is a bit over-the-top (could it really be possible that no one thought to turn the lights on before the very end?), but very in keeping with the larger-than-life feel of the practical joke atmosphere and the hole & corner spy thriller aspects that kept creeping in. ★★★★

Vintage Mystery Scattergories 2013 Gold #6 Yankee Doodle Dandy (American)
Calendar of Crime: April (April Fool's Day)
Deaths = 3 (one stabbed; one shot; one fell from height)

First Line: Pamela North came from her bathroom and said, "Rubber spiders."

Last Line: "As Pam says," Jerry noted, "you can always go by cats."

Wednesday, April 1, 2020