Monday, May 25, 2020

Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks

I'm going to need to reread this one at some point...I really wasn't in the proper frame of mind to go through the details of how her notes differed (or didn't) from the final versions of the novels and short stories. I powered my way through simply because I had it down for several challenges but I can't say that I've taken in much of the information or that what I have taken in has interested me much.

The most interesting portion for me in this initial reading was the inclusion of the two unpublished stories: "The Capture of Cerberus" and "The Incident of the Dog's Ball." Each of these were later reworked--the first as a short story and the second transformed into the novel Dumb Witness.

Since I feel like my timing is off on reading this and I plan to reread at another time, I'm not going to assign a rating. It wouldn't be fair.

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Longest Pleasure

The Longest Pleasure (1981) by Douglas Clark is one of the first Masters and Green books I discovered back in the 1990s. My book-logging was spotty at times before I started blogging, so I'm not sure if this or my next intended reread, The Gimmel Flask, was the first one but it was definitely one of the reasons I got hooked on the series. And it was definitely one of the first mysteries I read where the investigating officers spent so much time getting intricate bits of technical information to help speed their case along. One might think that all that technical detail would make the eyes of non-scientific types like me cross or at the very least be snooze-inducing, but it really doesn't. Clark has a way of bringing the fine details into the story conversationally and in laymen's terms so I feel like I'm learning something without feeling forced to learn something (if that makes sense...). 

In this particular outing, we learn all the finer details of botulism. For instance, did you know that there are several types*? This becomes important to the investigation. And that's one good thing about Clark's books--he may foist a bunch of scientific facts on his audience, but they're never info-dumps for the sake of info-dumps. There's always a purpose and if you're sharp enough to put the bits together properly you can keep up with Masters. And Masters is in a bit of a rush this time round. He's got a mad scientist (quite literally) at work doctoring tins of various meats (luncheon meat, ham, fish, etc.) and planting them in various branches of a supermarket chain. Several families fall ill before Masters and his team collect enough information to spot a pattern and figure out the type of murderer we're looking for and what his motivation might be. Masters is determined to work as quickly as possible to prevent any more sickness and death.

It's interesting to watch Masters, Green, and company at work on what seems at first to be a motive-less crime. If crime it is--they're not even sure of that to begin with. We, the readers, are because why else would Clark be giving us this scenario? But following the reasoning of the team to the point where they believe something nasty is going on makes for good reading. It was also interesting (especially in light of the current health crisis and the current administration's "handling" of it) to see intelligent people dealing with a health problem in an efficient and yet humane manner. This is another enjoyable installment in the series with one of the many unusual murder methods that Clark has produced over the run of 27 books. I gave it  ★★★★ when I first read it and there is no reason to quibble with that rating now.


(*labeled A-F in this story--and a quick search on Google shows there's now a G [identified in 1981--apparently after this was published])

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Deaths: 2 (poisoning)
Calendar of Crime: July (primary action)


Thursday, May 21, 2020

Golden Rain

Golden Rain* (1980) by Douglas Clark

When Miss Holland, the attractive and forceful headmistress of the Bramthorpe College for Girls, is found dead from poisoning, the investigating office assumes it must be suicide or accident. The doors and windows were all locked and there was no signs of anyone else having been around. Of course, Detective Lovegrove also didn't look very hard. Suicide or accident would definitely be a nice and easy verdict and he's all for nice and easy. Except...his boss Chief Superintendent Hildridge and Sir Thomas Kenny both knew Miss Holland rather well. Their girls go to Bramthorpe and Sir Thomas is on the board of directors. And neither one of them believes Miss Holland committed suicide. After the autopsy report shows that she died of Laburnum poisoning (the seeds are sometimes mistaken for dried peas and other foodstuffs), Sir Thomas is even more adamant. Miss Holland was a botanist--other people might mistake Laburnum for something edible, but not a botanist. The men decide to bring in the Yard and Superintendent Masters and his team are sent in.

They have quite a job ahead of them though. Lovegrove is the liaison with the the coroner and he fixed up an immediate inquest before he knew the Yard was coming. And Mr. Gilchrist, the coroner, isn't the type to postpone an inquest without good reason. Unless Masters, Green, and company can produce some good hard facts to throw an accidental death ruling in doubt, they aren't even going to get a chance to investigate the case properly. They get busy immediately and conduct enough interviews to seriously suspect murder--but they're still a bit short on solid facts. Masters manage to pull off a quite tidy little legal maneuver that allows him to convince the coroner to give an open verdict.

Once they start digging, the evidence seems to point towards a girlish school prank gone wrong and the Bramthorpe folks start closing ranks. But Masters suspects that there's more behind a few substituted seasonings than just school girl hi-jinks and he engineers a cozy get-together where all can be revealed. 

The thirteenth entry in the Masters and Green series finds the two lead detectives much more at ease with one another. They've gotten used to each other's quirks and, while, they may take a little jab now and then, it's more in fun than with malice aforethought. Each uses his strengths to good advantage to track down evidence and get unsuspecting members of the community to divulge what they know. It was a definite bonus for me that this had an academic connection--given my fondness for academic mysteries. One of my favorites of the series. ★★★★

*Golden rain is another name for Laburnum...from the appearance of the flowers: 


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Vintage Mystery Extravaganza: Silver [Rule #18: Accident/Suicide]
Deaths = one (poisoned)

Monday, May 18, 2020

Deadly Pattern

Deadly Pattern (1970) by Douglas Clark
Third in the Masters & Green series

Detective Chief Inspector George Masters and his team are winding up the case of the murdered vicar in Rooksby and looking forward to a little time at home when the Yard informs them that they've got another case to handle. Five middle-aged, middle class married women have gone missing from two neighboring towns on the northeast coast. Four of their bodies have been found buried in the sand dunes of Finstoft, but the last one to disappear is still missing. Neither of the towns' detective forces have much experience in murder and they'll be glad of help from those who do.

Masters, Green, and company go back over the ground already covered by the locals--re-interviewing family members and asking many questions that no else thought to ask. It soon becomes apparent that they are dealing with a neurotic serial killer who must have been familiar with the area. Recent (in 1970) information on these types of disorders indicate that these killers work to a pattern--perhaps a pattern that makes sense only to them, but a pattern nonetheless. Masters makes it his job to figure out the pattern...if he can do so, he's sure he'll be able to find the last missing woman. He realizes that there must be some common point of contact between these five women--something must connect them beyond their age and social standing. Also on his team's plate is discovering how someone could strangle five women without any of them leaving the standard traces of having fought back. Because no one is going just placidly stand there while someone tries to kill them.

I enjoyed this entry in the series more than the first two. The antagonism between Masters and Green is still an underlying theme, but Clark handles it better here. It doesn't seem to be quite as dominant as in the previous two novels. It was interesting to follow the team as they deal with their first (in recorded stories) serial killer. And--if I recall correctly--it's the only one they come up against in the series novels I've read. Masters' investigation is thorough and, for the most part, logical. He does hold a few cards close to his chest and if I hadn't already spotted the killer through other means, I might cry "foul" at his hoarding clues. 

That is one flaw in this particular plot--Clark didn't seem to be trying all that hard to hide the culprit. Recently, I read an online piece talking about Christie and her timeless appeal. Several things were mentioned as contributing to that appeal--readability and her way with misdirection being two of them. For me, Clark follows in Christie's footsteps for readability. Once I read my first Masters and Green novel, I was hooked and set out on a quest to find and read them all. They are quick, interesting stories that I just plain enjoy reading (whether I quibble with his handling of personalities or not). Sometimes he does just as well with misdirection, fooling me completely. But not here. It seemed to me that once our culprit walked on stage s/he was lit up in a spotlight and there didn't seem to be much of an effort to focus attention on any suspects at all. This didn't really affect my enjoyment of the book (though I did wonder why the identity seemed to be such a mystery to our intrepid police force). I think perhaps that Clark was fascinated with the idea of the serial killer and the practices of such murderers and wanted to focus more on the details of the pattern than worry about disguising the culprit. And that was okay with me since these novels are police procedural in nature. Overall, a very good entry in the series. ★★  and  1/2


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Deaths = 5 (strangled)
Vintage Mystery Extravaganza: Silver (Rule #8: All clues must be fairly disclosed)
Calendar of Crime: February (Primary Action)

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Good Friday Murder

The Good Friday Murder (1992) by Lee Harris (Syrell Leahy)

This is the debut novel in Harris's series featuring ex-nun Christiine Bennett. She has just recently left the convent and is settling into her new life as a homeowner and member of the community in Oakwood. Her cousin Gene lives at Greenwillow, a living facility for the mentally disabled, and, after the death of her aunt, she is now Gene's custodial relative. The director of Greenwillow makes an appeal to Christine for help. The facility has the opportunity to move to Oakwood, but various members of the community oppose their application for a variance on the intended building. 

Robert Talley, a recent addition to the residents, is one of two savant twins who were implicated (but never tried and convicted) of the death of their mother in 1950. The citizens of Oakwood don't want a possible killer moving into town and Mrs. McAlpin would like Christine to add her voice to those who speak on behalf of Greenwillow at the next meeting. Christine is happy to do so, but when the meeting is over, she finds herself committed to investigating the 40-year old murder. The committee has agreed that if she can discover that Robert and his brother James were not responsible for their mother's death, then they will allow the building permit to go forward.

She's never investigated anything before, but her curiosity and research skills (gained while earning a master's degree) stand her in good stead. Digging through old newspaper reports, she finds that she needs to see the police file. This leads her to Sergeant Jack Brooks who will make quite a difference--in more ways than one. Using information he's able to give her from the file and following up various threads, she becomes convinced that someone else was in the house on April 7th, 1950. Someone was...and that someone is willing to kill again if need be.

It's been a long time since I read the very first of the Chris Bennett novels--but digging through my bins of books, I was tempted to read it again. This is a good introduction to Chris's world and her involvement in old murders. Her interest in the particular case is quite logical as she has a vested interest in helping Greenwillow move to Oakwood where Gene will be closer to his remaining relative. However, I had forgotten how horrible this particular murder was. Not only is the stabbing of Mrs. Talley fairly gruesome--the resulting effects on the twins are pretty disturbing as well. Certainly not your standard cozy mystery fare. Nonetheless, this has an absorbing plot--I finished it in one sitting and enjoyed it very much. ★★ and 1/2.


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Calendar of Crime: April (Primary Action)
Deaths = 3 (one strangled; one heart attack; one natural causes)

The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster

Milo is the classic bored boy. He doesn't like school--he thinks learning all those boring things is just a waste of time. He doesn't like being at home--he's tired of all those toys he has. He doesn't like going back and forth between the two--there's nothing to see or do along the way. And nothing new or exciting ever happened. But one day when he gets home from school he finds a surprise package in his room.

Of course, if you've ever gotten a surprise package, you can imagine how puzzled and excited Milo was; and if you've never gotten one, pay close attention, because someday you might.

It's a much larger package than he's ever gotten before and when he opens it, he finds a tollbooth inside. And when he has it assembled and climbs into his mechanical toy car and goes through the gate he finds himself in a magical world. It's a world that teaches him the meaning of the doldrums and what happens when you're not thinking and how to get out of a conclusion you've jumped into. It teaches him that learning things can be fun and interesting...and maybe even lead to an adventure or two. He also learns that everything from words to numbers from sound to silence has a place and life is better when it is all in balance.

It was fun to revisit this children's classic--one that I hadn't read since elementary school. I enjoyed the wordplay and puns as well as watching Milo learn and grow and work together with his two companions, Tock--the watch-dog--and the Humbug, to defeat the monsters of ignorance. ★★★★

  

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Quotable Sherlock Holmes

The Quotable Sherlock Holmes (2000) by John H. Watson, M.D. [Gerard Van Der Leun is an entertaining reference book for anyone who likes literary quotes or Sherlock Holmes...or both. This volume gathers together memorable words of wisdom from the world's first (and only) consulting detective. The quotes range in topics from the everyday (etiquette and women) to particulars about the methods of detection. 

I always enjoy a good quote book and when I find one that is also focused in some way on mysteries, it is a bonus. Overall, this is quite good--although the selection does include some repeats (as if we were aiming for a certain number of entries or pages). But I definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a few bon mots from the master detective. ★★★★

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Dreadful Lemon Sky

The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974) by John D. MacDonald

Travis McGee is awakened by an intruder on his boat, The Busted Flush. He grabs for his trusty gun, but instead of someone out for his blood it is one of his lady friends--Carrie Milligan. He hasn't seen Carrie for quite some time...not since she got married to Ben. She's no longer married and she's desperate for a friend she can trust with no questions asked. You see...she's got a package with a little over a hundred thousand dollars in it and she wants Travis to stash it for her for about two weeks. If she doesn't come back for it by then...well, then, she's not coming back for it and he's to deliver all but $10,000 of it to her sister. The $10,000 is his fee for babysitting her package. Of course, Travis has questions, but he agrees to stash the money without getting any answers.

You know what's coming. Carrie doesn't come back. Carrie is hit by a truck on a lonely stretch of road and Travis isn't ready to believe it was an accident. So, he and his buddy Meyer decide to head for the northern coast of Florida and investigate in the little town where Carrie died. The dig up an amateur marijuana smuggling operation, a slick young lawyer who likes to prey on the ladies and who seems to have more ready cash than a man just establishing his practice ought to, and a missing partner in the company where Carrie worked. Soon Travis and Meyer have all the threads in their hands, but just when they've used them to fashion a noose for one of the suspects they realize that it could just as easily fit someone else too. 

This is the sixteenth installment in MacDonald's Travis McGee series and it's the second McGee novel I've ever read. I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first one* even if the body count is a bit higher. I said at the time that on the face of it, this series is SO not my kind of thing. I'm not really into this kind of private eye, er "Salvage Consultant" thing. But Travis isn't really your usual gritty, hard-boiled investigator. He ventures into philosophy every now and then. Like

Guilt is the most merciless disease of man. It stains all the other areas of living. It darkens all skies.

And [on reasons for lovemaking]

The biggest and most important reason in the world is to be together in a way that makes life a little less bleak and solitary and lonesome. To exchange the I for We. In the biggest sense of the word, it's cold outside. And kindness and affection and gentleness build a nice warm fire inside.

Travis makes his way into a lot of ladies' beds (or gets them into his), but he puts more feeling into it than a lot of hardboiled private eyes. And he knows when to say no to a pair of beckoning eyes. [As with Carrie in the beginning of the book.]

As I said in my previous review, MacDonald can write. Imagery? You got it. Philosophical commentary? You got it. Social commentary on the world of the early 1970s? You got it. Interesting side-kick and peripheral characters? You got those too. I particularly like the character of Captain Harry Max Scorf (a local investigator). He's a man with a sense of justice that won't quit and runs into a moral conflict when the people who will see that he gets his pension want him to drop the case. He's also a man who can read Travis pretty good and knows when our hero is holding out on him. It was interesting to see those two play off one another. 

A really good entry in the series. It's still not the type of book that I'll rush to get every book in the series...but I do have Nightmare in Pink waiting on one of the TBR mountains around here. I can definitely recommend Travis McGee--especially to those who like private investigators from the 1960s and 70s. ★★ and 1/2.


(*Dress Her in Indigo--which I read about ten years ago; has it really been that long?!)

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Deaths = 6 (one hit by truck; one explosive; one hit with heavy bag; one strangled;  one intense allergic reaction; one shot)
Vintage Mystery Extravaganza Silver #16 [More than one culprit]
Calendar of Crime: May [Primary Action]

Monday, May 4, 2020

Death After Evensong

Death After Evensong (1969) by Douglas Clark is the second book in his Masters and Green series. The Yard is called in quickly when the vicar of Rooksby-le-Soken in East Anglia is found shot to death in a locked basement classroom in the old school. In fact, Inspector George Masters is a bit surprised at the quick call and even more surprised when he finds out the body is still in the classroom. But Nicholson, the local Detective Superintendent, explains that he knew he had to when he saw the body. Herbert Parlsoe had been shot at close range and the exit wound proves that the bullet is no longer in the body. But there's no evidence of it anywhere. To all appearances, the man was shot while up against a wall joist, but though there's blood on the joist, there's no bullet hole. 

After a search confirms that no bullet can be found and the local Doctor (actually one of two--a father and son who share the practice) confirms Masters' observation that the missile is unusually shaped, the Yard man seems to lose interest in the method of death and starts hunting for motive. And motive there is--in abundance. The vicar was a very unpleasant and Masters and his team cannot find a single soul in the village to put in a good word for him. He was a skinflint and worked every way he could to either pay as little as possible for services rendered or to avoid paying at all. He had had run-ins with everyone from the owner of the local pub and his Italian wife to the doctor and his seemingly surly son to a carpenter he got fired to the schoolmaster he done out of a job at the new school. The vicar even treated his own daughters poorly and Masters wouldn't put it past the darkly beautiful Pamela to go in for a bit of patricide if it would keep dear old dad out of her affairs.

When all is said and done though, it does come back around to how. Because until he and his team can prove how it was done, they will have a difficult time proving who. Masters is sure there was something in the classroom that he saw but didn't understand the first time they were there and a second visit gives him the answer he needs.

I'm a bit torn on this one. The locked room and murder method were quite interesting--I had a glimmering of an idea of how it might have been done, but not the specifics. And, like Masters, once I had an idea about how I narrowed it down to a couple of suspects. I didn't guess right between them--but I was pleased that I spotted it. The characters were all quite good too and I liked the care that Masters took about Parsloe's younger daughter (who is a bit disadvantaged). But--

The antagonism between Masters and Green is really too much (as mentioned in my review of the first novel, Nobody's Perfect). They are definitely getting on my last nerve throughout most of this one and I can state without a doubt that if I had read these in order and didn't know the relationship improves at some point I would have chucked this series after this one. There are a couple of comments at the end that give me hope that number three will be better--but only because I know it will be better eventually. So, this is one series that I can say that I'm really, really glad that the first four books eluded me for so long. ★★  --all for plot and method.



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Calendar of Crime = September (Primary Action)
Deaths = 2 (one shot; one poisoned)
Pick Your Poison = Seconds (Second Book by an Author)


Sunday, May 3, 2020

Kept

Kept (2007) by D. J. Taylor

This book did very little for me and (full confession) I did not read every word because there were SO many of the them and none of the ones I did read were interesting to me at all. The characters did not draw me in. I didn't much care who killed Henry Ireland--or why--or what happened to what his mad wife or Mr. Dixey. And there were too many other characters who kept popping in and out to keep track of. And SO many threads and secondary stories. And they were all supposed to come together--but they never seemed to. As someone else on Goodreads mentioned...if there is a real ending to this story it's very well hidden because I couldn't find it.  But I did skim enough that I feel justified counting it for various challenges. Unrated because I did not read every single word and I don't think I can give it a fair rating.

Deaths = one hit over head

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Bar Mitzvah Murder

The Bar Mitzvah Murder (2004) by Lee Harris

Christine Bennett's best friend Melanie Gross calls with exciting news. She and her whole family are headed to the Holy Land to celebrate her cousin's bar mitzvah. He's in his 30's or 40's, but had never been very religious until very recently so he didn't feel like he had done it right and wants to do it right and do it BIG now. Gabe is very wealthy and can afford to take his family and pay for what amounts to a fabulous vacation for about forty people. Chris is very excited for her friend and thinks how nice it would be to visit Israel some day. Little does she know...

Chris's husband Jack has recently been promoted (after passing both the bar exam and the lieutenant's exam) and after serving an obligatory stint at a precinct before a final appointment can be made. At the end of that stint he's recalled to the main police offices at One Police Plaza where he'll have an office in the Legal Bureau. He's barely moved in before he receives a summons from the Deputy Commissioner to take on a special assignment in....c'mon, you've guessed it...Israel. US police officers are going to work with the Israeli police to set up a computer database to track criminals wanted by both countries. And it just so happens that the trip will take place at the same time as Melanie and her family will be there. Jack has been given permission to bring Chris and their young son, Eddie along for the trip--and his parents book separately so they can spend time with their grandson. It's going to be a fantastic trip.

But (it's a mystery series and murder's in the title, so you know what's coming)...after the bar mitzvah ceremony Gabe is found unconscious in the hotel's garden/park area during the celebratory party back at the hotel. A member of the family who is a doctor says that someone should call an ambulance and in short order it appears on the scene. The attendants whisk Gabe into the vehicle and take off--refusing to let his wife get in with him. It isn't until they're gone that everyone realizes that no one knows what hospital Gabe is headed for. A quick check with the hotel reveals that no one called for an ambulance and phone calls to a few of the hospitals result in no answer. That's when Melanie calls on her secret weapon--Chris.

Once they get the story sorted, Jack calls his Israeli liaison who takes over the job of finding out where Gabe has been taken. The news isn't good--no hospital had an ambulance run to that particular hotel that night. Gabe is missing and no one knows why or who might have taken him. Mel asks Chris to do what she can to investigate, but our heroine barely has time to start when the worst happens. Gabe's body is found beaten to death in a less desirable part of the city. It's up to Chris to figure out who wanted Gabe dead and why.

The best part of this one is the look at Israel in the early 2000's when air travel was still fairly easy. We get a good look at various parts of the country--and Jerusalem in particular--and we get to meet various citizens of the country. The mystery plot is good--though it's a little more riddled with coincidence than some of the others. The death was a little brutal and given the circumstances, I was surprised that Harris didn't have one of the suspects show a little more feeling about what happened...especially since things went a little farther than intended. The last time I read this (pre-blogging days), I gave it four stars, but I think this time around it's really a ★★ outing.

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Deaths =  one beaten to death
Calendar of Crime: November (Primary action)


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