Friday, June 26, 2020

Foul Deeds (spoilerish review)

Foul Deeds (1989) by Susan James*

Charles College, a small posh liberal arts college, is beset by a series of murders that are based on deaths in Shakespeare. The first to die is a beautiful young English major who was playing the part of Cordelia in King Lear. She is found hanging in the theater's costume storage room. Next on the list was the department's Shakepeare expert--killed with a rapier in the fashion of Polonius in Hamlet. Victims forced into the roles of Othello and Desdemona soon follow and the killer has plans for more Shakespearean carnage. 

State Police Lieutenant Polly Winslade is assigned to the case and she and her sergeant Michael Camarata must try to establish if they have a nut with Shakespeare fixation, someone with a grudge against the English Department, or someone with a motive they can't yet see. The clues are few and far between and the information they pick up about the infightings and dalliances within the academic world seem to have little to do with the murders. Or if they do, there doesn't seem to be any proof. Winslade is going to need her well-established luck if she's going to solve this one....

Okay. That's my final analysis--this book is okay. Certainly not spectacular and definitely not going down on record as one of my all-time favorite academic mysteries. Publishers Weekly seemed to think this was pretty spiffy--saying "James neatly skewers the tight world of academia, particularly the foibles of administrators, and sharply limns the infighting of young scholars desperate for promotion and tenure." Well, I work in academia and I have a soft spot for academic mysteries and the representations here are pretty run-of-the-mill. 

The murder methods (and motive, quite frankly) are lifted wholesale from a 1973 Vincent Price film Theater of Blood. Credit is duly given when the villain of the piece admits as much in the final scenes. I recognized the connection early on, but didn't spot the criminal. Not because I didn't recognize clues when they came along (if they did), but because I really wasn't looking for them. I was too busy trying to find the thread of the mystery to be bothered with clues. You see, the plot idea was fine--I can go along with the whole let's take revenge on people and murder them in the style of Shakepeare deaths because reasons thing. But the book was littered and overflowing with affairs. Pretty much everybody was either having an affair with somebody else (and that includes Sergeant Carmarata) OR they were lusting after somebody else. It was difficult to keep up with the players--with or without a scorecard. I'm not sure if the James team thought dumping adultery in there left and right was the best way to provide red herrings or what, but they don't seem to have realized that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Less adultery and few other red herring motives would have been more effective.

The best part of the book was the characters of Lt. Winslade and Professor Tom Hammock, who was a mentor to first victim and who really is never a suspect. He helps Winslade with the ins and outs of the department and plays a semi-Watson part. And her interest in him helps her to eventually track down the culprit. The biggest disappointment was that their mutual attraction was obviously going to go nowhere. Amidst all those passions running amok, the two most sympathetic characters are left out in the cold.

I realize that this is a pretty lukewarm review. I didn't really plan it that way. I thought I was more enthusiastic about the book when I first started. But--no, actually, if you're looking for an engaging academic mystery, then this probably isn't it. ★★ and a half.


*Pseudonym for an academic husband/wife writing team. I wasn't able to find much more than that on the internet. 


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Deaths = 5 (one hanged; two stabbed; one smothered; one shot)


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Partners in Crime

"...you have no expert knowledge whatever."

"Well, I have read every detective novel that has been published in the last ten years."

~Tommy Beresford; Tuppence Beresford
Partners in Crime (1929) by Agatha Christie

When Mr. Carter (The Chief from their debut in The Secret Adversary) suggests that Tommy & Tuppence Beresford take over a detective agency that has been receiving odd Russian-stamped letters in an effort to track down those behind some international mischief, he also opens the way for the Beresfords to put the skills of fictional detectives into practice. Tuppence's reading is going to come in handy. In a series of short story adventures, the couple employ the methods of everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to the Old Man in the Corner. They successfully solve murders and forgery and robbery cases; find a hidden legacy; break an unbreakable alibi; foil the doings of several gangs; and, of course, help round up the group responsible for the mysterious Russian letters.

Some of the solutions may seem quite obvious to today's reader (I spotted the solution to the alibi story immediately), but that doesn't diminish the enjoyment to be had reading about Christie's young adventurers. And I'm sure they were very interesting to the readers of the late 1920s/earl 1930s--before everything was so immediately available to everyone. I've had a soft spot for Tommy and Tuppence since I was first introduced to them back in the early 1980s. With their banter and their enthusiasm, they just seemed to be having so much fun. They are really quite brilliant in their own way--with a healthy dose of luck mixed in as well. Good, light reading from the 1920s.

**************
Deaths = 8 (two stabbed; one electrocuted; one hit on head; three poisoned; one heart failure)
Mystery Bingo
Card #2: Clues & Cliches(Magnifying Glass)

Monday, June 22, 2020

Murder in a Hurry

Murder in a Hurry (1950) by Frances and Richard Lockridge

Liza O'Brien is hired by Jerry North to draw illustrations of cats for a soon-to-be published book. She begins with the Norths' three Siamese cats and plans to use a black, longhair kitten from a pet store she knows. She makes arrangements with the owner, J. K. Halder, to come one afternoon, but when she arrives the shop is closed. A gentleman from the neighborhood who is a friend of Halder's lets her in with a key and the two of them make a terrible discovery...Mr. Halder has died and his body has been stuffed into a dog cage. The older gentleman seems to take it hard and Liza goes in search of brandy or something to help him. When she returns, the man is gone. Liza winds up rushing away from the scene too--urged to do so by her boyfriend whom she has called for help and who just happens to be Halder's son. She accidentally leaves her sketchbook behind.

Halder is a famous eccentric millionaire who, after marrying twice and having three children, sold his money-making business to buy the little pet shop, left his home to the family with a suitable allowance to keep them in style, and takes up residence in the back of the shop. He said he preferred the company of animals to people and devoted his life to caring for strays and sick animals. He's had little contact with anyone since then, so who could have wished the old man dead?

Lieutenant Bill Weigand and Sergeant Mullins are called upon to investigate and as soon as he sees the old man crammed into the dog cage, Mullins knows it's going to be a screwy one--which of course means the Norths must be in it somewhere. Weigand proves him right when he glances through the sketchbook left on a chair and recognizes some familiar feline faces. Soon the Norths are in it and Pam will follow the clues from man's best friend to what she thinks is the answer. Weigand meanwhile is looking at the age-old questions: who benefits and how? Is it the younger wife who has found a "friend" more her age and might want freedom without divorce? Is it the friend who wants his lady to inherit? Or perhaps one of the children wanted a rush on their inheritance? Because one thing is certain--somebody was in a hurry to get Halder out of the way.

Small spoiler ahead--though if you are like me you'll pay attention to the wrong moment and the spoiler won't spoil the plot for you at all. Nonetheless...proceed at your own reading risk.


This is another fun entry in the Lockridge's light mystery series. As per usual, there are lots of cats but this one is made more interesting with the introduction of a young Scottie who helps Pam and Bill discover the catalyst which sets murder in motion. I absolutely knew the dog was important, but I paid attention to the wrong thing and managed to suspect the wrong person. But I was in good company, so did Pam (for different reasons). 

I read most of the North books back when I first returned to mysteries (early 1990s) and our local library still had quite a number of them on the shelves. I've since spent my time trying to collect all of the Lockridge books and I have enjoyed rereading them. Fortunately, my memory is much more sieve-like than it used to be so I can reread and still be fooled by red herrings. The thing I enjoy most about these books, though, is how comfortable they are. They're perfect for when I want something light and fun and not too complicated. ★★★ 

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Deaths = 2 (one poisoned; one strangled)


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Murder, She Said: The Quotable Miss Marple (mini-review)

Murder, She Said: The Quotable Miss Marple (2019) by Tony Medawar (ed)

I have a great affection and weakness for quote books. I love reading little snippets from books, movies, or just from famous people. I collect quotes myself--jotting down phrases and paragraphs that grab my attention as I read. I also love Agatha Christie's mysteries. So what could be better than a little quote book entirely devoted to the words of Miss Jane Marple, spinster sleuth extraordinaire? Nothing...except maybe also having a companion book devoted to the words of Hercule Poirot (which I do).

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time this evening reading Miss Marple's thoughts on everything from Men & Women to Crime & Detection to Human Nature & Life. This is a lovely little volume that I am glad to add to my quote book collection. I wasn't quite as enamored with her essay at the end of the book ("Does a Woman's Instinct Make Her a Good Detective"). Dame Agatha seems to think women are less methodical and less likely to enjoy the thrill of the hunt than men. Well...maybe some women, but not all women...or even most women as she implies. Christie seems to have subscribed to several gender stereotypes of her day *at the time the essay was written. 

 ★★★  for the book overall. If it had been quotes only, I'd most likely have given it five.

*amended 6/22/20

Dreamsnake

Snake went back to bed, musing about Center, which gave chains to slavers but refused to talk to healers. (p. 127)
Dreamsnake (1978) by Vonda N. McIntyre

In a post-apocalyptic world, healers have evolved techniques using a combination of nature and the little bit of off-world technology to treat and cure the people left outside the sealed City. Snake is a young healer who has been honored with a special name--her family believes she will make a strong healer and the name Snake has only been given three times before. She has begun her probationary year as a fully equipped healer and makes a trip into the desert with her three medicinal snakes. Two offer ways through their medically changed venom to treat cancers and other diseases. The third, a dreamsnake named Grass, has the ability to give soothing dreams and ease a dying patient's last moments. 

A misunderstanding among the desert people results in the death of Grass and leaves Snake crippled in her abilities to fully function as a healer. She dreads returning to the Center and telling her people that she has allowed one of the precious dreamsnakes to be killed. For dreamsnakes are rare and it is difficult to get them to reproduce. She doesn't fear punishment, but she knows that there won't be a replacement for Grass and that she may have to give up her profession. And that would be punishment enough.

But then a chance comes to travel to the City where she might find a replacement. The journey will be hard and there are dangers she can't imagine--from the crazies (half-mad from the effects of radiation) to thieves and the storm season is coming bring dangers of its own. Its a risky quest, but one that Snake knows she must take up. She makes friends along the way--helping a mayor's son named Gabriel to start his own journey to find his own path and rescuing a young girl named Melissa from an abusive guardian. If she's successful, she will have proved herself worth of her name. 

Dreamsnake was one of the first science fiction novels I read that was written by a woman and which had a strong female protagonist. Snake is a strong, well-rounded character. She is grounded morally and is at her best when relating to others--whether during healing sessions or through other means. Her care and concern for the others she encounters from Arevin and the desert people to Gabriel and Melissa are her strongest characteristics. She is a healer--not just by profession, but in her very nature. And seeing a woman on a quest was a great thing as well. So many quest stories are about men and boys. It was empowering for this preteen to read such a story about such a forceful personality.

I knew this book had made a strong impression on me when I first read it over 30 years ago. When I sat down read it again, it was like I had never left it. I knew what was going to happen next because it came back so clearly. But that didn't spoil this reading at all. It was more like it amplified it. It will sound very mystical (kind of like the "magic" medicinal changing of venom to cures), but it seemed as though I was both reading it as I had before as well as reading it now. I remembered the excitement of discovering a strong female character--strong and yet with flaws; strong enough to learn from her mistakes; strong enough to take responsibility for those mistakes and find a way to make things right. But I also read it with a sense of nostalgia, knowing that I had already read it and felt that way. It was an extraordinary reading experience. ★★★★★




Friday, June 19, 2020

Death-Wish Green

Death-Wish Green (1960) by Frances Crane

Cozy mystery series with a hook in the title--whether it be a pun on cooking (Wonton Terror by Vivien Chien in the Noodle Shop Mysteries) or book-related (Bookmarked for Murder by V. M. Burns in the Mystery Bookshop series) or plays on gardening or scrapbooking or knitting or sundry other hobbies--have been the rage for quite some time. Periodically there are series with colors in the title. The Travis McGee series begun in 1964 by John D. MacDonald is a well-known series in this vein. Betsy Allen wrote a girls' mystery series (with the first book published in 1948) starring Connie Blair using this hook. Frances Crane beat them both--publishing her first book, The Turquoise Shop, in 1941. It was set in New Mexico and starred Jean Holly and her eventual husband Pat Abbott. I'm not sure if Crane's series is the first to feature a rainbow of titles, but it is the earliest I have read.

Death-Wish Green takes place nearly 20 years after that first book and is set in San Francisco amongst the beatnik-wannabes. Bored sons and daughters of the city's elite dress up in black and mix in with the artsy, grittier crowds at North Beach. Mostly it's just fun and meant to spice up the lives of kid with too much money and too much time on their hands...occasionally it leads experimentation with marijuana and other drugs. But it's never been dangerous for Katie Spinner's crowd...until her white Model A topless Ford is found abandoned in the middle of Golden Gate Bridge. The police take the view that Katie got really bored with life and decided to jump. But those who know Katie, including Jean Abbott, all say she would never do such a thing. Jean becomes convinced it's murder--or at the least kidnapping and soon the Abbotts' sleuthing will discover both crimes are involved. But was Katie killed or kidnapped? Or both?  You'll have to read to find out. Oh..and what does death-wish green have to do with it all? Well, it's the color Katie's friend Celeste is wearing when something unpleasant happens to her as well.

This book has a more serious feel to it. The Abbotts have never been the wise-cracking, humorous pair found in the Thin Man movies or even the slightly wacky pairing of Pam and Jerry North, but there has been humor and a light touch. Here we have a grittier setting. There's a more deliberate cruelty behind the murderer's motives and the drugs give another edge to the drama. The plot is still enjoyable and I did like how Crane kept us guessing on whether Katie was murdered or kidnapped--both or neither. She also provides a nice peek at San Francisco at the beginning of the Sixties.  ★★★


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Deaths = 2 (one fell from height; one shot)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Colorado Kid

The Colorado Kid (2005) by Stephen King

"The Colorado Kid" is the name given to an unknown man who shows up dead on a Maine island beach in 1980. the autopsy indicates that he died from a lack of oxygen (steak lodged in his throat) that may have caused a stroke (or vice versa). At first it looks like there are no clues to the man's identity--no wallet or papers on his person and no one comes forward to even say they saw him arrive on the island. The State Troopers assigned to the case have more important fish to fry (a real live murder case!) than an accidental death. Two newspapermen on the island and a grad student intern assigned to the Troopers dig up a few meager bits that lead to Colorado and ultimately the identification of the man as James Cogan.

But that's it. The investigation can't tell them why a mild-mannered advertising man who to all appearances was devoted to the wife and son he left behind in Colorado should have walked out of the office one fine morning on an errand for coffee and traveled across country to die on a lonely Maine beach. The newspapermen believe there is more to it than meets the eye--but can't find any leads or evidence to tell them what. And they never do. Years later, they tell their whole--incomplete--story to a young woman working as an intern for them. [I'm guessing that's supposed to be her there on the cover....]

Say hello to the mystery novel that really isn't a mystery novel. Is there a dead body? Sure. Do we ever really find out anything about what happened to him and why--other than he choked to death on a piece of steak? Nah. That wasn't King's point. King's point is how odd things happen all the time in real life that never get explained--so just deal with the fact that he doesn't explain what happened in his story either. And what's particularly annoying is that he know full well that mystery readers expect a resolution and he just thumbs his nose at them in the afterword:

Mystery is my subject here, and I am aware that many readers will feel cheated, even angry by my failure to provide a solution to the one posed. Is it because I had no solution to give? The answer is no.

So--he could have played by the mystery fiction rules. He just didn't want to.

As straight fiction--I liked this a LOT more than 11/22/63 (the only other King book I've ever read--also for a challenge). Quite possibly because it's a heck of a lot shorter. But also because I enjoyed the interactions between the main characters. And I enjoyed the way the two old newshounds told their story. I even enjoyed the build up of the story...which explains why I've given this ★★★. As a mystery or crime fiction novel--it leaves a LOT to be desired...which explains why it's not getting even a partial star more. Don't fly your story under the mystery/crime fiction flag and then refuse to play by the rules. Quite honestly, I'm confused as to why this was included in the Hard Case Crime editions. My only conclusion is they thought King's name would draw attention to the series.

Am I sold on King as an author? No. I probaby won't read another one unless I run into him in another challenge that requires one of his books.

**************
Deaths = one (asphyxia)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

This Is Paradise (mini-review)

This Is Paradise (2013) by Kristiana Kahakauwila

Kristiana Kahakauwila is a native Hawaiian whose debut collection of short stories gives the reader a vivid look at what life on the islands is really like. This is no travel guide. No pretty overview of the beautiful landscape. These stories focus on the lives of the Hawaiians--those who grew up there and whose ancestors have been there for generations and who feel bound to the islands; those who feel the need to leave but who always hear the call of the land of their forebears; those who are of Hawaiian descent and born elsewhere but who are drawn back by invisible ties; and those whose ancestry lies elsewhere but who can't feel at home anywhere else. More than anything the stories are about knowing or finding the place where you belong.  ★★★★ and 1/2.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Seven Dials Mystery (spoilerish)

The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) by Agatha Christie

Sir Oswald and Lady Coote had rented Chimneys with the idea of enjoying country estate living. In their last days at the secluded country house, they did what all country house owners do--they hosted a country house party. It was all going so well--lively young people all over the place. But then the young people decide to play a great joke on Gerry Wade. Gerry had proven himself to be a champion sleeper--rising for "breakfast" in time for luncheon. So, his friends decide that it would be great fun to go out and buy an alarm clock each (and a few more for good measure) and line them all up under Gerry's bed after he'd gone to sleep. Eight alarm clocks, all set at incremental intervals are put in place and the group eagerly await the moment when Gerry will shoot out of his bed like a rocket after hearing the noise.

Only...he doesn't. Because during the night he had a lethal dose of chloral hydrate. The inquest brings in a verdict of "death by misadventure" but Gerry's sister doesn't really believe it. After all--she'd never known her "champion sleeper" of a brother to need a sleeping draught. 

When Lady Eileen Brent, "Bundle" to her friends, and her father come home to Chimneys after a trip to the Continent, she finds an unfinished letter from Gerry Wade to his sister in her desk drawer. She's heard all about the unfortunate death and believes that it just might need a bit of looking into. As she's rushing into town to consult a friend, she (as she thinks) runs over a man and kills him. But when the doctor examines the body he finds that the car didn't touch him and the man was actually shot. The man's dying words had been "Seven Dials...tell....Tell...Jimmy Thesinger." Now Bundle is sure something must be done. She teams up with Jimmy Thesinger (friend of Gerry Wade and the dead man, Ronny Devereaux) and Gerry's sister Loraine and the three set out to find the Seven Dials and get to the bottom the mystery.

Bundle also consults Superintendent Battle, whom she met previously in the incidents related in The Secret of Chimneys. After due consideration of the letter written by Wade, she is convinced that he (as a member of the Foreign Office) had run across a secret society and was killed for his pains. She wants the superintendent to give her the names of all the secret societies in the Seven Dials. He complies, but tries (unsuccessfully) to warn her off. The secret society is found, some secret plans are nearly stolen, and much mayhem ensues before the secret of the Seven Dials is finally revealed.

******Spoilers ahead in my reactions to the story. Continue at your own risk.*******

This semi-sequel to The Secret of Chimneys is a bit of a toss-up for me. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the light-hearted, near-Wodehousian atmosphere of the country house party and their build-up to the alarm clock hi-jinks. The characters are quite good fun. And if I had kept that tone in mind throughout the book, I might not have a rating dilemma on my hands. But Bundle gets downright serious about her search for the secret society and when she found it, I was all for getting down to mystery business and capturing the evil mastermind behind it all. Except...that's not what we've got. The secret society is really on the side of the angels and the culprit is....someone I didn't expect.

I suppose I should hand it to Dame Agatha for pulling the wool over my eyes on this reading, especially since I read this once back in the mists of time. I believe I enjoyed twisty ending much more that first time round. After a bit of thought: ★★★ for this reading. Good solid fun and high-spirited adventure. 

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Deaths =  (one poisoned; one shot)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Clocks

The Clocks (1963) by Agatha Christie

~Read by Robin Bailey

Sheila Webb, a typist for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau, is sent on assignment to the home of Miss Millicent Pebmarsh in Wilbraham Crescent. A phone call requesting a typist particularly asked for Sheila Webb and gave instructions that if Miss Pebmarsh were not yet home that Sheila enter the house and wait in the sitting room. Sheila arrives early and does as instructed. At first she's simply intrigued by the fact that Miss Pebmarsh keeps six clocks in the same room and four of them register 4:13--nearly an hour later than the actual time. But then she's horrified to realize that there's a dead man behind the sofa. Miss Pebmarsh, who Shelia immediately realizes is blind, nearly steps on the body when she comes home and the horror of the situation sends Shelia screaming out of the house....

 ...Straight into the arms of Colin Lamb--who is not nearly as innocent as his name would suggest. Colin, who works for Special Branch, is scanning the addresses in the crescent in search of Number 61 (which just possibly may be of interest to those who are hunting communist sympathizers). He immediately becomes interested in the murder once he realizes that Miss Pebmarsh's house is situated so its back garden connects with the house he's looking for. Is it too much to hope that the mysterious dead man may have something to do with his own business?

Inspector Hardcastle takes up the case and every clue (what few there are) seems to lead to a dead end. Colin finally takes the problem to his friend Hercule Poirot who has often boasted that one need not run and to and fro gathering clues or examining with a magnifying glass. One can just be given all the facts, sit back and let the little grey cells do their thing, and, voila, the solution becomes apparent. That almost works--Poirot doesn't run to and fro, but he does have Colin to do that (and to relay any tidbits that Hardcastle discovers since Colin and the Inspector are old friends). It is interesting that Poirot does not actually interview anybody in the case and successfully identifies the culprit.

I picked out this audio version of Christie's mystery to take along with me for my trip back home last week. I don't do a lot of audio novels--because I like to review my books here on the blog and it's more difficult for me to get details when I listen rather than read. So, generally when I do listen to audio novels I try to choose stories that I'm already familiar with. It had been quite some time since I read The Clocks, so while Christie's writing was familiar I was still able to enjoy the mystery. I immediately fastened onto the correct culprit, though I didn't get the motive right. 

In my defense, Christie has a lot going on in this one. We've got the central murder of the unknown man and the mystery of who he is, why he was found in Miss Pebmarsh's house, and why Sheila Webb was deliberately brought there to discover him. But we've also got the side-story with Colin Lamb and his hunt for a communist spy headquarters. It's no wonder I was a bit confused about who might be responsible for what. It's an interesting little mystery, but I do think there were a few too many coincidences for this to be one of Christie's best work. 

Robin Bailey does an excellent job with the reading. He manages to juggle voices for a dozen or so different characters--giving them all different intonations and enabling the listener to keep them all straight. My one slight quibble with his performance comes with his rendition of Poirot. Perhaps it is because I tend to have David Suchet's voice in my head--but it seems to me that Bailey's Poirot is too deep and brusque. But that is minor. Overall, the reading is highly entertaining and kept me in thrall the entire time I was in the car. ★★★ for the story itself. ★★★★  for the audio performance.
*************
Deaths = Three (two stabbed; one strangled)

Book Challenge by Erin 13.0

cover photo, Image may contain: text



Basic Rules
~First and foremost, have fun. Don't stress. No one is being judged, graded, or penalized. Even if you finish only one book the entire challenge, if you enjoy it and it's an accomplishment for you, then that's awesome. 
~The challenge will run from JULY 1, 2020 to OCTOBER 31, 2020. No books that are started before 12 a.m. on January 1 or finished after 11:59 p.m. on April 30 will count. (We live in different time zones – follow this according to your own time zone.) 
~Each book must be at least 200 pages long. Audio books are fine too.
~For full details see Erin's page on Facebook



My List:
Freebie: Murder in the Dog Days by P. M. Carlson (256 pages)
Starts with “S”: Scarweather by Anthony Rolls (243 pages)
Preposition in Title: Footprints Under the Window by Franklin W. Dixon (212 pages)
Odd number edition in series: What Angels Fear by C. S. Harris (421 pages) [1st in series]
Set in different country from mine: Death in Berlin by M. M. Kaye (273 pages)
Female police officer/detective main character: The Arsenic Labyrinth by Martin Edwards (294 pages)
Immigrant main character: In Memory Yet Green by Isaac Asimov (744 pages; if I can track it down in my book bins)
Thing, Nothing, Anything, Something, Everything in title: The Murder That Had Everything! By Hulbert Footner (237 pages)
October Themed: Sweet Poison by Ellen Hart (307 pages) [set at Halloween]
City, Town, Village, District, County, State, Country, Kingdom in title: The Town Cried Murder by Leslie Ford (256 pages)

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Thirteen Guests


"With no disrespect to Art, your picture is a secondary consideration," retorted the inspector, rather sharply. "I am merely hoping it will give me a line on graver matters."
Thirteen Guests (1936) by J. Jefferson Farjeon

John Foss, having just been turned down by the girl he wanted to marry, takes his bruised heart and a small bag and heads out of London. Where to? Anywhere. He doesn't much care; he just wants to get away from the crowds of people. When the woman in front of him buys a ticket for Flensham, he decides that is a destination as good as any and follows suit. Upon arrival, he has more than a bruised heart--he manages to mangle his leg a bit as the train moves on before he's quite done getting off. 

Nadine Leveridge, the woman he took his travel ideas from, scoops him up into a car and takes him to Bragley Court--the country house where she plans to spend the weekend. She waves aside his protests that Lord  Aveling won't be pleased to have an uninvited guest telling him that one more guest among a group that includes an actress, a famous cricketer, an artist, a politician, a journalist with a nose for gossip, a mystery novelist, and a couple who were brought along at the politician's invitation won't bother the lord of the manor at all. She proves herself right when John is toted into the house. Lord Aveling welcomes him, sets him on a couch in an ante room, and offers him all the manor can provide in the way of hospitality. Of course, the norm in lordly hospitality shouldn't include murder, should it?

Foss soon finds himself with a front-row seat to a weekend full of sinister events and murderous activities...beyond the normal bloodshed of a country house hunting party. It starts with the mutilation of Leicester Pratt's latest masterpiece, a portrait of Anne (daughter of the house). Then a noisy dog is silenced permanently, followed by the discovery of the strangled body of an unknown man. More death follows and Inspector Kendall arrives to ferret out the secrets hidden in halls of Bradley Court. Does murder have anything to do with Lord Aveling's dalliance with the actress? Or perhaps with the fact that three of his guests were accosted by the unknown man at the train station? Is Harold Taverley, the cricketer, really as open and honest as he seems? What secrets lie in the past of our politician, Sir James Earnshaw? Just how much of an actress is Zena Wilding? Does she play a part off-stage as well as on? Lionel Bultin is good at nosing out others' secrets and writing them up in the news--how many secrets does he have of his own? And Edyth Fermoy-Jones plots fictional murders for a living--has she decided to try her hand at real life mayhem? There are marriage secrets and fraudulent pasts as well as a bit of blackmail and plenty of criss-crossing trails to keep our official bloodhounds busy.

Farjeon starts strong in this one. He gives us very good descriptions of Nadine Leveridge and John Foss and we're ready to settle down with these two as our main characters. He also provides detailed thumbnail sketches for the rest of the guests and their host and hostess. We get very interested in a few of them--Edyth Fermoy-Jones, for instance. And then the murders happen and John pretty much drops off the face of the earth and Nadine doesn't figure much at all. It's a bit disappointing. 

But even though I was disappointed with the follow-through on some of the characters that Farjeon seemed at great pains to bring to our attention, the plot was quite fascinating. I was invested in discovering how the painting and the dog and the mysterious stranger would all tie together. I was waiting for the motive that would explain why three people had to die. I enjoyed Inspector Kendall and his investigative methods. Then the ending comes and the explanation. And it fell just a bit flat. I can't really tell you why without spoiling--so if you'd like to know more, feel free to highlight the apparently blank space that follows. Otherwise, just know that this is a decent outing by Farjeon. Not quite up to his work in The Mystery in White, but still very interesting and fun to read. It definitely was the right book for this past week when I was waiting on medical news for my Dad. My only quibbles are with the character follow-through and some of the wrap-up. ★★★ and 1/2--I had hoped to go higher 

Spoiler explanation: So--once we get to the end we find out that one of the "murders" is a mistake. Nobody really intended for him to die even though he was a quite despicable character. And the last "murder" isn't even a murder at all--it's just an accident. And is a second convenient death for a less than lovely character. It made for such a tidy ending. Nobody had to go to jail. The crime is all solved. But it wasn't the satisfying ending I would have liked.

********
Deaths = 3 (one strangled; one poisoned; one accident--thrown from bicycle)
Quotes
She is very ill. She does jigsaws, and is a lesson to everybody. That is, if anybody is a lesson to anybody else, which I doubt. (Nadine Leveridge; p. 12)

He concentrated on the pain, trying to trick himself. He rejoiced in its re-discovery, and saddled it with responsibility for his condition. Pain played the deuce with anyone. It temporarily distorted values, and gave fictitious significance to unimportant things. (p. 33)

Nonsense--nobody's wood! Some people build wooden walls around themselves, that's all (Nadine; p. 50)

LP: I should never have thought you feared the truth, Nadine.
NL: I don't. But no artist can paint the whole truth. He just paints his half--and the other half can't answer back from the canvas. The half I fear is your half--all by its little lonesome!
(Leichester Pratt, Nadine Leveridge; p. 51)

(on dancing)
Mr. Pratt seems to have the one object of preventing you from knowing what step he's going to do next. I can usually follow anybody, but he beats me. (Nadine; p. 63)

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Gimmel Flask

The Gimmel Flask (1977) by Douglas Clark

When the senior partner of Hardy, Williams and Lamont--auctioneers and estate agents in a small Anglian town, is poisoned with a rare, virtually unobtainable poison that goes by the name of croton oil, the local police have quite a mystery on their hands. Somebody who knew Fred Hardy's habit of mixing his own oil and vinegar salad dressing at table substituted the oily poison for harmless kitchen oil. And then made a second trip to his house to retrieve the suspect container...and old-fashioned, two-necked bottle called a gimmel flask. 

Superintendent Masters and Inspector Green are sent by the Yard to help out the local police force who have hunted high and low, but found no source for the poison and have about the same success coming up with motives for the auctioneer's murder. At one time in the 19th Century, the oil was used in diluted form as a purge for humans and animals, but it has long since been removed from pharmacies as too dangerous even when diluted. It's up to the team from the Yard to not only discover who wanted Hardy dead, but also the source of such a hard-to-get means of dispatch.

This is the ninth entry in the Masters and Green series and it is, I believe, the very first one I ever read (long before blogging). The men have finally reached the point where they can work together without getting on one another's nerves (well...mostly). They've begun to realize that their differences are part of what makes their team so successful. It also seems that their initial antagonism served to spur each of them to try and outdo the other--in a way that was productive for the team's detective work. Masters has even deliberately requested Green stay on and recommended him for an upgrade in rank. 

The interesting murder method and the way the team works together is what hooked me on this series initially and I find myself enjoying it even more in this reread--especially after seeing the incredible antagonism between Masters and Green in the early installments. We learn quite a bit about the ins and outs of the auction room and how regular bidders operate. There is an added complication of an auction "ring"--a group of professionals (antique dealers and the like) who manage a system that allows them to buy cheap and edge out competition, The team from the Yard must determine whether the sharp dealings of the ring had anything to do with Hardy's murder. It all makes for an intricate investigation and, of course, Masters and company navigate the complexities to arrive at the solution in record time. ★★★★ and 1/2.


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Deaths = one poisoned

June 2020 Calendar of Crime Reviews



Apologies to my faithful challengers. I mistakenly thought that I had posted my review sites at the beginning of the month before I had to go to my parents' house and help them with some medical issues. I've been off-blog for over a week and didn't realize that I'd left you all with no way to log your reviews. 



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Virtual Mount TBR Reviews



Apologies to my faithful challengers. I mistakenly thought that I had posted my review sites at the beginning of the month before I had to go to my parents' house and help them with some medical issues. I've been off-blog for over a week and didn't realize that I'd left you all with no way to log your reviews. 



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June Mount TBR Reviews



Apologies to my faithful challengers. I mistakenly thought that I had posted my review sites at the beginning of the month before I had to go to my parents' house and help them with some medical issues. I've been off-blog for over a week and didn't realize that I'd left you all with no way to log your reviews. 



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June Vintage Mystery Extravaganza Reviews


Apologies to my faithful challengers. I mistakenly thought that I had posted my review sites at the beginning of the month before I had to go to my parents' house and help them with some medical issues. I've been off-blog for over a week and didn't realize that I'd left you all with no way to log your reviews. 



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