Friday, July 31, 2020

Murder in the Dog Days

Murder in the Dog Days (1990) by P. M. Carlson

In the middle of a 1970s sweltering heat wave, Maggie Ryan, Carlson's intrepid amateur sleuth, and her husband Nick join up with Maggie's brother Jerry, his wife Olivia to go to the beach with Olivia's colleague Dale Colby and his family. Olivia and and Dale are reporters for the Mosby Sun-Dispatch and Dale is in the middle of a big story involving the blown-up plane belonging to a high-profile senator. The senator wasn't on the plane--but two of his aides and the pilot all died. Dale is trying to discover if the culprit was a terrorist or if there was a more personal motive to the attack. 

At the last minute, he decides to forego the beach trip, sending everyone away while he works on his story. When the group returns that evening, they find the door to his study locked from the inside and no response to their knocks. They break the door open and find Dale dead in a pool of blood--having apparently been hit over the head with a table lamp. But how did the murderer get in and out? All the windows are also locked and there's no way anyone could have gotten out the door. 

Vietnam nursing veteran, Detective Holly Schreiner takes charge of the investigation and soon finds herself faced with numerous suspects--from the most obvious wife Donna to the equally likely ex-wife Felicia (constantly angry because Dale was behind on child-support) to disgruntled family members of those killed in the plane accident to rival reporters. Lots of suspects, fewer motives, even less opportunity...and some even come with handy alibis. Running through the entire story is a thread of connection to the Vietnam War as well as disquieting relationships. Schreiner will have to face some of the demons of her veteran past as she sorts through the clues surrounding the present case.

This was an interesting peek at the time period just after Vietnam. Carlson writes with real insight and compassion about those who have been there and the reactions they faced upon their return as well as the personal conflicts they had to deal with. The mystery plot was also handled well and I enjoyed seeing how she resolved the impossible crime element of the locked room. I had an idea about that which was in the ballpark but wasn't quite right. I missed the vital clue that would have pointed me in the proper direction. 

Maggie Ryan is an interesting amateur sleuth. Not only is she very observant, but she really understands people and has a good dose of compassion for those involved in the murder. She's unsettling for Holly Schreiner because she unwittingly becomes a symbol of some of the detective's buried memories from the conflict. The two have a very prickly relationship until a critical moment with the victim's daughter allows Maggie to help both the daughter and Schreiner face up to their very separate griefs. Overall, a fine mystery and character examination. ★★ and a half.

First Line: The big graying air conditioner in the window of the so-called city room of the Mosby Sun-Dispatch groaned piteously.

Last Line: Holly hesitated, then returned the salute. "Peace," she said and went back out into the night.

Deaths = one (spoilerish--would give away the "how" of the story--will file under "other")

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Footprints Under the Window

Footprints Under the Window (1933) by Franklin W. Dixon

Frank & Joe Hardy are fending for themselves in Bayport while their mom and dad are out of town on a trip. They know their dad is in the middle of a big case and is possibly using the trip as a cover. Then they get word that their Aunt Gertrude is about to descend upon them (as she always seems to do when she hears the boys are left at home)--little do they know that she will be the catalyst that sends them into a mystery as well.

For when they go to meet the boat she planned to arrive on, there's no Aunt Gertrude--only a man by the name of Simon Pebbles who tells them their aunt had a minor accident on the dock and wasn't able to make the trip after all. She had asked him to stop in Bayport and phone the Hardys to give them the news. Pebbles winds up missing the ferry and Frank & Joe invite him to spend the night at their house. When they wake up in the morning, they're surprised to find Pebbles gone, papers missing from their dad's things, and...Aunt Gertrude lying on the front room floor. 

She's very groggy and feels ill and insists that she saw a Chinese man staring at her in the night. It seems she didn't miss the ferry, but became extremely drowsy and slept through the first stop at Bayport. She was awake enough to get off when it made its return trip in the early morning hours. But what about the Chinese man? It seems that Chinese folks are going to figure very prominently--when the boys took a huge load of laundry to the local Chinese laundry (trying to prepare for their aunt's surprise visit), they found the very friendly Sam Lee replaced by a nasty man by the name of Louie Fong. Then when they search around the house for clues to explain Pebbles disappearance, they find a piece of paper with Chinese writing in addition to some mysterious footprints.

Next up...a man who says he hired Fenton Hardy to investigate claims that he (the man) was smuggling Chinese illegally into the States appears and demands that the boys tell him where their father is. Since they don't know, Frank & Joe decide to investigate on their own. All the clues seem to point to the laundromat and the change in ownership....but who is the man who left the footprints under their window and who seems to be spying on the same people they're investigating? And what does Simon Pebbles have to do with it? They'll have to answer those questions before they can wrap up this mystery.

The story line is actually very pertinent today--with people so very worried about "illegals" getting into the country. As per usual, it is the immigrants looking for a new life who suffer the most. Here we have a gang of smugglers "helping" illegal immigrants get into the country and then exiorting money from them by blackmailing them about their status. There are, certainly, some disturbing racial stereotypes to be found here--but a point is made that while most of the Chinese encountered in the story can speak English perfectly well, they deliberately do not do so with white men so no one will suspect how intelligent they really are. And the ultimate bad guy of the piece isn't Chinese.

There is a lot of action--from thrown knives to falling down trapdoors to being chased by an angry wolfhound. There's also overheard conversations, disguises, urgent telegraph messages, and the drugging of innocent aunts. And, of course, the Hardys--Frank, Joe, and Fenton--get their man/men in the end. ★★

Friday, July 24, 2020

Between the Devil & the Duke

Between the Devil & the Duke (2017) by Kelly Bowen is a regency romance novel with heavy doses of mystery, intrigue, and murder. It features Lady Angelique Archer who bears the weight of her family's troubles on her shoulders. Her mother died five years ago from a mysterious illness. Then her father, the Marquess of Hutton, died during a hold-up by a highwayman, leaving his family with far less money than anticipated. The family solicitors hem and haw about the difficulties, but it boils down to the fact that the Marquess sold off all of his property save the family home in London and the proceeds from those sales have disappeared into the ether. No one knows why he was selling or where the money went. 

Lady Angelique's brother (now the Marquess) is a wastrel--frittering away what little money was left on wine, women, and song--and she is at her wit's end as to how she can keep things together. She has sold everything in the house that could be converted into cash and still isn't going to be able to meet the bills--including the school fees for her twin younger brothers. But the lady has a skill that she can put to use. She has extraordinary mathematical abilities and decides to use those abilities to allow her to count cards at society's gambling dens. She's turning a fair profit and managing (she thinks) to draw little attention to herself in the process....

But Alexander Lavoie, owner of the club she's been frequenting, has noticed her. He noticed her the moment she walked in and has watched the masked woman work the cards like no one he's ever seen before. He doesn't mind because she's been playing vignt-et-un and relieving some rather despicable members of the ton of their money. More than that, he doesn't mind because she fascinates him and he wants to find a way to discover who the lovely lady behind the mask is. Opportunity falls into his lap one night when one of his customers becomes more than unusually upset at having lost and accosts her. Even though it's clear that the woman can handle herself, Lavoie takes advantage of the situation and steps in as owner. He uses the situation to find out more about her and offers her a job dealing the cards for a vingt-et-un table--where she'll be able to make money for the house (and considerably more for herself with percentage he guarantees).

One thing leads to another and, of course since this is a romance novel, sexual tension starts running all over the place. Alex keeps telling himself that he must keep business and pleasure separate, but we all know that's not going to last long. Angelique is too alluring, too clever, and too able to make him a good partner in all ways. On her side, she keeps telling herself that she had a lucky escape from an really bad engagement and that she doesn't need a man to interfere in her affairs, but that's not going to last long either. Alex is too handsome, too easy to talk to, and too concerned about her for her to walk away from. And she does wind up needing his help...

Her wastrel brother gets framed for a murder he swears he didn't commit and Alex has connections that can help get to the bottom of the plot. And plot it is--someone has hated the Archer family for at least five years and is willing to kill repeatedly to get the revenge they feel due. The budding romance has to go on hold while Angelique and Alex follow the twisting trail to a surprising culprit.

I don't read a lot of romance novels anymore...but this fit right into a challenge category that I was having difficulty with, so I snatched it up from the library. It was a pleasant surprise to find a murder mystery plot receiving equal time with the romance--and to find it to be an interesting mystery plot. I thoroughly enjoyed the relationship between our two protagonists and I have to say that my favorite scene occurred after they had sneaked into the Tower to visit her imprisoned brother. They are making their way out when they hear guards coming. Alex (who is dressed in his old military uniform) tells her to hide while he tries to talk his way out of it and he spins a story about his general sending him to look up records (they're caught in some sort of records stash area in the Tower). The guards aren't buying it and Angelique, who is dressed in male clothing with hair stuffed under a hat, bustles out and plays the pompous secretary to the general to perfection. It's a delightful scene.

Overall, an enjoyable read, though I do prefer older regency romances (such as those by Georgette Heyer) with less emphasis on the sex. This one mitigates the sexy bits by offering up a nice, juicy mystery. ★★ and 3/4

Deaths = 5 (one poisoned; one stabbed [throat slit]; three shot) 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Murder at Melrose Court

Murder at Melrose Court (2018) by Karen Baugh Menuhin

Menuhin has set her historical mystery series right in the middle of the Golden Age. This debut novel takes place at Christmas time in 1920. Major Heathcliff (please don't call him that) Lennox discovers a dead body on his doorstep. It is established that the man died of a heart attack, but the local police are still suspicious that Lennox knows more than he tells. Which he does. The man had a scrap of paper in his pocket with the name "Countess Sophia Androvich Zerevki Polyakov" on it. The major tells the police that he has never met the woman--which is, strictly speaking, true; but it's a good thing he didn't say he'd never heard tell of her.

Following on the heels of the deadly discovery, Lennox receives a telegram from his Uncle Charles Lennox insisting that he come home to Melrose Court for the Christmas holidays because he has "important news to impart." The important news? Uncle Charles...long confirmed bachelor, tottering around with his walking engaged to be married. To (you'll never guess...) the Countess Sophia Androvich Zerevki Polyakov. Other family members are on deck and Uncle is going to change his will.  But Uncle Charles is a jolly fellow and we like him, so (unlike many of the Golden Age mysteries written in the 1920s and 30s) he isn't the one who gets murdered. The next dead body to make an appearance is...(you'll never guess) the Countess Sophia Androvich Zerevki Polyakov. And our hero finds himself standing over her, having stupidly picked up the gun lying beside her--because it was his gun and what's it doing there, darn it? Now the local police are really suspicious of him and pretty much the whole house thinks he's a murderer. But he's not and now he's got to prove it. A couple more dead bodies, several red herrings, and a handful of clues later he does. And in classic Golden Age style, he gathers everyone together for a final reveal-all scene. 

This was a pleasant first mystery novel. I enjoyed seeing many of the familiar Golden Age tropes employed--sometimes with a bit of a twist. The overall historical feel of the book is good and I appreciated the humor and witticisms strewn throughout. My primary concern with the novel is Major Lennox. His character just doesn't interest me as much as the protagonist in a series should. There are glimmers of a character I could enjoy over the length of a series, but it's not fully realized--not as much as one would like upon a first meeting. I do have hopes (given the glimmers) that Menuhin will build on the major's character in future books and I enjoyed the novel enough to be ready to try the next one when the occasion arises. ★★ and 1/2.

Deaths = 4 (one heart attack; two shot; one pushed from height)

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

In Memory Yet Green

In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography, 1920-1954 (1979) by Isaac Asimov

Asimov's autobiography gives us the early years of his life--from his birth in Russia and his family's immigration to the United States to the point where his writing career had really taken off. By the time the book ends, he has written his most famous novelette, "Nightfall," and has seen his Foundation series (originally published as separate short stories) released in book form. He provides an intimate view of history--from post-WWI Russia to the United States during WWII and the Korean conflict and includes snippets of other events along the way. The book also features the struggles faced by a young immigrant family in early 20th Century America. Most relevant for those who, like me, have enjoyed his science fiction are the insights into how he got into the writing business and what the early years of science fiction and publishing were like. 


Finally finished this one--it seems like I've been working on it forever. At over 700 pages, Asimov was one wordy dude and only covered 34 years of his life. I love his fiction, having cut my SF eye teeth on his books and short stories. But I must say: the man had a (shall we call it) healthy ego. Once he knew a thing, he was quite prepared to point out how well he knew a thing. Repeatedly, in case you missed it. To give him his due, he also presents the reader with his shortcomings and mistakes in life and is perfectly willing to own up when he was at fault. He also seems to have been a remarkedly loyal friend and family member--helping out in situations that may have turned out disastrously simply because he, as he called it, was following the code of the Woosters: Never let a pal down. He also stuck with his first book publisher, Walter "Brad" Bradbury at Doubleday even when Fredrick Pohl tried to tempt him with bigger profits at Ballantine books.

It would be great to make a lot of money with my writing, and I would feel silly if all the other writers went on to make a lot of money and left me behind

But then I thought of Brad taking my first book, and going over the galleys with me, and working with me to cure me of overwriting, and being kind and helpful, and I had to picture myself saying, "Sorry, Brad, you've been outbid."

So I finally said, "I can't do it, Fred. I'm sorry."

Asimov, as is true of all of us, was a complex individual. Intelligent, creative, competitive (he always wanted to be first or youngest to do something), loyal, sometimes easily angered over trivialities, in equal parts self-deprecating and somewhat egotistical, and, well....a bit of a lech--he never met a pretty girl he didn't want to hug. With his spare, direct style (you wouldn't think it since he took over 700 pages to to tell us about less than half of his life), he comes through as trying to be honest about his life. He is on display, warts and all, and some of it is a little difficult to take--especially in these days. One has to wonder if all the women he thought were so indulgent with his eyebrow-wagging and suggestive comments really were (I sincerely doubt it). And whether they really did think he was just harmless. It's obvious that he thought they thought so (or had chosen to believe it). He also seemed to be disproportionately concerned with everyone's looks--men and women--especially in first encounters. Everyone is initially described in terms of how attractive they are. He soon moves on to other matters and has great respect and interest in others' intelligence, but it's a bit jarring to see that everyone is measured on the Asimov attractiveness scale.

But--putting that to the side--this is a very good autobiography. It is entertaining and informative and even though it's quite long it was never tedious. Asimov is a storyteller above all and he makes the story of his life worth telling. ★★★★

Monday, July 20, 2020

Between the Thames & the Tiber: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

So...after a much longer hiatus from reviewing than planned, I'm back with a short review of Between the Thames & the Tiber (2011) by Ted Riccardi. Short--because I listened to the audio novel version as I traveled to and from my parents' house last week to provide support while my dad underwent surgery (thus explaining a week of the radio silence) and I have difficulty doing in-depth reviews of books I listen to rather than read (especially if it's the first time "reading" them).

The audio novel version made pleasant listening through most of the stories. Simon Prebble does an excellent job representing Holmes and the good Doctor as well as providing distinctive intonations for the various characters they meet in their adventures. I found most of the stories to be just intricate enough to keep my interest while driving, but not complex enough to frustrate me if I happened to miss anything while concentrating more intently on traffic situations when necessary. I do have the distinct impression (supported by various reviewers on Goodreads) that the plots might not hold up to the greater scrutiny I could give them if I read the hard copy book. 

And there were definitely a few frustrating details that I noticed even though I was listening and not reading. The adventures are not given in chronological order; they jump back and forth in time with one story taking place before Moriarty died and yet it isn't given a flashback feel. It is produced as if it just naturally comes next after a story that takes place in the early 1900s.  Several of the adventures--particularly in the latter half of the audio novel--quite simply do not have a resolution. The culprits are not caught and in two of the stories you don't even know for sure who culprit was. The story just ends as if Holmes had given up which is not at all what one expects of the world's greatest detective. In addition, Riccardi introduces a lady-interest (not enough happens that we could call it a love-interest) for Holmes in one of the first stories and then she just disappears. Watson makes remarks in his introduction to the stories about how influential this relationship was on Holmes and yet we are given no evidence of any such thing. 

What I enjoyed most about the collection was the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Riccardi gets that right (for the most part). The friendship between the two is quite evident and portrayed well. Prebble's reading helps to emphasize this. Also, Watson is, as he should be, not as observant and intelligent as Holmes, but he is not the bumbler or fool that is sometimes his lot in pastiche (or in the Rathbone/Bruce films). ★★ for a pleasant audio novel experience.

Deaths = 7 (one poisoned; one hit on head; three shot; one electrocuted; one natural causes) [There were actually more--but since I listened to this and didn't read it, I don't have a good record and can't name any of the others as a certainty]

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Mysterious Mr. Quin

The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930) by Agatha Christie is a collection of short stories that feature Mr. Satterthwaite and Mr. Harley Quin. Satterthwaite is an elderly gentleman in his sixties with the means to travel where he likes and indulge his artistic and epicurean tastes. He also has a love of drama--no, not necessarily on stage but real-life human dramas as they are played out all around him. Throughout his life, he has been an audience of one, watching and studying human nature at its best and often at its worst. When Quin first enters his life, he knows right away that some intriguing drama will follow. Quin will not be the central character, but he will be the catalyst that puts it all in motion. And he's right. Twelve times he is right.

Quin is a mysterious man who appears on the scene as if from nowhere. He has a knack of encouraging the actors in the human dramas to see and understand things in ways they were unable to before. This helps (in these stories) primarily to sort out old tragedies, to help bring justice where needed or just relief of suffering. He also encourages Satterthwaite to get up off the sidelines and get involved in the dramas himself. At first this disconcerts Sattherthwaite, but he soon learns to enjoy the ways his friend uses him to clarify mysteries.

Since these are short stories, the mysteries are not given in great detail but they do have a depth of human emotion and interest. There is also an otherworldly, supernatural feel to the stories. We get a sense that Quin is an agent from beyond the normal human realm and he is described several times as a "speaker for the dead." His ability to appear and disappear from the scene--as if by magic--is but one of his supernatural qualities. In at least two of the stories, there is literally nowhere for him to go without injuring himself and yet go he does.

These are enjoyable little vignettes that allowed Christie to play with the mystery story while adding a dash of the unknown. I think she must have had a great deal of fun putting these together. ★★ and 1/2.

Deaths = 9 (four shot; one poisoned; one drowned; one heart failure; one strangled; one fell from height)

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

July Calendar of Crime Reviews

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July Virtual Mount TBR Reviews

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July Vintage Mystery Extravangza Reviews

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Blotto, Twinks, & the Ex-King's Daughter

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King's Daughter (2009) by Simon Brett

The Ex-King of Mitteleuropa and his entourage has come to stay at the country estate of the duke of Tawcester (pronounced Taster) for rest, relaxation, and to experience the English hunt. The group includes the Ex-King's trusted confidante Captain Schtoltz, twin body guards Bogdan and Zoltan Grittelhoff, various courtly hangers-on, the Ex-Queen, and the beautiful Ex-Princess Ethelinde. The Duchess of Tawcester is pleased to host the exiled royals--it gives her a whole group of new people to be condescending to. But she is less than delighted when her butler Grimshaw informs her that one of her guests has died in the library. She uses her social standing to put pressure on the Chief Constable to sweep the matter under the rug, but she doesn't reckon with her headstrong (and very brainy) daughter, Twinks (aka Lady Honoria Lyminster).

Twinks is jolly good at detecting and she enlists the aide of her less intellectually endowed brother Blotto (aka the Right Honorable Devereaux Lyminster) to provide any brawn needed in the adventure. From a few flakes of cigar ash, a whiff of cologne, white paint on a button, and a piece of wool, she easily pieces together the events that led to Captain Schtoltz's death. She's even sure who the culprit is. But Blotto (who was slightly blotto after drinking several Mitteleuropian toasts with his guests) manages to fall asleep in a cozy, out-of-the-way corner only to awaken to the sound of a whispered conversation. He may not be swiftest horse in the hunt, but he does pick up the gist of the conversation--namely that a plot is afoot to kidnap the lovely Ethelinde. 

Despite the best-laid plans of Twinks, the evil-doer manages to get away with the plot and the Duchess herself sends Blotto, his chauffeur Corky Froggett, and a mysterious Mitteleuropian interpreter Klaus Schiffleich off to Mitteleuropa to restore the family honor...oh and rescue the Princess as well. A few surprises are in store for our happy band of rescuers and Blotto just might find himself king of a foreign country and married to the Princess if he's not careful. Where's Twinks when he needs her?

My take: First of all just let me say, if I had had to read one more "Toad-in-the-Hole!" exclamation or "Twinks, me old muffin" or "Rodents!" (as an expletive, apparently) from Blotto I may have thrown this book out the window. I'm all for a good parody (with a definite stress on good), but there is, as you may know, such a thing as too much of a good thing. Brett really stretches the limit on muchness. Absolutely everything about this is just a shade too much. Too much period slang. Too many repetitions of the same period slang. Too much English self-centrism (as Blotto says, "If only you lot all played cricket, you wouldn't feel so foreign"). Too many WAY over the top caricatures. This could have been a delightfully fun send up of the Golden Age mystery--if only Brett had wielded his pen with a less heavy hand. A disappointing read--I felt like I could have liked these characters a lot, had I been given a chance to do so. One bright spot (thus earning all the stars given) was the exciting ending. I do like a nice wrap-up. ★★

Deaths = 2 (one poisoned; one stabbed)

My Birthday and My Reader's Block Birthday blogiversary (April 24th) came and went in a COVID-19 haze and I forgot all about the post I wanted to do to celebrate until it was a few weeks too late. So, I decided to wait and produce the fanfare on my birthday. This year My Reader's Block is ten years old! And I...well...I am older than ten (by a fair amount). As is fitting for a Book Blogger, I celebrated this morning in style with a gift bag full of bookish goodies

My husband came through with some much-desired vintage mysteries. Murder Wears Mukluks by Eunice Mays Boyd (Dell Mapback edition!), The Taste of Murder by Joanna Cannan, Nothing Like Blood by Leo Bruce, Murder by the Book by Frances & Richard Lockridge, and Spence & the Holiday Murders by Michael Allen (post-1960--but still much sought after).


Mom and Dad also sent some birthday funds which I promptly used to snap up some lovely editions of Lord Peter Wimsey that I just needed as well as About the Murder of a Startled Lady by Antony Abbot.


Two more birthday books are still making their way to the Hankins household. Over all, a very nice birthday indeed!

As far as blogging goes, the past ten years have been so much fun! I started out just wanting to have a place to log my books so my rapidly-more-sieve-like-as-the-years-go-by memory would have a resource to look back upon when books that I've read come up. It didn't take me long to realize that blogging was so much more. It's a place to let my reading challenge addiction run wild--both taking part and hosting. It's a place to meet the most amazing people who also love books...and especially those who love vintage mysteries just as much as I do. I've made virtual friends who I hope to meet in person one day (we came one COVID-19 outbreak short of making it happen this summer--I will make it to England one of these days!). 

I owe huge debts of gratitude to John @ Pretty Sinister Books, Kate @ Cross Examining Crime, the Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, JJ @ The Invisible Event, Brad @ Ah Sweet Mystery Blog, Curtis @ The Passing Tramp, Moira @ Clothes in Books, Les @ Classic Mysteries, the departed and sorely missed Noah @ Noah's Archives as well as a host of others who have shared their knowledge about Golden Age mysteries and even, on occasion, have shared books with me. A number of us have taken part in the Tuesday Night Bloggers--sharing mysteries based on a mutually agreed theme--where I again I learned more about the genre I love.

More recently, I've had the great good fortune to be a participant in Kate's mystery quiz game and to host my own version under the title "Who Wants to Murder a Millionaire" where we whiled away the hours in the early stages of virus lockdown. And we've helped Brad with his continuing mystery saga Murder at Dungarees (and I even have a character running around the estate...). I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to see what happens next.

I want to thank all of you who stop by the Block to see what I've been up to and especially those who have stuck with me through ten years. I've appreciated every comment and hope that everyone who visits finds something they like or even a new book to hunt down. Here's to another ten years of reading and having fun.