Saturday, April 17, 2021

Murder in the Bookshop


 Murder in the Bookshop (1936) by Carolyn Wells

Philip Balfour is a man who likes to have his own way--and his own way generally involves rare books. So, when he decides that he can't wait any longer for a couple of Lewis Carroll books that Sewell's bookshop had tracked down for him, he insists that his librarian Keith Ramsay go with him to the shop on a "little marauding expedition." They break into the shop and start looking for the books (as well as an even rarer book with a near-impossible-to-find inscription in the hand of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence). Ramsay has just stumbled upon this last book's hiding place when the lights go out. 

The next thing we (and Ramsay) know, his employer is dead--stabbed to the heart with an antique silver skewer. He calls the police and tracks John Sewell down at, of all places, Philip Balfour's apartment. When questioned, he tells an unlikely-sounding story. He's quite honest about how he and Balfour entered the building and then says that when the lights went out he caught a glimpse of a masked man before the fellow chloroformed him. And when he came to, he found Balfour dead. It is also discovered that the book with the famous inscription is missing. Ramsay and Sewell both insist that the masked man must be both a murderer and a thief. Inspector Manton naturally has little faith in this mysterious masked man and believes Ramsay has killed his boss. He's even more certain when his investigations uncover the fact that Ramsay and Alli Balfour, the new widow, appear to be in love.

Sewell calls upon his friend Fleming Stone to help find the murderer and the missing book. Stone is a private detective of sorts who has worked with the police before and is "a wizard for getting at the heart of a mystery."

...he isn't one of those story-book detectives, who startle you with their marvellous and often useless discoveries. But he is a deep thinker and a quick reasoner and, since I know his worth, I mean to ask his help.

Stone immediately believes that there is more to the case than a simple love-triangle with murder as the solution. But when he investigates the other possible suspects--Sewell's shop assistant Preston Gill' Balfour's son Guy; Peter Wiley, a fellow book collector; and Carl Swinton, long-time acquaintance of the Balfours--he can find little motive and even less opportunity. Things begin to take shape when Guy Balfour is also murdered, a ransom note appears demanding money for the return of the book, and then Alli Balfour is apparently kidnapped. Manton with twisted logic still seems to believe that Ramsay is still behind it all and Stone embarks on a risky mission to prove the truth at last.

This was a fairly disappointing read for me. The setting in the book world was a definite plus and is part of the reason I bought it. I like that the murder takes place in a bookshop; there's a lot of talk about book collectors; and the Macguffin is a rare book that is stolen. However, I find it a bit unbelievable that Sewell would be so casual about Balfour and Ramsay breaking into his shop. I don't care how trustworthy they've been in the past. "Oh, officer, it's no big deal that they broke into the shop. After all they were only looking for the books I'd obtained for Balfour--they've every excuse for breaking in to get what was essentially Balfour's property." Seriously? And if his shop is that easily broken into by a couple of amateurs, I'd think he'd at least be alarmed that someone far more unscrupulous might break in and run off with more of his rare books. But from his reaction you'd think it was just business as usual for people to force a window and enter his shop while he was out. 

Oddly, the story contains lots of activity, but no action--if that makes sense. All sorts of things happen but they effect very little forward movement in the plot. It feels like it should be a fast-moving ride, especially after the mid-point, but somebody has left the hand-brake on. The rhythm of the dialogue is off. It just doesn't sound natural to me. The words and phrases are generally all correct, but they're lifeless. I wanted to like this more than I did--but no amount of "want to" can make this more than a  and a half (and that may be a little generous).

This has also been reviews by Kate over at Cross Examining Crime, who gave it four stars. Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy! leans more towards my views and the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery was very disappointed. So your mileage may vary.

First lines: Mr. Philip Balfour was a good man. Also, he was good-looking, good-humoured and good to his wife. That is, when he had his own way, which was practically always.

Last line: And smilingly, they went out into the clear bright autumn sunshine.

SPOILER ALERT: Unless I missed it there is no explanation given for why the murderer went to Sewell's shop or had any idea that Balfour and Ramsay would be there. Did he just hang out wherever Balfour was likely to be in the hopes of murdering him? Why didn't he stick to the original murder plot?

**************

Deaths = 2 (one stabbed; one suffocated)


Bonus short story: "The Shakespeare Title-Page Mystery"

Another biblio-mystery. This time focused on a rare printing of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Two collectors who know one another personally each claim to have found a rare first printing of Shakespeare's work. One proves to be fake--but whose is it really? Has someone switched the copies? And, if so, who?

This short literary mystery was much more satisfactory than the longer story, though I am a little dubious about how much esoteric book knowledge Pierson of the New York Police seems to have. It would have been nice if he'd been introduced as a policeman with a background in the book world or who was a collector himself in private life. As it stands, there's no reason for him to be so quick on the uptake when it comes to various editions of rare books. But--if I suspend my disbelief on that point--I can say I enjoyed this story about a book swindle that didn't quite come off.

First line: "That's the way with you collectors!"

Last line: "The precious little volume is also a refugee, and a refugee is ever a sacred trust."

Deaths = one shot

Friday, April 16, 2021

Who Killed Stella Pomeroy?

 

Detective fiction is my line, and there I can claim to be a judge. I can tell you that no one is more surprised than my uncle to find that I'm sticking to it. What he doesn't know is that when I read the manuscript of a thriller a sort of halo of light glows about the guilty man at his first entry in chapter three--it's a natural intuition. (Jim Milsom)

Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? (aka Death in the Bathroom; 1936) by Sir Basil Thomson

Miles Pomeroy was calmly working away in his garden when a house agent brought some clients to look over his bungalow with a view to a possible rental. He was perfectly willing to show them round, excusing himself briefly to warn his wife who he thought had been having a bath. A simple real estate visit turns into a murder investigation when Pomeroy finds his wife in the bathtub, killed by a blow to the head. The doors and windows were all locked, so it seems unlikely that a stranger got in and Inspector Aitken is certain that the man they want is the one who was working in the garden.

Jim Milsom, one of the people who had come to look over the bungalow and dabbler in detection, doesn't believe Pomeroy is guilty and he thinks Aitken a very uninspired detective. He scouts about for clues and jostles the long arm of the law into calling in his friend Inspector Richardson of the Yard. Not only is Richardson a much better detective than Aitken, he's bound to let Milsom aid and abet the cause of justice. Once the Scotland Yard man has heard Milsom version of the discovery of the body and heard about the clues the local inspector missed, he's ready to have a more open mind about the suspects. Milsom isn't the only one ready to help Richardson find the right culprit (not Pomeroy!). Pomeroy's cousin Ann is also determined to see him cleared and Pat Coxon, a young sleuthhound who lives in lodgings not far from the crime scene, is also eager to help the police search for clues. 

The more these detectives dig into the life of Stella Pomeroy, the more suspects there are. There's the mysterious man, Edward Maddox, from New Zealand who arrives on the morning of her murder with news of her uncle's death and her legacy. There's the man Edward befriended on the ship from New Zealand who seems unnaturally interested in the legacy. There's the journalist who rumor says was having an affair with murdered woman. And there's the owner of very fancy handbag which was found in Stella Pomeroy's closet--a handbag that various people seemed determined to get their hands on. Before the case is closed, there will be infidelities, blackmail, fraud, and a second attempted murder to add to the original crimes...and Richardson will need all his helpers to get to the bottom of it all.

This detective novel was unexpectedly delightful. Thomson was head of the Metropolitan Police during WWI, so the investigation has an authentic ring to it but the writing is neither dull nor overburdened with procedure. In fact--if I hadn't had the prospect of work looming before me the next morning, I might have stayed up until the wee hours to finish it. He also describes Richardson giving various suspects and solutions consideration without a repetitive rehashing of the the entire body of evidence to date. It seems to me a very realistic portrayal of the methods and processes of a detective superintendent. 

One very tiny frustration was a purely personal one--readers of the blog will know that I posted about my quest to find a mystery quote fitted to each minute of the day. It is incredible how often Thomson mentions clocks and makes vague references to time and doesn't give the actual time of day. When he does break down and tell me what time something happened it is almost always a nice tidy even hour, half-hour, or quarter-hour. Surely to goodness, the man had to put actual times in his real police reports and you'd think with the accuracy in police methods he has all over the place in this story that habit would have caused him to use better time references. But maybe he thought fiction readers weren't all that bothered about down-to-the-minute times, especially since split-second timing isn't crucial to his plot.

Overall, a fine Golden Age detective novel and I will definitely keep my eye out for more of the Richardson mysteries. 

First line: A big sunbeam touring car was crawling along the concrete road of one of the new building estates bordering on Ealing.

Last lines: No, she would never give up everything to become the wife of an officer in the C.I.D. But Ann did.

***************

Deaths = 3 (one hit on head; two natural)





Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Followers By Email!

 

Bad News Alert! Blogger has notified us that it will no longer support Feedburner (which facilitates the "Follow by Email" function on the blog) after July of this year. I have downloaded the subscriber list and will investigate what I can do about this--but please know that I have very little in the way of real tech skills and may be unsuccessful. If anyone out there in Blogger-land comes up with a spiffy way to keep email updates going out to followers and would share with me (phryne1969 AT gmail DOT com) I would be so very appreciative. Likewise, if I find a good solution, I'll broadcast the news.

Why do "they" always have to change things?!



One Murdered: Two Dead


 One Murdered: Two Dead (1936) by Milton Propper

Mystery as easy as one, two, three: one murdered, two dead (three if you count the unnamed, unborn baby), and three obvious suspects. Wealthy, willful socialite Madeline (Kent) Emery, heiress of a steel king and married to a cold, unfaithful husband (suspect #1), is found murdered in her bed after a thief (suspect #2) is caught red-handed exiting her fabulous estate early one morning. At first, it looks like an open and shut case of a burglar who panicked after she discovered him rifling through her jewelry--but detective Tommy Rankin soon finds things that just don't fit with such a simple solution. For one, what did the burglar do with the knife she was stabbed with? It's not on his person and it's nowhere to be found in the house or on the grounds. For another, why was the dead woman wearing her robe in bed? As he begins digging into Madeline's life, he spots suspect #3, Madeline's cousin Ed Hastings who will only reap major benefits under the steel king's odd will if Madeline dies without children from any of her marriages. And even those additional suspects don't quite satisfy Rankin especially when an event from the past keeps cropping up in the present. What could a young woman's five-day disappearance from school have to do with her death now? That's what Rankin intends to find out. But will it ultimately answer the question of who murdered her?

Propper's book is fairly typical for a 1930s, Golden Age mystery. There is a fairly small set of suspects. Motives are spread around liberally with red herrings and multiple dead end trails. Each time Rankin (and we) think he has finally found the motive and the culprit, a new wrinkle appears that needs following up. He displays his clues fairly and observant readers could spot the killer if they correctly interpret them all. He also includes a handy map of the Emery premises to help readers understand who was where at the time of the murder.

Rankin is an interesting detective who is no super sleuth. He uses commonsense and hard work (see quote below) rather than esoteric knowledge or mysterious insight to track down his villains. He may make a few mistakes along the way, but he's willing to admit them and will keep going until he finds the truth--even if he has to go back to the beginning and start all over again. 

I enjoyed my introduction to Tommy Rankin and hope that I will be able to track more down in the future. I'm glad that the 1936 Club led me to feature this lost treasure from the Golden Age.  and 1/2.


First lines: "Number three-two-five-nine." At three o'clock on the morning of November 20th, exactly on schedule, Patrolman Lester Beahan "pulled" the box at the corner of Taylor Street and Clyde Road.

[about Tommy Rankin, our protagonist] Yet he laid no claim to brilliance or the phenomenal astuteness of the fictional detective. He worked essentially by commonsense methods, without the manner of a mind-reader producing answers from thin air. His power to reason logically from his premises and reach telling conclusions was coupled with a capacity for hard work, perseverance, and determination.

Last line: To all appearances, this is another addition to your list of successes, of which you can justly be proud.

**************

Deaths = 2 (one stabbed; one natural)

Monday, April 12, 2021

Why Kings Confess


 Why Kings Confess (2014) by C. S. Harris (#9 in the Sebastian St. Cyr [Viscount Devlin] series)

Regency England, January 1813: A Frenchwoman from Sebastian St. Cyr's past is found badly injured beside the body of the Dr. Damion Pelletan in the Cat's Hole, a lane in one of London's worst slum areas. Sebastian is brought into the case because his friend, surgeon Paul Gibson, was the one who stumbled upon the couple and he wants Sebastian to find out what happened and why. The woman has suffered a horrible blow to the head and the man...well, he was stabbed in the back and then someone removed his heart. 

When the woman, Alexandrie Sauvage, regains consciousness, they find that she remembers little of the attack and can offer little help in tracking down the culprit/s. But she (and Sebastian) definitely remembers the brutal betrayals of wartime that she experienced with Devlin. Neither trusts the other--she because he is Lord Jarvis's son-in-law and he because he feels she's just as much to blame for certain deaths in Spain as he is. He's also quite sure that she isn't telling him everything she knows...and he's troubled by the relationship that seems to be developing between Alexi and his friend Paul.

Working in the dark (sometimes quite literally), Sebastian learns that Dr. Pellatan was tied to a secret French delegation tasked with approaching the British about the possibility of an end to the long-running war between the two countries. Is someone trying to sabotage the mission? It certainly appears that way when other members of the delegation are killed as well. Jarvis is said to oppose a settlement with Napoleon--could he be behind it? There are also members of the exiled French royal family in England. Could the deaths be related to a plot to retake the French throne? But then there are also a few more personal victims in the ever-mounting body count--is the motive related to secret passions and revenge? Sebastian needs to find out before the danger he skirts on a regular basis reaches those he holds most dear.

One thing I really enjoyed about this story was the focus on Paul Gibson. While Sebastian and Hero are great characters and I am interested in following the development of their life together, we haven't spent a lot of time with Paul other than his reports to Sebastian on the various post mortem examinations he's done. This entry in the series shows more of Paul's struggles with pain (from the loss of his leg in the war) and it gives him a budding romantic relationship which I hope to see develop more fully in the future. He has grown beyond side-kick status to have a storyline of his own and I certainly hope it continues.

The action and danger are every bit as thrilling as the other titles in the series. And I continue to enjoy the way Harris mixes actual political intrigues with other motives to provide plenty of red herrings and possible threads to follow. It would be nice, however, if just once Devlin could engage in a fight with a bad guy and NOT have to see Paul for stitches. It's hard to believe that the man has any place on his upper body that does not have an ugly scar--and, given how often he's been involved in murder investigations over the past ten months to a year, it seems impossible that he's had time to heal properly. But that's a small quibble...and I highly recommend the series to those who enjoy a historical mystery. 

First line: Paul Gibson lurched down the dark, narrow lane, his face raw from the cold, his fingers numb.

Last line: And still they stood, her hand creeping out to take his, their gazes meeting as the wind snatched at her hair and her lips curve into a trembling smile.

************

Deaths = 11 (four stabbed; three natural; two beaten/hit on head; one blown up; one fell from height)

The 1936 Club: Review Round-up



From April 12-18th, April of Kaggy's Bookish Rambles and Simon at Stuck in a Book are sponsoring a read/blog-athon featuring books published in 1936. All you have to do is read at least one book from 1936 and post about it--that's it.

1936 Books Read April 12-18th
One Murdered: Two Dead by Milton Propper (4/14/21)
Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? by Sir Basil Thomson (4/16/21)
Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells (4/17/21)


1936 Books Read April 5-11:

Mr. Smith's Hat by Helen Reilly: I returned to Reilly, an author I've enjoyed in the past but after picking up several more titles hadn't gotten round to reading more of. In this one, Inspector McKee follows the clues of the titular hat, a rare zebra zinnia, a stamped train ticket, a missing photograph, an old writing desk, and the last entry in the victim's diary to discover the identity of a cold, calculating (and remorseless) killer.


Murder Goes to College by Kurt Steel: a mediocre academic mystery with an awesome cover. My regular readers will know that I can't pass up an academic mystery. And that cover just about makes the whole thing worthwhile--but I can't really say that I recommend this one. The characters are well-drawn, but they're not really compelling. The villain of the piece was pretty obvious to me (but that may be my own preconceived notions at play) and the red herrings weren't distracting enough (at least to me). The best things about the book are the cover, the descriptions of place and people, and surprisingly enough there is an effort made at fair play. Hank displays every clue he finds and it's possible to discover the identity of the culprit using those clues.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

What Darkness Brings


 What Darkness Brings (2013) by C. S. Harris

It's September 1812...a mere ten months or since Sebastian St. Cyr was himself accused of murder and had to begin his unofficial career as a detective to clear his own name. Ten months and he's already involved in his eighth round of murders. This time an unsavory gem dealer Benjamin Eisler, who also dealt with a spot of usury and blackmail on the side as well as dabbling in the black arts, has been killed and the husband of Sebastian's former lover, Kat, has been accused of the murder. Russell Yates, shipping captain with rumors of piracy in his wake, was found standing over the body just moments after the shot was heard. Both Kat and Yates swear he's innocent and Sebastian will do anything for the sake of his former love--even at the risk of his newly forming relationship with his own wife Hero.

The local magistrate is so sure that Yates did the deed that he didn't even bother to question potential witnesses closely. Sebastian's investigation reveals that Eisler had recently been handling a rare blue diamond--rumored to be the missing centerpiece to the French crown jewels. But the diamond has gone missing and Sebastian isn't the only one interested in its connection to the gem dealer's death. The strands of the case reach all the way from the Prince Regent to Napoleon of France and every time Sebastian finds a valuable witness they wind up dead before he can get their full story. It doesn't help that he begins to doubt that Kat is being completely honest with him. In the past, if she couldn't tell him something for reasons of her own, she'd tell him so. Now, he doesn't trust what she does tell him. There's one witness left who may be able to give him the last pieces of the puzzle--but can he find her in time?

This is another exciting entry into the historical series which returns to underlying political currents. Everyone from the Prince Regent of England to Napoleon is concerned about the diamond, but Harris does a fine job of weaving personal motives into the plot to keep the reader guessing on just who killed Eisler and why. I kept waiting for Sebastian to realize that there was a missing witness--and had just about given up hope when he finally realized the significance of certain aspects of the dead man's home. But even though I was a step ahead of our detective on that point, I still didn't spot the real killer. A nicely done turn-about on the motives kept me in the dark to the end. 

I appreciate the amount of historical research Harris puts into these books. This adventure uses real people and real incidents regarding the history of the Hope diamond. For a period of time, it is uncertain what became of the jewel and she uses one of several theories as the basis of her plot. A very enjoyable rendering of historic events. 

First line: The man was so old his face sagged in crinkly, sallow folds and Jenny could see pink scalp through the thin white hair plastered by sweat to his head.

Last line: Her lips curled into a slow smile, and he thought she'd never looked more beautiful. "Yes."

**************

Deaths = 12 (one poisoned; five shot; two stabbed; one hit on head; two drowned; one fell from height) I can always count on C. S. Harris to up the body count for me....

Death of a Busybody


 Death of a Busybody (1942) by George Bellairs

Murder at the vicarage--with a vengeance! Miss Ethel Tither is the busybody of Bellairs's title. Her life's mission is to dig up tittle-tattle--not with an eye to blackmail or poison pen letters as is so often the case in Golden Age village mysteries--oh no. Hers is a much loftier (in her mind) purpose--to show sinners the error of their ways and bring them back into the flock. It doesn't seem to occur to her that her mission is seldom successful. She more often than not drives the lost sheep even further from the fold. And makes herself several enemies while she's at it. When she is found hit over the head and drowned in the vicarage cesspool there is no lack of suspects, from Mr. Weekes whose weakness for a certain young lady was revealed to his wife to Walter Thornbush who wanted to marry her maid and was frustrated by Miss Tither's threat to cut off the girl's promised legacy if she married to Nancy Pearce and Reuben Beallot whose premarital goings-on were revealed to one and all to her own nephew whose inheritance was threatened when she found out he wasn't quite the industrious missionary he'd led her to believe.

The local police force have quite enough on their hands with a spate of robberies and a number of their officers off on a training course, so Scotland Yard is called on very quickly. Not wanting to the put the backs up of the villagers, they send Inspector Littlejohn who fits right in with the country folk. PC Harriwinkle is thrilled at the chance to work with the big guns from London and immediately begins dreaming of his sergeant's stripes. It winds up that the constable is a pretty observant man and produces some vital clues that help Littlejohn sort out the case. Those stripes are in the bag!

This is a lovely English village mystery. The characters are vibrant, humorous, and have the best names. From the Rev. Ethelred Claplady to Major Crabtree (whose real first name is Major) to Littljohn's assistant back in London, Cromwell, who. when contact with his superior is out of the question, figures out what to do next by asking himself, "What would Oliver Cromwell do?" Bellairs has a definite flair for description--both of the village & and surrounding area and the village residents and their habits. The details of the grapevine at work--spreading the tale of the discovery of the body that runs from the truth to "Miss Tither's been found shot in the vicarage orchard" to the final version "Owld Tither's been done in. They say the vicar's done it."--gives a pretty accurate view of how the gossip's game of telephone goes.

I did spot the villain of the piece as soon as a certain something was discovered--well before the final chapter was in sight--but did not make all the of connections that would be revealed in the wrap-up, so the denouement still held surprises for me. It's a tidy little mystery with fun and good characterizations that fans of the Golden Age should enjoy thoroughly. 

First line: The September morning which greeted the Rev. Ethelred Claplady, M.A. (Cantab.), incumbent of Hilary Magna (and Parva for that matter), made him want to leap and shout.

Last line: It contained practical evidence of that good man's activities--honey in the honeycomb.

************

Deaths =  2 (one drowned; one shot)

Friday, April 9, 2021

Bev's Monstrous Mystery TBR Mountain

 


Hi, my name is Bev. I'm a book-aholic. I accumulate books at a much faster rate than I can read them. A little while ago on Facebook, I posted a list challenge made up of titles I have picked up on my bookish journey--from used bookshops and community book sales; from garage sales and online sources (more rarely). Also books that have shown up as Christmas and birthday gifts. This isn't all of them--some I couldn't easily find cover photos--but it's most of the mysteries/detective fiction/thrillers sitting on my to-be-read shelves [since the photo above the bookish line-up has been replaced with shelves]. If you've read any on this massive list you can congratulate yourself on having beaten Bev to the punch!

Since posting the list on Facebook, I've actually read five of the books! Go me! Let's see how many more I can move off the monstrous TBR stack.

You can play along HERE.



Thursday, April 8, 2021

Murder Goes to College


 Murder Goes to College (1936) by Kurt Steel

Chelsea College has a lot more going on than just classes on Chaucer and Calculus and Philosophy and Psychology. One of the professors is helping out a crime boss with a numbers game and another is cooking the books and skimming a little off the top for himself. When Tom Kelly is shot in his office, private detective Hank Hyer is brought onto the job by one of the trustees, his friend Albert Jocelyn. Hank's mission is to find out if the numbers racket decided Tom's number was up or if the professor's death is connected to the fraud that has been going on in the college treasury. Jocelyn had thought for some time that something wasn't quite right with college's finances and had asked Tom to take a quiet peek at the records. Did he discover anything? And did someone kill him before he could reveal the truth? 

Or did Tom's involvement with Strike Fusil, head of the numbers racket, sign his death warrant? When Fusil's gun turns up as the murder weapon, Hank believes that some clever scholar has been manufacturing evidence to frame Fusil--but can he prove it? If he can, he'll earn a twelve thousand dollar fee from the crime boss. But it's not going to be easy...the police have their sights on Fusil and a keen eye on Hank as well. They wouldn't want Hank to get clever and produce a fall guy to take the rap just so he can earn a hefty reward. They don't know Hank very well...he'll give them the right culprit even if it means losing twelve thousand smackers.

I have to say that Kurt Steel wasn't a name that I knew before I came across this title on a list of mysteries with an academic bent. I'd say that's for a good reason. His detective Hank Hyer isn't very memorable. I give him kudos for being honest and not being willing to produce a faked confession just to earn a good chunk of change. But he's just not an engaging protagonist. His "witty repartee" with the college professors falls flat and he doesn't do much better with those who are more on his level. 

Steel does have a way with descriptions. He evokes the atmosphere of the college at night with short, but well-defined phrases. He gives thumb nail sketches of each character that are just long enough to give a real sense of who each person is without being too wordy. But where he falls down on the job is his dialogue. It has a very jerky rhythm and some of the exchanges don't even seem to make sense. I had to go back and reread a few portions because I thought I must have missed something. I hadn't--the back and forth between two characters just really didn't track properly.

My regular readers will know that I can't pass up an academic mystery. And that cover just about makes the whole thing worthwhile--but I can't really say that I recommend this one. The characters are well-drawn, but they're not really compelling. The villain of the piece was pretty obvious to me (but that may be my own preconceived notions at play) and the red herrings weren't distracting enough (at least to me). The best things about the book are the cover, the descriptions of place and people, and surprisingly enough there is an effort made at fair play. Hank displays every clue he finds and it's possible to discover the identity of the culprit using those clues.  and 1/2

First line: Henry Hyer shifted his arm on the seat behind Marya Jocelyn's shoulders and peered out.

Last line: Singleton said, "Isn't that too bad, Hyer?" and urged Fusil out into the corridor. [Don't let that last line fool you, it may not be the spoiler you think it is.]

**************

Deaths = two shot

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Mr. Smith's Hat


 Mr. Smith's Hat (1936) by Helen Reilly

Pulp western writer and hard drinker Gilbert Shannon is found dead in a squalid little apartment in New York City. It looks like a pure case of accident due to a drunken slip, but one of Inspector McKee's men isn't satisfied. You see, there's this clump of dried mud that he found in the dead man's room and no way to explain how it got there. Shannon's shoes had no mud. There was no mud anywhere else. An analysis of the mud reveals it to be garden dirt with two cat hairs, bits of a bird feather, and a seed. McKee tells his man to plant the seed and see what grows out of it. What they get is a rare zebra zinnia and a murder case. Well...three murders once all is said and done. 

While waiting for his seed to grow, Detective Frisch attends the funeral where he runs into the titular Mr. Smith and his hat. When he first notices Smith, the detective thinks the man is overcome with emotion. Then he realizes the man isn't crying...he's laughing. Soon McKee and Frisch are tying to figure out what Smith has to do with Shannon's murder. Then after the seed has produced the rare zinnia and a meticulous search has revealed that it must have come from Seers Lake in in Connecticut, McKee's attention is drawn to a group staying up at the lake. He heads out there just in time to discover that one of the group, the Baroness von Ridingsvard has been killed in, of all places, a private zoo monkey room. McKee is convinced that the murders are connected, but the district attorney is not so sure and throws his weight around a bit (trying to clear up the, to him, more important case in the country) and puts the killer even more on his guard. But McKee's bulldog tenacity keeps him on track and the details of police work will prove that the Scotsman is correct. He'll have to figure out the significance of a railway ticket, a missing photograph, an old writing desk, and the last entry in Shannon's diary before he'll have all the evidence needed to put the right suspect behind bars.

The story begins with the tail-end of another case--an interesting opening. "The lady who admitted having too heavy a hand with arsenic in her husband's jelly roll was led weeping from the room." The subtle black humor of the full scene makes me wish that Reilly had given us the complete story of The Case of the Arsenic Jelly Roll (with more mystification, of course). But the story she did provide was a pretty good one. Lots of atmosphere in the country setting. McKee being good an mysterious about his clues. A couple of chase scenes. And death in a monkey room. What more could you want? 

Reilly was very good at giving the reader the finer details of police procedurals without boring us to death with all the routine. And Inspector McKee is an interesting detective. He seems to produce results out of nothing...but then he does give the facts that led him to the conclusions. Definitely a good start to my intended binge on 1936 mysteries for the next week or so.  and 1/2


First line: "That will be all, lieutenant, you can take her away."

He knew the Scotsman. Once McKee got his teeth into a thing he never let it go if it took him years to get what he was after. [p.20]

She had been brought up by a wealthy aunt, had the voiceless assurance lack of contact with reality brings and the manners of an empress. [p. 25]

...Farquesan was knocked off his pins.by the awful sight at their feet. Odd how men changed their character in a crisis, He was usually cool and decisive, with an opinion on everything, while Di Mora was lazily casual and reluctant to interfere in what wasn't strictly his own business. It was Di Mora who took charge. [p. 31]

Hogue was not at all surprised when  McKee turned up suddenly under the trees in the gloom at the foot of the hill, partly because his capacity for surprise had reached the saturation point and partly because he was afraid of the Scotsman and was constantly expecting him to appear, a bird of evil omen. [p. 103]

Fernandez glanced at the Scotsman suspiciously. Towards the end of any investigation that was particularly difficult McKee had a way of speaking in parables, of hugging his knowledge to his bosom and producing his effects somewhat after the manner of a conjurer. It infuriated officials close to him who didn't like rabbits out of hats on general principles and who had a passion for the dotting of i's and the crossing of t's as they went along. [p. 169]

Last line: Mr. John Edgerton Smith has had rather a mean deal.

**************

Deaths = 3 (one hit on head; two stabbed)


Mysterious Time Quotes...Revisited

Back in 2014 I came across an article on The Guardian that told of their mission which began in 2011 to find a literary quote for every minute of the day. They were getting very close to filling in their last remaining times and had called on readers to help them with the empty minutes. 

Well...you know how I love a good challenge. And I love a good mystery. I also have a great fondness for quotes. So...I decided to set myself a challenge: to find a mystery book quote for every minute of the day and posted about it [HERE]. At the time, I mused on whether I make it completely round the clock in three years. Little did I know how much mystery writers (and possibly all writers for that matter) love certain times more than others. And so much that is important happens on the hour, half-hour, or quarter-hour. At this rate, I may finish filling in all the blanks by the time I finish the last book on my TBR mountainscape [i.e. Never].

 So...I thought I would ask all my mystery-loving friends to give me a hand. I'll post a link below that leads to my spreadsheet. When you pick up your next mystery--If you happen to notice an odd time (like, say, 3:01 A.M.) that's still empty, would you snag the relevant quote and send it, the book title, and author to me (phryne1969 AT gmail DOT com)? Thanks! 

*Addendum: Ken Hull has already jumped in and provided numerous times (noted on the spreadsheet). Thanks, Ken! Due credit will be given to everyone who contributes!

Mysterious Time Quotes Spreadsheet


 




Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Gladly Throw Into the Ocean

 

 
I'm jumping back on the Top Ten Tuesday bandwagon. It's a meme that asks us to list ten books on a given topic. This week we're looking at "Books I'd gladly throw into the ocean." While I don't generally advocate destroying books, there have been a few over the years that have exasperated me so much that I've thought about making exceptions.Here's a taste of frustrating or just plain bad mysteries (full reviews--where available--linked to the titles):

1. The Polka Dot Nude by Joan Smith: The mystery wasn't very mysterious. There was very little suspense. And the characters weren't all that interesting or engaging. And my feeling throughout the book was: Why should I care?

 
2. The Perfect Murder by H.R.F. Keating: The book that wasn't. Perfect, that is. And SPOILER ALERT!
 

 It's not a murder either. This book makes lists for great mysteries. After trying to read it I can't figure out why. I have yet to read anything by Keating that should make a great mystery list. The historical mysteries he wrote under the name Evelyn Hervey are the best things I've read by him--but they're just fine, middle-of-the-road books. Nothing to knock anyone's socks off.

3. The Small World of Murder by Elizabeth (E. X.) Ferrars: Okay...so I've read many of Elizabeth (E. X.) Ferrar's books--mostly in her series featuring retired professor of botany Andrew Basnett--and I've generally enjoyed them. But this one did not do a thing for me. Very oppressive, instead of suspenseful as most of her non-series books are. And really quite convoluted--especially the explanation. I'm still not sure that I understand the motivation behind the kidnapping and the murders. Unlike other novels I've read by Ferrars, there wasn't much to like about the characters, either.


4. Copper Gold by Paula Glen Winslow:
This just was not in any way, shape, or form a compelling story. Inspector Copper (who is mixed up with a woman with mob connections) was not a sympathetic character, so I honestly didn't much care if Superintendent Capricorn would be able to clear him or not (I assume he does....). And Capricorn really isn't an interesting character himself. I gave up after the first dead body appeared and a mafia widow showed up demanding a more thorough investigation than what her husband seemed to be getting. 'Cause she's sure that the little tramp (Copper's girlfriend) or that bent copper really murdered her dear hubby. [Never mind that she's been in America and separated from him.] It was all just too much and too sordid-feeling for me to take.
 
 
 
5. The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl: This is such a disappointing book after The Dante Club. It's poorly plotted with a pace that moves about as quickly as a herd of turtles. It also makes no sense. Quentin's motivation for his intense obsession and willingness to give up his livelihood is murky at best and not really explained at all. It's very unclear whether all the plots and machinations are really happening or if he's imagining things. Pearl makes a great deal out nothing. And in the end, I just plain didn't care what happened to Poe and whether Quentin could prove it and get on with his life. Not because I think the death of Poe wasn't mysterious and that there couldn't be a story in it--but because as far as I can tell, Pearl didn't really make it into a story interesting enough to be worth telling.
 
 
6. One for the Money by Janet Evanovich: Stephanie Plum doesn't do much for me as a heroine. I don't connect with her at all--from her trying to run over her former lover to her blackmail of her cousin about his affairs and relations that involve a duck (what the heck?!) to her taking on a job that she has absolutely ZERO qualifications for.  Nora Roberts in a blurb on the back of the book wants to stick Stephanie in the ranks with Kinsey Millhone.  I'm not even a major Millhone fan and I think that's an insult to Kinsey. The writing itself seems to be to be cotton candy for the brain.  Too much of it makes Bev a sick girl.  Too much in this case would be ten pages at a time.
 
 
 
7. The Mind-Murders by : So when I read this I went from a mystery with a headless corpse  to a book with a headless teddy bear. Named Brom.Yeah, I didn't believe it either. The Mind-Murders (1981) by Janwillem van de Wetering reads like it was written while the author was on an acid trip. It's got hippies, dancing policemen, a couple of cops named Ketchup & Karate (I tell you I'm not making this up), and is written with a dream-like quality that makes you think of the Sixties and sex, drugs & rock-n-roll. The only mind that seems to be murdered is that of the poor reader who valiantly tries to follow the story line to its logical (?) ending.
 
 

 
8. Eyes at the Window by George Selmark: Do you ever get the feeling when you're reading a book that you're swimming against a very strong current? Or working your way through the thickest fog? Yeah, that was this book. It is only 143 pages long, but I felt like I was working very hard to get nowhere fast and I couldn't really see what was happening at all.
 
 

 
9. With No One as Witness by Elizabeth George: The book that made me stop reading her. If I tell you exactly why, it will spoil the whole plot for you. Read pre-blogging, so no review.



 
10. And Hope to Die by Richard Powell: Honest-to-goodness, this sounded like it would be a fun romp. I'd heard somewhere that Andy and Arab were better than the Abbots (series by Frances Crane), so I looked forward to reading it. The mystery is convoluted. Things move along in a jerky kind of way. And it just doesn't grab me at all. This is supposed to be a funny, bantering couple mystery novel. But Andy and Arab just make me tired. There is too much banter. Andy is too reluctant. Arab is too eager.
 

 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Gently in the Sun


 Gently in the Sun (1959) by Alan Hunter

Rachel Campion was a beautiful young woman who likes men and whom men like a lot. She was faithful (after her fashion) to her boyfriend/boss--but he had to understand that she just couldn't help liking other men. And liked being with them. She was secretary and lover to Alfred Mixer and, though he doesn't want to admit, he was very jealous of Rachel. Anyone at the Bel-Air guest house could tell you that. And when Rachel is found strangled to death on the beach Mixer is at the top of the Devon County Constabulary's suspect list. But Mixer has an alibi of sorts and there is little real evidence, so they decide to call in the Yard.

Inspector George Gently is sent to investigate and at first it looks like the local police have tagged it right. But his seeming (to local Inspector Dyson) random questions and even more eccentric methods unearth other motives. There's the painter who lied about how well he knew Rachel--well enough, in fact, to paint a very provocative portrait of her. Then there's the two fishermen, Dawes and Hawks, who have an odd relationship to the dead woman...and to each other. And then, just as Gently thinks things are becoming clear, he discovers another corpse buried in the sand on the beach. This one is about twenty years old and it looks like Rachel's death may not be as simple as he thought.

At some point in my pre-blogging life, I read an Alan Hunter Inspector Gently novel (either Landed Gently or Death on the Heath--I'm not certain which came first) and pronounced it so good that I put him on my "To Be Found" list and over the years I've accumulated a fair number of them. I pull one off the TBR shelf every once in a while and discover that I can't figure out why I thought I needed these so much. It's not that they're bad. Most are fairly decent little mysteries and very quick reads. But they're just not all that and there are certainly other authors that I could have spent more time looking for with more exceptional results. I may have to go back and reread those books mentioned above to see if I can figure out what grabbed me initially.

This particular title is a perfectly fine outing at the beach with Gently and there are some humorous bits where he "goes tourist" and buys some outlandish shirts to wear in the summer heat. But it does leave a something to be desired in the way of actual clues--for a police procedural, there's not a whole lot of evidence-gathering and just barely enough suspect-questioning. At one point, Gently sits down beside one of the suspects. They're on a bench facing the beach. And they just sit there. Neither one says anything. they don't even really look at each other--just at the beach. And, suddenly, it all clarifies for Gently. He just knows how it all happened and who did it and everything. Does he tell us? Of course not, we've got a couple more chapters to go and one more bit that will muddy the waters and make Gently question, just briefly, whether he actually has it right. But as of that moment on the bench...he knows. If I had been given more clues to work with then maybe I would have too. 

First line: Even at this hour in the morning, when the dew still clung heavily to the rough, wiry blades of the marram, one could tell that by early afternoon the temperature would be nearing ninety.

Last line: He had lately, he said, married off his youngest daughter; now, excepting for his housekeeper, he was living there alone.

************

Deaths = 3 (two strangled; one blown up in boat gas tank explosion)

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Lazarus Tree


 So welcome to Medmelton, where women have strange eyes, people protect murderers from the police, and witchcraft is still practised. It must make London seem quite safe. (Sally Baker; p. 73) The Lazarus Tree (1992) by Robert Richardson

Gus Maltravers has been invited to visit his friend Stephen before, but had never been able to make the journey to the Devon countryside. But Stephen's latest request seemed more pressing...there was a sense of urgency that Gus couldn't ignore. In the past summer, a mutual acquaintance--famous poet Patrick Gabriel--had been found murdered beneath the village's fabled Lazarus Tree. When he reaches the village of Medmelton, he learns that Stephen is worried about his stepdaughter Michelle. She has been acting strangely ever since Gabriel's death and recently odd items have been discovered under the Lazarus Tree. Stephen is afraid that Michelle is responsible, but he doesn't know why and doesn't want to admit that it might be connected to the unsolved murder. He wants Gus to look into the matter and discover what he's too afraid to look for.

Medmelton folk don't like meddlers. They didn't talk to the police and they're all determined not to talk to this outsider. Well, all but Sally Baker and Alex Kerr. Sally is from the village, but her marriage took her away and into the outer world. Her late husband's friend Alex has retired there from outside. As Gus begins to investigate and uncover the hidden underbelly of the town, Sally and Alex are able to give him a limited insider's view. It soon becomes apparent that there is a secret that someone is very desperate to keep hidden--and it's worth murdering for. Gus will have to separate the legends from the real story, the malicious playacting at witchcraft from the murderous activities. The women of Medmelton are said to have powers (based on their tendency to have eyes with two different colors), but are those powers used for good or evil? 

This isn't exactly a pleasant little mystery. Medmelton is a pretty postcard village on the outside, but there are some pretty troubling things going on under the surface. And there aren't very many characters that the reader will feel comfortable with. Gus, his wife Tess (who arrives mid-book), Sally, and Alex are pretty much it. [In fact, I think I would really have liked to have read a mystery featuring Sally and Alex. They would have made a good team.] Stephen is too overwrought. His wife Veronica is too mysterious and cold. And the rest of the village is too repressed and insular. Gus makes a fairly decent amateur detective, but I never really felt like we got to know him well. 

The best part of the book was when Gus, in an effort to stir things up, makes a few statements to the local grocery owner (who also is the hub of gossip in the village) which she immediately broadcasts along her grapevines. The village speculation on who and what Gus is--everything from Scotland Yard to MI5 or MI6 (they never could remember which was which) to Interpol (though what they'd want with an English village murder was anyone's guess)--is a real hoot. And if the entire book had been written with the same energy and depth, it would have been much more exciting. As it is--a decent mystery plot that comes just short of three stars. ★ and 3/4.

First line: Throughout that summer of sensational headlines, the dead man attracted countless unwelcome visitors to Medmelton.

Last lines: I hope it didn't hurt too much. Much love to you both, Sally Baker.

***********

Deaths = 2 (one stabbed; one overdose)

Thursday, April 1, 2021

March Pick of the Month

 

When I decided to renew my Pick of the Month Awards, I was amazed to find that it had been three years since I put together a monthly list of books read, stats, ratings, and overall My Reader's Block P.O.M. Award winner. So far, I'm sticking to the plan. In the past, I had participated in Kerrie's Pick of the Month meme which focused on mysteries, but it doesn't look like she's got that up and running. My plan is to focus on mysteries (since that's the bulk of what I read), but if there are non-mysteries worthy of a P.O.M. award then I will hand two awards. So...let's see what I've been up to in March.


Total Books Read: 13
Total Pages: 3,175

Average Rating: 3.75 stars  
Top Rating: 5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 69%
Percentage by Male Authors: 23%
Percentage by both Female & Male Authors: 8%
Percentage by US Authors: 31%

Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  15%
Percentage Mystery: 77
Percentage Fiction: 92%
Percentage written 2000+: 31%
Percentage of Rereads: 23%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's eas
y to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}    
Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 9 (35%)

Mysteries/Mystery-Related Read
Dead, Man, Dead by David Alexander (3 stars)
Blue Octavo by John Blackburn (3.5 stars)
Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie (4 stars)
Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective by Agatha Christie (3 stars)
Murder in 3 Acts by Agatha Christie (3/26/21)
Final Notice by Jo Dereske (3 stars)
Money in the Morgue by Ngaio Marsh/Stella Duffy (3.75 stars)
The Coconut Killings by Patricia Moyes (3 stars)
The Devil & the Dark Water by Stuart Turton (4 stars)


In March the only five-star winner was nonfiction: Taking Detective Stories Seriously the collection of crime reviews  by Dorothy L. Sayers edited by Martin Edwards. This was a delightful book featuring Sayers' wit and keen eye and I enjoyed every bit of the reviews. [It also added to the long list of books I would love to find and own--but we won't talk about that.] Next in line after Sayers, we have Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie, Bodies from the Library edited by Tony Medawar, and The Devil & the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, each claiming four stars. Christie's book was a fun read (as hers so often are) and Turton's was an absorbing read that kept me glued to its pages until the finish line. But Turton's finish let me down a bit and Christie is often a full-star winner, so this month we're going to hand the coveted glittering P.O.M. Award for mysteries to all the writers featured in Bodies from the Library (and, see, Dame Agatha will sneak in there anyway). And...we'll let Sayers have one for her delightful reviews as well.


This is a delightful anthology full of stories that have either never been published before or only once upon a time in newspapers or magazines. I particularly enjoyed the earliest detective story by Georgette Heyer as well as stories by A. A. Milne, Arthur W. Upfield, and Vincent Cornier. It's a collection that has me looking forward to reading the second and third anthologies.