Friday, April 30, 2021

The Egyptian Cross Mystery...or Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

 The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay & Manfred Lee)

The beginning of one of Ellery Queen's weirdest and most brutal cases takes place on Christmas Eve in the small town of Arroyo, West Virginia. an eccentric schoolmaster by the name of Andrew Van is found crucified on a T-shaped sign post at the crossroads near his house. His head has been cut off--turning the body into a T and a T has been marked in blood on the door of his small house. Ellery is fascinated by the details of the case and initially thinks there is an esoteric connection to the tau or Egyptian cross (as he believes it to be). But when a second murder takes place, this time of a wealthy man near New York, and the body is found crucified on an American Indian totem post, it looks like the T imagery must stand for something else. Ellery's former professor (who lives near the home of the second murder victim, invites him to come and stay and show him how this detective business works. But after examining the available evidence everyone, including Ellery, is completely baffled. 

After the second murder, it becomes apparent that the recent murders have roots in a Central European past. The men in the case--both victims and a third missing man--all have ties to Central Europe. But what do they all have in common. When a third man is targeted, the case is just as baffling as before and it isn't until a fourth murder occurs that Ellery finds the clues that will allow him to discover the true identity of the killer. But he, Professor Yardley, and the police will have to track the villain half-way across the country by means of planes, trains, and automobiles before they can bring him to justice.

It's kind of mind-boggling to watch Professor Yardley (in the lead), followed by Ellery, followed by the New York DA & Inspector Vaughn of the police be able to hop on trains and chartered planes one right after the other in their mad-dash across country in pursuit of the villain. It's difficult to imagine just one of them doing it, let alone three separate groups. Imagine trying that trick today...Of course, in today's world, there's also the advantage of technology to get messages where they need to go and for travel tracking purposes. So, perhaps it all evens out.

This is a pretty gory book considering that it was written in the 1930s. Four headless bodies, crucified. Blood dripping all over the place--especially in the last two murders. Not exactly what one expects from the Golden Age of Crime. And the esoteric bits--with Egyptian sun gods and nudist colony of sun worshippers of a different sort--serve a real purpose in addition to providing a distraction from other important bits. It's weird--but Queen had a method behind the madness.

I'll just fess up right now and tell you that when Queen gave his Challenge to the Reader--you have all the clues now. Do you know who did it?--I did not. The solution didn't occur to me at all. I had a sortof close idea--but with the wrong person in mind. An enjoyable read even though the murders were a bit more brutal than one might like in a classic crime novel. ★★★★

First line: It began in West Virginia at the junction of two roads half a mile out of the little village of Arroyo.

Last line: "I'll write a book about it, call it as a memento of my sometimes impulsive erudition The Egyptian Cross Mystery, and let the public pay for it!"


Deaths = four (all bashed on head and then beheaded)

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Animals from Books


Two days late and two dollars short, but here I am trying to keep up with the Top Ten Tuesday meme. This week's prompt is animals from books--both real and imaginary. Most of my reading is in the mystery field, so a most, if not all of these will come from my crime fiction reading.

1. All of the animals mentioned in the Frances & Richard Lockridge series. There's Pete, Ruffy, Toughy, Teeny (short for Martini), Gin, Sherry, Stilts and Shadow--all Siamese cats who love to "help" Pam & Jerry North around the house and sometimes, though, less often with mysteries. There's Colonel and Midget--a Great Dane and tiny black cat in the Lieutenant Heimrich series. And Nathan Shapiro had his little Scottie dog. The Lockridges had a knack for writing about animals in a very human way without making them cutesy or too anthropomorphized. 

2. Carstairs, a Great Dane, who works with Norbert Davis's P.I., Doan. Carstairs is so big, he just might need his own zip code. He loathes alcohol and being shot at. He doesn't care for new faces, but will tolerate a pretty one if its owner treats him right. Oh...and he believes that he's the brains of the operation and that Doan works for him. He appears in three mysteries from the 1940s.

3. Basil (the mouse) of Baker Street in books by Eve Titus. The character upon which Disney's The Great Mouse Detective was based. I thoroughly enjoyed both the movie and the books in the series that I've had the chance to read. It's a great way to introduce young readers to a Holmesian character.

4. Seneca, young Lord Peter Wimsey's black kitten, who goes missing and is the means by which LPW meets the great detective, Sherlock Holmes. Seneca may not appear much in the story, but the kitten did serve as the source of meeting for two of my favorite detectives--so full points to Seneca.

5. Schnucke and Driest, German Shepherds, who aid Captain Duncan Maclain in his work as a private investigator. Maclain is blind and needs the Shepherds--one as guide dog and and one as guard dog to protect him in sticky situations.

6. Toby with Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four. Holmes uses him to track Jonathan Small and his companion to the the boat launch. When he sends Watson to collect the dog for the tracking job, Holmes says that he would "rather have Toby's help than that of the whole detective force in London."

7. And, of course, the infamous Hound of the Baskervilles--that devilish giant hound said to haunt and the Baskerville clan. 

8. Bob, the terrier, from Agatha Christie's Dumb Witness [aka Poirot Loses a Client]. Poor Bob--blamed for leaving his ball on the stairs and causing his mistress to tumble down the stairs. She later dies from what the doctor describes as chronic liver trouble. But Bob's behavior on the night of the fall helps Poirot discover a murderer.

9. Asta, the dog belonging to Nick & Nora Charles in The Thin Man (and the the movies that followed). In the novel Asta was a female Schnauzer, but became a white male terrier in the movies.

10. Cap'n--the titular bird in Anne Austin's The Avenging Parrot. Cap'n is the only eye witness to the cold-blooded murder of an elderly woman. and Dundee (our detective) is convinced that the bird's squawking has a clue to the murderer's identity. How Dundee uses the bird and a handful of other clues to solve the murder makes this lesser-known mystery an absorbing read.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Ivory Snuff Box

 The Ivory Snuff Box
(1912) by Arnold Fredericks (Frederic Arnold Kummer)

Monsieur Lefevre calls upon his young friend Richard Duvall to help him in a matter of extreme importance. Never mind that Duvall just that day got married and is planning to embark on his honeymoon. The honor of France is at stake! Duvall isn't happy about leaving his new bride Grace so soon, but he does owe Lefevre his loyalty. BUT when he learns the object of his mission he thinks the Prefect of Police has lost his marbles. It appears that the ivory snuff box of the French ambassador in London has gone missing. Quelle horreur! He's about ready to grab his bags, join his wife, and leave when he realizes that there must be more to this than meets the eye. Surely Lefevre wouldn't request his help in a matter of pure theft.

So, trusting his friend and mentor, he leaves Grace behind, joins up with Monsieur Dufrenne, an elderly expert in ivory antiques who can identify the heirloom, and heads to London to get the details from Ambassador de Grissac. The box was stolen while the ambassador was in his dressing room--alone save for his valet. It seems obvious that the gentleman's gentleman must have taken it but the box was nowhere to be found: not on his person and not among his things. Since the theft happened the valet has been kept locked in his room, and Duvall insists on interviewing him. When the room is unlocked, the man is found dead, with writing implements about him, but no sign of any written documents. It's soon discovered that Noel (the valet) wrote a note to a friend by the name of Oscar Seltz, cancelling an engagement for the evening. Duvall's instincts tell him that Seltz is the key to the whereabouts of the missing box. He and Dufrenne set out on Seltz's trail--a trail that will lead them to a nerve specialist in Belgium.

Meanwhile, Grace is not left pining in France for her new husband. Oh, no. Monsieur Lefevre calls on her to explain why she and Duvall cannot set sail on the honeymoon just yet and she demands to help in some way. So, she is sent to Dr. Hartmann's ostensibly to be cured of sleepwalking (a condition more easily faked than most nervous disorders). She is to keep a watching brief and if Duvall fails in his mission to recover the snuff box before it reaches the doctor, then her job will be to steal it back. 

This is very much a thriller with a romantic touch thrown in and very little mystery. We know immediately who the bad guys are. The only question is how many hair-raising adventures will our heroes and heroine have before the grand finale? There is the obligatory evil genius scene at the end where it looks for all the world like Dr. Hartmann has won and Duvall is sent back to France in disgrace. The only real mystery is how did Duvall manage to get the upper hand after all. But for all the standard thriller qualities, this was a fun read. I do wish Grace could have continued to be the strong heroine throughout the entire novel. She starts strong, does well in her "sleepwalking" role and observation duties, and then falls apart when Hartmann gets his hands on Duvall. I can see how that was made necessary for the plot to work as it did, but would have liked to see a better solution that allowed Grace remain heroic to the end. I am also curious as to how old our elderly expert is. If he really is the frail, old man that he's depicted in certain scenes, I can't see him managing as well as he does in others when he needs must play the hero. But overall, a grand adventure and worth the day's reading. ★★ 

First line: The last thing that sounded in Richard Duvall's ears as he left the office of Monsieur Lefevre, Prefect of Police of Paris, were the latter's words, spoken in a voice of mingled confidence and alarm, "The fortunes of a nation may depend on your faithfulness."

Last line: "Dear old Lefevre," said Duvall, as he drew Grace to him and kissed her.


Deaths = one stabbed

Monday, April 26, 2021

Smooth Justice

 Smooth Justice (1979) ~Michael Underwood (John Michael Evelyn)

Magistrate Donald Ferney presents himself to the public as "the kindly magistrate"--wanting to be known for his smooth, but fair justice. But he's far from kindly on a personal level and nearly everyone who knows him loathes him. He belittles the staff in his courtroom, publicly humiliates some of them and actively impedes the career of others. He's not better at home where he finds fault with everything his wife does. It's hardly surprising that a man of his nature receives threatening letters--most judges do from those who have received a sentencing they disagreed with. But when a new batch arrives just as a very important case begins--that of a policeman accused of being corrupt--they have a different feel to them. 

He shows the anonymous threats to Detective Superintendent Eversham, lead investigator in the case against Detective Sergeant Wilkley, and Eversham begins looking for connections to the hearing. But he doesn't lose sight of the fact that a great many people who are a lot closer to Ferney might have a reason to want him out of the way. When one of the suspects, Reg Atkins--usher to the court for 30 years--is killed, things come more serious. It is immediately thought, since Reg was killed just outside the magistrate's entrance to the court, that Ferney was the intended victim. Everything points to a classic whodunnit, but not everything may be what it seems and there are those whose motives aren't as clear as it first appears.

Underwood/Evelyn was called to the bar in 1939 and his background in law definitely shows in the details of his novels. The reader has a very clear understanding of the workings of the magistrate's court without the burden of too much legalese. It is something of a triumph for the author that there are very few likeable characters in the cast and yet this was a very interesting, one-sitting read for me. It didn't even matter that I was quite sure of who fairly early on--but the difficulty was in the "why" and it was a good ride getting to that destination. 

I did like Superintendent Eversham and I was particularly pleased that he was able to solve the mystery before his murder squad counterpart. Eversham is only involved in the investigation because of its possible ties to his case against Wilkley. Detective Inspector Cruttenden is convinced that Eversham has been shuttled into internal investigations because he doesn't have what it takes to handle a case of murder. I was glad that Eversham was able to prove him wrong.

A nice non-series mystery which should interest those who like their crime with a bit of courtroom drama. ★★ and 1/2.

First line: "You've been a very naughty old man."

Last line: He pleaded guilty at his trial which, as Eversham remarked at the time, was probably the only decent thing he had done in his life.


Deaths= one hit on head

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Documents in the Case

 The Documents in the Case (1930) by Dorothy L. Sayers & Robert Eutstace

This mystery novel is a departure from the usual Sayers fare. There is no Lord Peter Wimsey or Bunter to be found and the story is told almost entirely through letters and written statements from witnesses. When Paul Harrison, whos has been working on bridges in Africa, receives word of his father's death, he returns to England to find that the coroner's inquest has returned a verdict of Accidental Death. It has been determined that George Harrison accidentally killed himself with poisonous toadstools. Paul isn't having any of it. His father was an expert on edible plants and would never have picked, let alone eaten the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) in mistake for the Warty Cap (Amanita rubescens). He is convinced that either his father had realized that his wife no longer loved him and wanted to marry another and committed suicide or that his step-mother and/or her lover decided to remove the obstacle to their happiness.

The difficulty is proving it. Harrison was alone all day at "The Shack"--the cabin where he stayed when on one of his wildlife rambles. He had invited Lathom--his supposed friend and his wife's lover--to spend the holiday with him, but Lathom had gone up to town early in the morning. A local villager had seen Harrison alive and well...and hunting mushrooms well after. And Lathom appears to have an alibi. Not that alibi are all that useful in cases of poisoning--one doesn't necessarily have to be on the spot when the victim swallows the deadly brew. 

Paul gathers letters written by the deceased, by Lathom's roommate John Munting, and (most stealthily) by his step-mother to Lathom, as well as depositions from various witnesses and tries to piece together what happened in the months leading up to his father's death. He convinces Munting to help him and it is Munting who helps him discover just exactly occurred on the day George Harrison died. A little bit of scientific magic gives him the evidence needed to prove how his father could be poisoned by muscarine without having made a mistake in his mushrooms.

This is an interesting alternative novel in the Sayers oeuvre. The use of the various documents allows the reader to view each character and incident from numerous points of view. It underlines how not just beauty, but also truth is in the eye of the beholder. Picking out the bits of essential truth from the personal animosities and prejudices of each character's version of the events is the task of  Paul Harrison and the reader if we are going to get to the truth of George Harrison's tragic death.

The story is also an examination of marriage--of what can go wrong, especially when two people are so very mismatched. There is very little understanding between Paul Harrison and his second wife. He expects her to be the little angel of the house that his first wife was and she wants him to be more demonstrative of his affection and to share interests with her rather than giving "little lectures" on his pet subjects--painting and bizarre edibles. Neither are willing to give an inch to reach an understanding. He goes his way--thinking she'll be happy at home. And she finds someone who she believes appreciates her more. Such misalliances don't always lead to murder, but they do lead to a great deal of unhappiness. Sayers allows murder to solve the unhappiness problem, while we (the reader and Paul) have to worry at the problem of how to solve the murder.

I found this to be highly a point. The letters were very interesting, giving insight into all the characters and handing us clues when we weren't necessarily paying attention. I also enjoyed the small portion of the actual investigation that Paul Harrison and John Munting do. Where it falls down on the job is just at the point where the story ought to be picking up speed--when we head into the home stretch of figuring it all out. Sayers, for reasons that are inexplicable to me decides to dump a whole chapter on the "meaning of life, chemistry, the universe and everything" (apologies to Douglas Adams) which is meant (I think) to clear the path to the solution but is just plain deadly dull. I mean, yes, I see how it gets Munting to where he needs to be in order to ask certain questions of a certain specialist--but ye gads. Surely we could have gotten there by a less philosophically dense route. As it is we come into the finish feeling rather flat. ★★ (a better ending would have boosted the rating.)

First line: Dear Sir, I am obliged by your letter of yesterday's date, and hasten to send to you, as requested, the complete dossier of documents.

Last line: The execution took place in Exeter Gaol, at 8 a.m. to-day, of [redacted], who was convicted in October of the murder of George Harrison at "The Shack," Manaton, by poisoning him with muscarine.


Deaths = 2 (one poisoned; one hanged)

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Star Trek The Motion Picture--Photo Story & Full Color Comic

 Star Trek The Motion Picture: The Photostory (1980) by Richard J. Anobile (ed

In the 1970s--before VCRs were common in most homes, twelve Star Trek fotonovels were produced, giving fans a chance to "watch" some of their favorite episodes again and again. Then when Star Trek The Motion Picture was released in 1979, Pocket Books produced another high-quality photostory of the movie. It tells the story of the mysterious, powerful force on a beeline course for Earth--destroying Klingons and a Federation monitoring station along the way. As per usual, the Enterprise is the only starship in range and then Admiral Kirk becomes a Captain again to meet the threat head-on. The Enterprise crew discovers that the threat has its source from Earth and must find a way to give V'ger what it wants before it destroys its home planet. 

The photostory is beautifully put together and lovely to read. It does leave out a few moments that I'd looked forward to seeing, but overall it was a delightful look at a Star Trek movie I haven't watched for quite some time. ★★★★ 


Star Trek The Motion Picture: Full Color Comic (1980) by Marv Wolfman (ed)

Marvel Comics efforts to capture the movie in comic book form. It's a novelty to own and the graphics are typical of the comics of the early 80s. It manages to both include more of the story than the photostory book released at the same time and add a few bits that aren't exactly true to the final version of the movie--perhaps it was made from an earlier script? I enjoyed this, but not quite as much as the photostory. ★★

The African Poison Murders

 The African Poison Murders (originally published as Death of an Aryan; 1939) by Elspeth Huxley

Superintendent Vachell, a Canadian national working for the police force in East Africa, is persuaded by Janice West to investigate a series of horrific pranks that have been taking place in a farming community filled with British and German settlers. Crops have been trampled; pigeons have been killed (decapitated); and the Wests' prize setter is mutilated and dies. Tensions are high between the British community and a certain farmer by the name of Munson who has ties to the German Bund. Not only is there suspicion about his ties to the rising Nazi party, but the man is a thoroughly mean and nasty neighbor. It isn't surprising that one morning he's found dead, but Vachell is in for a difficult time to prove it was murder--one of those untraceable African poisons is the suspected method and everyone seems to have an alibi. Motive is something different--pretty much everyone seems to have one of those--from the Wests and the disputes with Munson over his cattle's trampling ways to Jolyot Antsey who also had fence line disputes to Herr Wendtland who had come to take over Munson's place with the Bund. There are also rumors of an affair between Janice West and Munson--but it seems hard to credit when you look at the characters involved. And, of course, there's Munson's nephew Edward Corcoran who inherits the farm when Munson dies. 

But then Dennis West, a well-liked member of the community, follows his neighbor in death during a massive, sudden fire. And Vachell must find a motive that will explain both murders...and enough evidence to bring the crime home to the murderer. There's not a shred of proof that will stand up in court. He fears that another murder is still on the agenda and can only hope that he can catch the killer in the act without losing another member of the settlement.

I found it difficult to immerse myself in this mystery. Previous Huxley books did an excellent job of making the reader feel like they were really on the spot in Africa--from colonial life surrounding the Government House in Huxley's first book to the safari setting of her second. But this time, I really didn't get a good sense of the farming settlement. It was also difficult to see my way through the very tenuous motives to anything solid in the way of clues. When Vachell explains the clues and his thought processes at the end of the story, it all seems very reasonable, but I can't say that I said "Oh, yeah. So, that's what that meant." I didn't pick up on any of it at all. And I'm not completely sold on the solution--it seemed to be a lazy way to wrap it all up--especially after the build-up of certain other motives. I like the character of Vachell very much and I understood his difficulties in the keeping the investigation impersonal (no might provide a spoiler...). He provides the most interesting portions of the story and his interactions with his second in command provide a bit of humor (though Inspector Prettyman doesn't seem to get the jokes quite a bit of the time). ★★ and 1/2

First line: All the way up the rough, bumpy road Vachell wondered why the woman at his side had been so insistent.

Last lines: "You'll stay have some lunch?" "I'd be glad to," Vachell said.


Deaths = 4 (one stabbed; one poisoned;  one burned to death; one shot [includes one red setter dog by the name of Rhode])

Monday, April 19, 2021

Murdock's Acid Test

 Murdock's Acid Test (originally published as The Barotique Mystery; 1936) by George Harmon Coxe

George Harmon Coxe was an American writer of crime fiction who used several series characters including Jack "Flashgun" Casey, Kent Murdock, Leon Morley, Sam Crombie, Max Hale and Jack Fenner as well as writing stand-alone detective novels. Casey and Murdock are both photographers whose camera skills often land them in the middle of events that force them to don a detective's cap as well.

This is the second entry in the Kent Murdock series and it finds Kent and his wife Joyce on a trip shortly after their marriage. Their trip takes them to the private island owned by the father of one of Joyce's friends from school. Sir Stanley Bannister bought the Caribbean island of Barotique upon his retirement from the Colonial Service. The Murdocks look forward to a quiet tropical get-away before he has to return to the photography beat in the newspaper business. Only it's not so quiet. There are six bungalows in the little island colony and they're all full up. And not with happy little tourists. There's a gangster, his former showgirl girlfriend, and his hired gun--all under aliases. There's a suave pushy fellow with an eye for the ladies (and reputedly a harsh hand for his wife). The pushy fellow's brother is also on the island--looking tired and sick, but ready for a fight if needed. There's a bank manager and his wife--a woman Joyce Murdock sums up as a possible Lady Macbeth. There's an East Indian man and his daughter, who is enjoying the freedom of the West just a little too much to suit her protective father. Then there's the other young people--Ralph Coleman, son of the banker, and Kay Joslin (niece of the pushy fellow and his brother). Those two look to be in love, but there's some undercurrent of trouble in paradise. And finally Kay's brother Noel who has chip of sorts on his shoulder.

From the moment they all have drinks on the Bannister's terrace, there is a tension in the air. And later that night the tension builds to murder. Nigel Porter, our suave ladies' man, is found shot to death in the drawing room of his bungalow. There's no police force on the island and the officials won't arrive for a couple of days, so Sir Stanley, knowing of Murdock's connection with crime reporting, asks the photographer to investigate. Murdock does so, but under protest. He just knows it's going to be messy. And he's right. Everyone has something to hide and everyone is telling him lies. There will be two more deaths and a final attempted shooting before the mystery is cleared up...and pretty much everyone on the island will be fed up with his questions by the time he's done.

I enjoyed the first Murdock mystery that I read (which was actually the third in the series). Coxe writes from the hard-boiled school, but with a soft touch--more semi-tough (as John from Pretty Sinister Books has called it). There are gangsters and hired guns, but there isn't a great deal of tough talk and fast action. Murdock plays a straight detective game, looking for clues and questioning the suspects. He does get a bit tough in a couple of the interviews, but only to try and shock the witnesses into telling the truth. He's less successful than he'd like to be. I enjoyed the way he used the different types of motive (jealousy, love, revenge, greed, and a gangster's need to keep a low profile) to spread suspicion evenly over the characters. It takes a shrewd eye to spot the clues that will point to the guilty party. Coxe managed to pull the wool over my eyes and I had a good time being fooled. ★★ and 1/2.

First line: A half-dozen Negroes surrounded Kent and Joyce Murdock the moment they stepped from the agent's launch to the landing-stage on the Kingstown jetty.

Last line: They drank, smiling at each other over the tops of their glasses.


Deaths = 3 (two shot; one stabbed)

Sunday, April 18, 2021

An Ad for Murder (slightly spoilerish)

 An Ad for Murder (original title: Notice of Death; 1982) by John Penn (Palma Harcourt & Jack H. Trotman)

Major Tom Cheryl, DSO, is a World War II veteran. In the normal way of things he doesn't scare easily. But when a series of newspaper ads in the literary section confidently assert: "Coming Soon: The Death of Major Cheryl," he is a bit unnerved. He tells himself that it's just a coincidence--that some author has just happened to pick his name for the title of his new book. But people in the village begin to talk and look at him if he might fall over dead at any moment. And then the accidents start happening. The brakes malfunction on his car. There's a swift push that nearly lands him under a bus. And then a motorcycle rider nearly runs him down and does kill his faithful boxer, Sal.

The death of his dog finally spurs Cheryl to contact Scotland Yard. Chief Inspector David Taylor is assigned to look into matters, but beyond discovering that some (unknown) unauthorized person has used a London publishing house's letterhead to make the request for the insertion of the ads he is able to get no further. Cheryl and his family can think of no one who would wish him dead and his service career wasn't such to have gained him enemies of that sort. Matters become far more serious when a hand-delivered package explodes as Major Cheryl's wife opens it and she is killed instantly. Did the killer miss his target? Rumors in the village now suggest that the major has been behind this all along and the real target was Aileen Cheryl from the beginning. The ads were just a red herring. Is the rumor mill full of truth this time? With a murder to investigate, Taylor finds evidence of a trail that leads to a diabolically cold-blooded killer and an unexpected ending.

SPOILER AHEAD (I must spoil the plot just a bit to explain my slight dissatisfaction. I do not reveal the culprit.)

I first read An Ad for Murder back in the 1990s. I enjoyed the mystery so much that I immediately put John Penn down on my list of authors to look for--and had little success in the used bookshops and sales until the Hoosier Hills Bookfair in the 2010s. Someone must have unloaded their small collection of titles and I scooped them up. Reading this a second time, I still find the plot enjoyable and the characters are well-drawn and interesting. I do cry foul at the lack of real clues available to give readers any inkling of the motive prior to the final few chapters. As far as it goes, I suppose you could say it was fair--after all Inspector Taylor finds out late in the game as well. But we still couldn't have figured it out based on the previous seventeen chapters.

Overall, I did find this to be an enjoyable read. The husband and wife team writing as John Penn do have a real flair for character and narrative. The book moves quickly and holds the reader's interest. If it weren't for my slight dissatisfaction over the way the culprit and motive are revealed, it would be a four-star book. As it is:  and 1/2.

First line: For a moment he was shocked--stupidly shocked, perhaps--but shocked nevertheless.

Last line: "No, No," said Taylor. "I didn't...I couldn't...I'm sorry Miss Lee."


Deaths = 3 (one explosion; one poisoned; one fell from height)

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....