Saturday, July 31, 2021

July 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. 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 out two awards. So, since it's unlikely that I'll get another book read tonight...let's see what I've been up to in July.

July was a reading bonanza! I somehow managed to read 34 books. But I'm very afraid that pace is going to come to a screeching halt. We are headed back on Monday to full-time in the office--after over a year of working from home. Having to commute just seems to put a damper on the reading mojo. But fingers crossed that it won't cut things down too much...

Total Books Read: 34
Total Pages: 8,104

Average Rating: 3.4 stars  
Top Rating: 4.5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 42%
Percentage by Male Authors: 45%
Percentage by both Female & Male Authors: 13%
Percentage by US Authors: 52%

Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  13%
Percentage Mystery: 91
Percentage Fiction: 98%
Percentage written 2000+: 19%
Percentage of Rereads: 5%
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: 23 (82%)

Mysteries/Mystery-Related Reads:

Quaker Witness by Irene Allen (2 stars)
Murder Draws a Line by Willetta Ann Barber & R. F. Schabelitz (3 stars)
Trixie Belden & the Mystery Off Glen Road by Julie Campbell (3 stars)
The Bride of Newgate by John Dickson Carr (4 stars)
The Basle Express by Manning Coles (3.5  stars)
Drink to Yesterday by Manning Coles (4 stars)
The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher (4 stars)
Great French Detective Stories by T. J. Hale, ed (3 stars)
What the Devil Knows by C. S. Harris (4 stars)
Who Speaks for the Damned by C. S. Harris (4.5 stars)
Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay (3 stars)
Naked Came the Manatee by Carl Hiassen, Dave Barry, et al  (1 star)
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume (3.25 stars)
Lord Mullion's Secret by Michael Innes (3 stars)
Strangled in Paris by Claude Izner (2 stars)
Stone Cold Blonde by Adam Knight (1 star)
Two-Way Murder by E. C. R. Lorac (4.5 stars)
Murder at Teatime by Cynthia Manson, ed (3.5 stars)
The Illusion of Murder by Carol McCleary (3.5 stars)
After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson (3 stars)
Cats Don't Smile by D. B. Olsen (3.5 stars)
Callander Square by Anne Perry (3 stars)
The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry (4 stars)
The Graveyard Rolls by Maurice Procter (3 stars)
Road Rage by Ruth Rendell (3.5 stars)
The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers (2.5 stars)
The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine (4 stars)
Giant Mystery Reader by Various (ed by Avon Books) (4 stars)
The Portcullis Room by Valentine Williams (3.5 stars)
No Medals for the Major by Margaret Yorke (4 stars)
The Perfect Crime (aka The Big Bow Mystery) by Israel Zangwill (with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe) (4 stars)



Once again C. S. Harris makes it into the final round with a 4.5 star rating for Who Speaks for the Damned, one of the most recent entries in her Sebastian St. Cyr historical mystery series. Joining Harris at the top is E. C. R. Lorac with the recently published Two-Way Murder. I am very thankful that Martin Edwards and the British Library found a way to bring this long lost novel into print. It is absolutely delightful and I would hate to have missed out on Lorac's final book. It is a very strong work and certainly Lorac showed no sign of declining powers in this, her final work. I'm most pleased to award July's P.O.M. prize to...






The Graveyard Rolls


 The Graveyard Rolls (aka Moonlight Flitting, 1963) by Maurice Procter

Sam Glover calls up the Grantchester City Police and tells them that his father is missing. Normally there wouldn't be quite such an immediate reaction to a man missing less than half a day--but Luke Glover is a millionaire, a city councilor, and a member of the Watch Committee. He's also missing in a sage-green Silver Cloud Rolls Royce which is hard to lose. When the car is found abandoned but no sign of millionaire, Chief Inspector Martineau and his men follow slender clues to a graveyard in Grimwood. In the graveyard, they find Luke Glover's body...on top of the ground. Soon the case is littered with coincidences--was everybody in the Glover family in Grimwood that day? Not to mention traces of blackmail, faked alibis, and even a hint of big-time crime. 

Martineau has plenty of suspects to investigate as well--from the victim's much younger, pretty wife to the son and nephew who inherit much of his business to the long-lost brother who may still hold a grudge for past wrongs. There's also the family of drifters who were holed up in the abandoned house near the graveyard and who may know more than they're telling. The biggest question Martineau must answer is what was a millionaire doing in an out-of the-way graveyard? Glover had told his secretary that he'd be away on "a personal matter," but what personal business could a millionaire have in a graveyard that houses none of his family or friends? 

In comparison to my previous experience with Procter (Two Men in Twenty), this one is a mixed bag. It's still a fine police procedural--Procter's experience as a policeman serves him well and the story bears all the hallmarks of authenticity when it comes to details. The difficulty with Graveyard Rolls is that there are too many details. It feels like there is just too much going on, especially when he brings in the big-time "gangster" and a parallel plot about stolen transistor radios (that may or may not have to do with our central murder). There is a solid motive and mystery plot that nearly gets buried under all the extras and the wrap-up has a cluttered, almost disjointed feel as well. It all makes sense in the end, but it takes some very careful reading to get it all clear in the end. ★★--just.

First line: At eleven o'clock on the night of Tuesday the twenty-sixth of September, Sam Glover decided to make a telephone call.

...coincidence was something  which Martineau always viewed with deep suspicion. When men and events had a connection, he looked for a reason. (p. 19)

Devious murderers had no place in Clay's long memory and wide experience. He believed in going after the obvious suspect, and ninety-nine times in a hundred he would be right. (p.110)

Last line: "Tut, tut, tut," said Devery.

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

Deaths = 2 (one hit with ax; one hit by car)

Friday, July 30, 2021

Lord Mullion's Secret


 Lord Mullion's Secret (1981) by Michael Innes

Charles Honeybath, portrait artist and sometime amateur sleuth, agrees to paint the portrait of Lady Mullion, wife of his old school friend. When he arrives at Mullion Castle he finds himself caught up in the lives of his friend's rather eccentric family. There is dotty Great-aunt Camilla with her mysterious midnight wanderings and hints of a secret in her past. There's Lady Patricia and her love of gardening...and possibly the gardener's boy who has such a way with flowers. There's the younger Lord Mullion--Cyprian and his careless ways and Lady Lucy ("Boosie"--seriously?) with her egalitarian notions. 

And then, of course, there's the odd happenings. Great-aunt Camilla had quite a passion for painting herself at one time and some of her work is displayed here and there around the castle. But after Honeybath gets a peek at two of them, they suddenly disappear and are replaced by completely different paintings. And when Honeybath is shown a trio of valuable miniature portraits of three of the Mullion ancestors, he notices that one of those has been replaced with a modern reproduction. What exactly is going on at the Mullion estate? 

Well, of course, Lord Mullion has a secret. Only it may not be the Lord Mullion you think. Nor may it be the secret that you think it is. And, who knows, it may not even be Lord Mullion's secret that we need to find out about. Honestly, it's hard to consider this much of a mystery at all. Sure, there's the theft of the miniature and the family secrets to unravel, but all-in-all there isn't much in the way of crime. The theft is explained (and rectified). Honeybath has a good time ferreting out secrets, but in the end, it's the vicar and the doctor who reveal all. If Michael Innes's writing weren't so good, I doubt I'd give this the ★★ that I'm assigning to it. The family interactions are fun and watching Honeybath follow the trail of secrets is interesting. But as a mystery it does lack a certain something.

Kate at Cross Examining Crime and Peggy at Peggy's Porch have also reviewed this one. Click the links to see what they thought of it.

First line: The Mullions were still quite comfortably off, although they no longer managed to pay their way in the entirely unobtrusive fashion they would have wished.

Lord Mullion in fact knew more about Honeybath's pictures than Honeybath did about Lord Mullion's family. (The pictures, and particularly the portraits, were on annual display; the Wyndowes didn't much go in for public occasions.) (p. 10)

I've been sitting to a chap not a mile away. Is "sitting" right? He did me standing, as it happens. It made me feel so much like my own butler that I expect to have a thoroughly butler-like appearance in the finished portrait. (Lord Mullion; p. 12)

Thus did Charles Honeybath, much like a detective in the latter part of a mystery story, turn hither and thither the swift mind (as Homer says) while surveying a field full of suspects. (p. 72)

Something quite unaccountable and absurd had just happened; and it had happened hard upon something else which, if not absurd, was very unaccountable indeed. He had a dim sense that these two unaccountabilities were related, although he couldn't conceive how this might be so. (p. 77)

Great-aunt Camilla....Never married, and that's no doubt what made her a bit difficult in middle life. But since going out of her mid she's been no trouble in the world. Or only now and then. (Lord Mullion; p. 16)

Last line: "Mary," he said, "that young man is very much to be congratulated. And now you and I must get down to thinking about our portrait."

*******************
Deaths = one of natural causes
 

Drink to Yesterday (small spoiler included)


 Drink to Yesterday (1940) by Manning Coles

The story opens with a coroner's inquest on the body of a garage owner in Hampshire. He was found shot through the temple by his cleaning lady and the main question seems to be: Suicide or Accident. The police and the coroner both rule out murder as even a consideration. After a bit of a wrangle with one of the jurists, a verdict of "Death by Misadventure" brought in. Just as the the court adjourns, a woman shows up claiming to be his wife (nothing was known of the man's relations prior to this) and wishing to claim his body. Fade out....and off we go to flashback.

Michael Kingston is a bit uncomfortable at school. He likes being alone more than in large groups of boys and might like some of his fellow students if he had a chance to interact with them on his own terms rather than being stuck with them at all hours and and at any time. He's muddling along when Tommy Hambledon comes to teach them for a bit. Hambledon notices Kingston's aptitude for languages and tells him that if he takes up bookkeeping and modern languages (as opposed to classics), that it might come in handy some day.

There are other ways of making yourself useful to your country besides fighting, boy.

So, Kingston, who has come to admire Hambledon, follows his advice.

When World War I breaks out, Kingston, who is underage, longs to join up. He eventually does--using  the name Bill Saunders and claiming an age which he has not attained (so much easier in those days...). When his unit captures some Germans and Kingston's language skills are noticed once more, he finds himself sent to the War Office where he is asked if he would like to help the war effort by going under cover in Germany. Without thinking about it at all, he says yes and finds himself once again under Hambledon's tutelage.

He enters Germany as Dirk Brandt, nephew to Hambledon's Hendrik Brandt. Hambledon is already established as a Dutch importer and now he has brought his nephew into the business. The two have quite a career in Germany--befriending a top-ranking German intelligence man by the name of von Bodenheim, foiling a German plan for super-Zeppelins, killing a scientist suspected of breeding cholera for germ warfare, and the eventual murder of von Bodenheim himself. Once the war is over, Kingston returns to England...where his past catches up with him in a little village in Hampshire.

Small spoiler ahead.....


This is the first book in the Tommy Hambledon series--which is odd, really. This is much more Michael Kingston's story than Hambledon's and...Hambledon apparently drowns near the end of the book. [Spoiler alert: He doesn't really. There are 24 more books.] The book also seems to be (and internet scuttlebutt seems to indicate that it probably is) somewhat autobiographical in nature for the Cyril Henry Coles portion of the writing duo who made up Manning Coles*. Coles also lied about his age when he enlisted in World War I and wound up working for the War Office, was a master of languages, and worked behind German lines. It is an extraordinary look at the lives of undercover agents and the toll it must take on them. It shows Hambledon and Kingston as very human men with very human foibles--they do some great work for the British, but they also make mistakes and affect ordinary German citizens in ways that can scar both sides...and have consequences years later. It is both an exciting spy thriller and at times a depressing reminder of the toll war takes on everyone. I don't know if Coles planned that message, but it's definitely there. ★★★★

*Co-author = Adelaide Frances Oke Manning

John at Noirish, Rick Mills at The Mystillery and Rehka at The Book Decoder have reviewed this as well. Please see links for their reviews.

First line: The coroner's inquest was opened at the Dragon Inn, Lime, in Hampshire, at 2.30 p.m. on Saturday, July 19, 1924, the first witness being Mrs. Lomas.

But I think war is just beastly, Kingston. To go out and kill people you don't even mildly dislike is just madness. (Dixon Ogilvie; p. 27)

Last line: She said that the deceased man employed her daily for domestic work...

*****************
Deaths = 6 (five shot; one stabbed)

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab


 The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) by Fergus Hume

Malcolm Royston, Melbourne cabman, is shocked to find that his drunken passenger has been murdered--poisoned with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief while the cabbie drove through the night unawares. According to his story, the man (very much alive, but also very drunk) was bundled towards his cab by a gentleman in a light-colored coat and felt hat (drawn low over the face). The gentleman claimed not to know the drunk and was merely playing good Samaritan to send him home. But when the man slumps to the ground and the gentleman gets a good look at his face, he says "You!" and walks off. He then returns hastily, saying he had changed his mind, and rides about half-way to the St. Kilda. At this point, he stopped the cab, said the man refused to have him travel the rest of the way, gave the cabbie vague directions and a half-sovereign, and walked off into the night. When Royston later stops the cab to get more precise directions, he finds his fare huddled in a corner with handkerchief across his face...dead.

And so begins the Hansom Cab mystery. The dead man has nothing about his person to identify him. The cabbie can give no distinct description of the gentleman in the light-colored coat. And with just a few meagre pointers, police detective Samuel Gorby must try and find out who the dead man was, why he was killed, and who that killer is. This all leads to a falsely accused hero, a loyal heroine, a dramatic trial with an eleventh hour witness to save the day, a dark family secret, blackmail, a search through the seedy slums of Melbourne, and a startling confession. And then Gorby isn't even the detective who solves the case. Our hero's lawyer Calton and a second detective, Kilsip, are the ones who bring the truth to light.

A few thoughts:

For as much as I heard about this being a run-away best-seller in the 19th Century (outselling Sherlock Holmes at the time) and as long as it had been, first, on my "To Be Found" list and, second when found, on my "To Be Read" stacks, you'd think this would be a much more interesting book. If for no other reason than because it had such early influence. It is, I agree, very interesting in its portrayal of Melbourne and the outlying stations in Australia--very atmospheric and great detail. It also has some memorable characters such as Mother Guttersnipe. However, much is made of the fact that the detective has an "unknown" corpse on his hands. Like this is a really BIG thing in the book. And yet--it takes Gorby (who quite frankly is no great shakes as a detective) 26 pages (and only four of them spent in actual detecting) out of 254 to discover the identity of the dead man.

And, even though Gorby completely misses it and latches onto the obvious [wrong] suspect, as soon as a certain character was introduced to us I was certain we'd just met the murderer. I didn't know the motive yet, but I was sure. There is an effort to distract the reader with a rather interesting red herring, but I stuck with my first thought and was rewarded in the end by being correct. 

Hume uses a lot of Victorian melodrama which is entertaining in and of itself and the writing is quite good and typical for the period. As a novel it is enjoyable--just not the knock-out early mystery that I'd anticipated. ★★ and 1/4.

First line: The following report appeared in the Argus newspaper of Saturday, the 28th July, 18-- "Truth is said to be stranger than fiction, and certainly the extraordinary murder which took place in Melbourne on Thursday night, or rather Friday morning, goes a long way towards verifying this saying.

 But then Calton was one of those witty men who would rather lose a friend than suppress an epigram. (p. 143)

Last line: The great steamer moved slowly out to sea, as they stood on the deck, hand clasped to hand, with the fresh salt breeze blowing keenly in their faces, it bore them away into the placid beauty of the coming night, towards the old world and the new life.

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

Deaths = 6 (one poisoned; one fell from height; three natural; one hanged)

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Basle Express


 I think life is sometimes a little unfair. Here am I being harassed by a gang of thugs because they think I have got the papers and getting rockets from my Department because I have not got the papers and all the time I have not the faintest shadow of an idea where they are. ~Tommy Hambledon; The Basle Express (1956) by Manning Coles

Tommy Hambledon, one of Britain's finest intelligence agents, is off to Innsbruck for a much needed holiday. But before he gets there he must take the Anglo-Swiss Express to Basle. He finds himself sharing a sleeping compartment with Edouard Bastien, journalist and model ship hobbyist. In the middle of the night, Tommy wakens to hear a man threatening Bastien over some papers. When Bastien unadvisedly lets the man know he recognizes him, the journalist winds up dead from a gunshot to the head. 

Tommy winds up helping the Basle police investigate a bit and finds out that the plans in question are stolen secret plans for an American guided missile. Whoever had the plans (and Bastien took them from) is intent on finding them--plundering the train car, Bastien's baggage, and attempting to get into his apartment (the police actually beat them to the punch there). But neither the police nor Tommy can find evidence of the plans. Once he has helped the police all he can, he decides to continue his journey to Innsbruck. But the nasty organization from whom Bastien had taken the plans now believe that he passed them on to Tommy and they set off in hot pursuit. Tommy and his soon-to-be friend Lombard find themselves on the track of a deadly organization that specializes in secrets and high-profile thefts. They'll have to be on their toes to escape death, capture the bad guys, and prevent the plans from falling into the wrong hands.

I do have to say that Tommy does not appear to be at the top of his game in this outing. From the moment a certain thing was introduced into the narrative, I knew where the secret plans were. When that same thing was brought to Tommy's attention the first time, I thought at him, "Hey, dude. Guess where the plans are?" Nope--Tommy didn't have a guess. When the thing was brought up again, I thought for sure he'd get it. Finally. Nope. It wasn't until a loud-mouthed English woman discovered the plans where I knew they'd be and then announced it to him in the middle of the street that Tommy got it. Unfortunately...so did the bad guys hanging about on the same street, [I had a brief moment where I thought the loud-mouthed English lady was a female spy in disguise and had finagled a look at the thing in order to see if the plans were there. Nope. Just a loud-mouthed tourist...who somehow knows exactly what missile plans look like so she can announce to everyone in a six block radius.]

He also allows everyone from Lombard, member of the Austrian Special Police, to the various bad guys to get the drop on him--even to the point of stripping him naked and leaving him in the German/Austrian forest. Of course, Lombard doesn't fare much better (he joins Tommy in going au naturale), but if I hadn't come across Tommy Hambledon in other books, I'd be wondering how on earth he got such a sterling reputation as a British agent. What I find fascinating is that Tommy, who couldn't see the hiding place for the plans when it was waved right under his nose (twice!), somehow manages to spot a trail of coke chunks in the middle of the forest. A trail that will lead to a final showdown with the bad guys--a showdown where Tommy will shine as the hero we know him to be.

All that said--this isn't a bad book (really!). It's quite exciting and adventure-packed. There are some really good characters along the way and many of the scenes are very well done (when the Russian tracks down members of the organization who lost the plans, for instance). I also enjoyed the way Lombard and Tommy worked together and their final trek through the forest--first in their birthday suits and then in their gunny sack togas--is well worth the admission price. ★★ and 1/2.

First line: The Anglo-Swiss Express, loaded as its name suggests with the travelling English, leaves Calais at twenty minutes to seven in the evening and rumbles through the night with only five stops on the way, to reach Basle at six in the morning.

Last line: He turned to go in; with a yelp of joy Lombard sprang past him and vanished into the decent obscurity of the cave.

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

Deaths = 5 (two shot [Edouard Bastien; Herr Eisenschmidt]; one stabbed [Gregor--Russian bodyguard]; two fell from height [Duble; Medeski])

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Portcullis Room


 The Portcullis Room (1934) by Valentine Williams

"It was a dark and stormy night." No, really--it was. The narrative doesn't exactly use that dramatic cliché as an opener, but it is definitely implied when American millionaire Stephen Garrison and his entourage arrive at the Scottish Castle Toray by boat only to be stranded there by a wild storm. Garrison is hoping to buy the castle, though his financial manager, Philip Verity, is skeptical about the project, and his girlfriend, Phyllis Dean, is actively opposed to the idea. "Toray" McReay, the laird of the castle, would rather not sell--but he has no son left to inherit and, because his son Ronnie got himself into money troubles (repeatedly) before being killed while serving in the French Foreign Legion, he could really use the money. His daughter Flora is absolutely against selling and gives the Americans a rather chilly reception.

Things get even more tense when an "old friend" of Ronnie McReay shows up with a gaggle of tough guys. Vicomte Raoul d'Arrene is not unknown to Garrison. They had a run-in at Monte Carlo where the American knew the Vicomte as a cardsharp and scoundrel. Apparently d'Arrene has some kind of hold over Toray, perhaps evidence of whatever drove Ronnie to the Foreign Legion, because when Garrison tries to warn his host about the Vicomte and his "friends" Toray refuses to to do anything to upset them even though it's obvious that they make the laird very uncomfortable.

During a tour of the castle, Toray tells his guests about the legend of the Portcullis Room. The room was originally the bedroom of the chief of the McReays. But generations ago during a storm on Michaelmas, Hugh McNeil, a member of a family with whom the McReays had feuded for years, was forced to seek shelter at Toray Castle. According to customs of hospitality, the chief offered his protection and gave the man his own room for the night--the Portcullis Room. But come the next morning McNeil was found stabbed to death with the laird's own dirk. The laird, his oath of protection broken by someone in his household, then drowned himself, but guilt was never satisfactorily assigned. No one uses that room as a bedroom in modern times. And now...Michaelmas is just around the corner and a nasty storm is brewing once again.

It should surprise no one that someone is found killed on Michaelmas. It probably won't surprise anyone that it is the Vicomte who is found dead and that once again the victim has been stabbed with the laird's dagger. It might surprise you that tough-guy Oscar Berg appoints himself as chief detective while the island castle is cut off from the officials. At least...until the laird appoints Verity to conduct the investigation. But of course Berg's purpose seems to be to hang the crime on Garrison. Garrison believes that Toray--or someone working on his behalf--is guilty. And Verity has suspicions about Flora, the daughter of the house. Is it one of these or the loyal major domo Duncan? Or maybe Jamieson, the laird's financial advisor? What about Berg himself or one of his men--maybe they wanted to cut the Vicomte out of any deal they were trying to pressure Toray into.

All the hallmarks of a cheesy B-movie mystery are here. We have clearly marked bad guys and people flitting around in the dark on a stormy night--no one seems able to stay put in their own bedroom (not even the captain of Garrison's yacht seems able to stay on the boat). We have loyal servants with near-unintelligible accents. There is a bit of romance. There are secret passages, secret identities, and secret papers. It all makes for a great deal of fun and a good, atmospheric mystery. There are clues to be had--if the reader is clever enough to spot them. I, for one, did not pick them all up and misinterpreted those I noticed.★★ and 1/2 for an enjoyable read.

Rick at The Mystillery and Curtis at The Passing Tramp have both reviewed this one. Click the links to see their thoughts.

First line: As they cleared the harbour mouth of Port Phadric on the mainland, Hans, chef of the S.Y. Ariel, was putting on the fresh herrings to grill for breakfast.

Last line: The way the colour mantled under the roseleaf of her cheeks was like a seagull's wing glinting pink against the sun.

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

Deaths = 3 (two stabbed; one drowned)

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Callander Square


 Callander Square (1980) by Anne Perry

When a couple of gardeners beginning digging to add another plan to the garden in the exclusive Callander Square, they discover the tiny remains of two infants. Inspector Thomas Pitt is called upon to discreetly investigate and finds himself running into roadblocks among the socially superior residents of the square. Even their servants are reluctant to given any help to the police and no one will admit knowledge of any unwanted pregnancies. His sister-in-law, Lady Emily Ashworth, finding herself a trifle bored with the standard rounds of social calls, decides that she can put her rank to work and help Charlotte's policeman out. She very cleverly elicits gossip and rumors--illicit relations between the well-born and their servants and extracurricular activities among the gentry as well. Soon she and Charlotte devise a way for Charlotte to go undercover in one of the houses on the square--providing organizational assistance to General Balantyne who is writing a family history. Between the bits and pieces discovered by Charlotte and Emily and his own investigations, Pitt soon puts together a trail that leads to blackmail and ultimately to the killer, but not before there are more deaths.

This is my second re-visitation to the world of Thomas & Charlotte Pitt. I may not have been baffled by the first one (having remembered all the details--even twenty years later), but I have to give Perry credit for keeping the criminal hidden this time. Apparently this one didn't imprint itself upon my memory quite as solidly--and, truthfully, I didn't find the story quite as compelling as that in The Cater Street Hangman. Not that it isn't a good one--it is still very entertaining, but it didn't quite meet the promise of the first. 

We do see a bit more of Pitt in action and I think his appearances are balanced nicely with the efforts of Charlotte and Emily. I don't feel like we get quite the insight into the other characters what we did in book one--perhaps because there are more of them. We learn quite a bit about the Balantynes--probably because both Charlotte and Emily spend a great deal of their time in that household. But we learn much less about the others. Only Reggie Southerton receives as much attention.

Overall, an entertaining mystery and I was glad to revisit it after all these years. ★★ and 1/2.

First line: The autumn air hung mild and faintly misty and the grass in Callander Square was dappled yellow with fallen leaves in the late afternoon sun.

They frighten me very much, not just murder, but all the other dark things it stirs in even those who are barely involved in the first crime. It seems so often one crime begets another. People do strange things to cover guilt. We can become so cruel and selfish when we are afraid. Murder and investigation reveal to us so many things about each other which we would rather not have known. (Charlotte Pitt; p. 80)

Last line: More than anything else, he desperately wanted to go home.

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

Deaths = 7 (three stabbed; three strangled; one poisoned)

Great French Detective Stories


 Great French Detective Stories  (1983; all stories pre-1960) by T. J. Hale (ed)

A selection of mystery short stories direct from France. It brings together more well-known authors such as Georges Simenon , Maurice Leblanc,  and Gaston Leroux as well as a variety of authors which most readers will be unacquainted with. It includes everything from detectives who share methods with Sherlock Holmes to those who have skirted the law themselves and now fight on the side of the angels. As with all collections, some stories are much stronger than others. My favorites include "Drops That Trickle Away," "Watch the Red Balloons," and "The Haulage Company." ★★ for the entire collection.

"The Little Old Man of Batignolles" by Emile Gaboriau: This features a shrewd but compassionate private detective named Mechinet.  We have a Watson-like companion--a 23 year old health officer who lives in the same tenant house as Mechinet--and many points which put me in mind of the Holmes stories. The story opens with their meeting--and our narrator's attempts to discover what kind of man his neighbor is.  He realizes he has become friends with a detective when Mechinet is called out to investigate the death of a wealthy old man.  Everything points to the man's nephew--but our narrator is the first to call attention to a clue that will lead Mechinet to the truth of the matter.

"The Mysterious Railway Passenger" by Maurice Leblanc: Sometimes it takes a thief to catch a thief...and a murderer. Arsene Lupin is on the run from authorities himself and gets caught up in a robbery on a train. He winds up helping the police to effect the capture of a very dangerous criminal.

"Drops That Trickle Away" by Maurice Leblanc: Jim Barnett investigates the mystery of the intruder in Baroness Valerie Assermann's boudoir--an intruder who, though he made noise and left clues in the room, left no traces of how he got in or out and seemed to have taken nothing. But when her priceless pearls are proven to be mere substitutes, she isn't certain that she wants Barnett to finish the investigation.

"The Mystery of the Four Husbands" by Gaston Leroux: An interesting mystery about a woman who marries several men--all of whom meet tragic deaths. Is she a murderess...or is someone else behind the deeds?

"Storm over the Channel" by Georges Simenon: The story sees now-retired Superintendent Maigret setting off with his wife on holiday to England. But a storm in English Channel prevents their crossing and they take refuge in boarding house. Maigret finds himself on something of a busman's holiday when the maid is found shot to death after helping one of the other boarders carry luggage down to the boat. The local detective thinks the retired policeman may be past it, but Maigret soon proves that he can read clues in a menu with dress measurements doodled on it. It isn't long before the detective has a confessed murderer in charge. This is straight deduction and Maigret makes the most of the few clues he finds.

Quote:
"It must have been a crime of passion....That girl was a really fast one. She was always hanging around the dance-hall at the far end of the harbour."  "Well, that makes it different," murmured Madame Mosselet, who seemed to think that if passion was involved the whole thing was natural.

"The Amethyst Fly" by Jacques Decrest: Superintendent Gilles is looking for the killer of a young woman known to associate with a Chinese man. His interest is aroused when his friend introduces him to a young woman who served as a secretary to a blind Chinese man for six weeks. But what is about her story that so interests him?

"Watch the Red Balloons" by Pierre Very: Prosper Lepicq, a young barrister-detective, becomes involved in the inexplicable death of the man with the red balloons. Old Beauregard is an eccentric man often seen wandering about with red balloons. He is found dead on the snow-covered moor--his throat has been cut, there is no weapon to be found, and there are no footprints in the snow...not even his own. The authorities think Lepicq is a bit crazy when he believes the red balloons hold a key to the mystery.

"The Lady of the Museums" by Pierre Very: Jules Moulinet had been a bank clerk. He is found hanged with a five hundred franc note clutched in his hand--and the remains of burned notes in fireplace. Then the artist who designed the newest run of five hundred franc notes is found shot. Prosper Lepicq is on hand to explain all.

"For Piano & Vocal Accompaniment" by Jype Carraud: M. Manneville finds himself in the clutches of a blackmailer. When that blackmailer is stabbed the prime suspect is, of course, Manneville. M. Snowdrop takes on his case and sets out to discover the truth.

"The Haulage Company" by Leo Malet: Andre Pellerin's death has all the hallmarks of suicide--until private detective Nestor Burma teaches the perpetrator of the "perfect" crime something about perfectionists.

"The Cheek of Judas" by Eugene-Francois Vidocq: A former agent of the Prefecture thinks he's pulling the wool over Vidocq's eyes. But Vidocq knows a wolf in sheep's clothing when he sees one.

First line (first short story): Some three or four months ago, a man in his early forties, correctly dressed in black, called at the office of the editor of Le Petit Journal.

Last line (last short story--names redacted to prevent spoiling): As may be imagined, [redacted] did not escape lightly, [redacted] and [redacted] were arrested the same night, and all four of them were eventually sent to the galleys.

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

Deaths = 19 (nine stabbed; one natural; three shot; three poisoned; one hit by taxi; two hanged)

Friday, July 23, 2021

The Cater Street Hangman


 The Cater Street Hangman (1979) by Anne Perry

Death walks the streets of proper society. Young women--both serving girls and young women of respectable families--have fallen prey to a killer who has been dubbed the Cater Street Hangman. His victims are found garroted with a thin wire. At first, the proper ladies and gentlemen prefer to believe that the women brought the attention of this madman upon themselves through "loose morals" or by keeping the wrong company and that it must be some insane person from the wrong part of town who has come to prey in the respectable neighborhoods. But more victims fall and it becomes clear that all the women were of good character. It also becomes clear that no one from outside the area could now roam at will without being noticed--everyone is on high alert for suspicious strangers. But then...that must mean that the killer lurks among them, hidden behind a familiar and innocent-looking face.

The Ellison family have always been secure in their place in society and comfortable in their neighborhood. But when the Hangman kills their maid, their quiet, orderly life is upended. Inspector Thomas Pitt, a good, clever man who intends to catch this murderer, returns again and again to ask questions and prod them for more information to help solve the case. And...to see more of Charlotte Ellison. Charlotte is the least "feminine" of all the Ellison girls. She is forthright and outspoken. But beneath her apparent sharp tongue is a kindly heart and he finds her conflicting attributes compelling. But could a respectable, gently born woman ever look twice at policeman? He will have to balance his interest in catching the killer with his desire to protect the woman he admires.

This is the first novel in one of the first historical mystery series that I remember reading. I first bought and read it in 1990, when the edition pictured at the top right was released. I am particularly fond of the Victorian era and this series suited me down to the ground. Recently I found myself wanting to revisit the series--in part so I could review a book I remember enjoying and also to see if I still found it as absorbing twenty years later. Since most of the books I've read are in storage (waiting for the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves I've promised myself), I got an audio edition from our library rather than dig through my storage containers. Davina Porter's narration of the story was quite delightful and I found myself drawn into the world of Victorian England just as surely as if I had read the novel myself.

There are times when I can reread a mystery novel and still be surprised by the ending--if it has been
long enough between readings. But with the first CD of this recording, it was as though twenty years had not passed and I remembered nearly everything including who did it. This didn't detract from my enjoyment, however. It speaks to the vividness of Perry's writing--that having stepped back into the world of Charlotte Ellison and Thomas Pitt, it all came back so clearly and enjoyably. Perry brings the Victorian era to life and peoples it with compelling characters. It was amusing to find myself sympathizing with Charlotte (whose mouth often gets her in trouble--as did mine when I was younger) and going through the same process of disliking Emily in the early chapters and gradually warming to her. It is not always the case that one enjoys a book the same way when rereading it years after an initial run-through and I was very pleased to find this one as pleasing now. ★★

First line: Charlotte Ellison stood in the center of the withdrawing room, the newspaper in her hand.

Last line: "I know you are sorry for her. Dear God, so am I."

*Just an observation: I have no idea what the baby carriage is doing on the cover of the audio novel. There is no baby carriage mentioned in the story at all that I can recall. Or even a baby for that matter. Maybe the old-fashioned perambulator is supposed to evoke the Victorian era?

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

Deaths = five strangled

Thursday, July 22, 2021

What the Devil Knows


 What the Devil Knows (2021) by C. S. Harris

In 1811 John Williams was arrested and ordered for pre-trial in what became known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders. In the first event, Timothy Marr, his wife, infant son, and shop boy were brutally killed in their draper's shop. A few days later, Old John (John Williamson), his wife, and their female servant were killed in a similar manner in their public house. London was held in a grip of terror before Williams was placed in a jail cell. But before he was even officially bound over for trial, Williams was found hanged in his jail cell--and his suicide was taken as an admission of guilt. All London breathed a sigh of relief--the murders ceased and the terror was over. Or so it was thought...

Three years later, a seaman named Hugo Reeves and an East End magistrate by the name of Edwin Pym are found murdered in the same manner as those killed in the Ratcliffe Highway murders--their heads bashed in with a heavy instrument and their throats cut. Bowstreet magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy barely has time to bring Sebastian St. Cyr, Lord Devlin to the site of Pym's death before the rumors start swirling that maybe Williams was innocent...or had an accomplice who has decided to kill again. It's also possible (though less likely, at this late date) that a copycat killer has started up. 

The more Devlin investigates the more convinced he becomes that Williams was innocent and set up to take the blame. But then who was really behind the killings and why are more people dying now? The trail is a long and bloody one...and more blood is destined to be spilled before Devlin is able to fully unravel the complicated story behind the murders. 

Throughout the St. Cyr series, Harris has woven real life events into her stories. Sometimes the historical facts serve as simply a background setting for the mystery, but in this installment the primary mystery relies on the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 for its premise. My previous knowledge of the horrific killing of seven members of two households came from the true crime book The Maul & the Pear Tree by P. D. James and T. A. Critchley. Their examination of the materials still available about the crimes (the original depositions of evidence disappeared in 1812) makes it clear that the handling of the investigation was mismanaged at best and justice deliberately subverted at worst. Harris takes the doubts surrounding John Williams's guilt and builds a realistic fictional explanation while giving Devlin a series of murders to investigate in 1814.

This is--in my opinion--Harris's finest historical mystery yet in a completely absorbing series. The Ratcliffe murders make an excellent starting point and her explanation of the murders and the fictional murders of 1814 make for a gripping mystery. It never takes me long to read her books, but I seemed to fly through the pages of this one in my eagerness to see what happened next. The motive for the more recent murders isn't difficult to figure out, but I must admit that the "who" took me by surprise. 

I was also very intrigued by some of the additions to Devlin's personal story. The events are small (in comparison to some of the big changes we have seen occur over the course of 16 novels), but very dramatic and compelling. I am all caught up on the series now--and am impatiently waiting for the next book to be ready for release. ★★★★

First line: Molly Maguire hated the fog.

Last lines: Pippa was already turning away, but she paused with one hand on the hackney door to look back at him. "Patrick. His name is Patrick."

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

Deaths = 24 (ten head bashed & throat cut; one hanged; five stabbed; two strangled; one fell from height; two drowned; two shot; one hit with flotsam from the brewery flood) [Harris's books are always pretty death-ridden, but this one was a regular blood-bath. It includes all of the deaths related to the original Ratcliffe Highway murders which are detailed in the story.]

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Perfect Crime


 The Perfect Crime [with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"]  (1892/1841) by Israel Zangwill [& Edgar Allan Poe]

This reissue of Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (also published as The Perfect Crime) also includes Poe's locked room story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." These are thought to be the earliest examples of the locked room novel and short story.

The Big Bow MysteryAs mentioned above, it is one of the earliest examples of the locked room mystery. The solution may seem a bit trite to those of us in the 21st Century, but it is good to remember how puzzling and fresh it must have been to readers of the London Star in 1891. The story begins at the rooming house of Mrs. Drabdump (gotta love those Victorian names). She has been directed to wake one of her tenants, Mr. Arthur Constant, early so he can make an important meeting. Naturally, she finds that she has overslept and is rushing 'round to prepare breakfast. But when she tries to rouse Constant, she receives no answer. At first she is not too alarmed. The poor man had been suffering from toothache and perhaps he feel into a deep slumber once he finally did get to sleep. But when repeated efforts fail to waken him and a final, violent assault on his door does not bring him out, she feels sure that he must be lying murdered in his bed. She rushes across the street to the home of retired policeman, George Grodman. Grodman succeeds in breaking down the locked and bolted door and a terrible sight is revealed. Constant is lying in bed with his throat cut. He is still warm...so he has not been long dead. The windows are all fastened tight. There is no weapon to be found in the room and no way the culprit could have escaped. Inspector Edward Wimp (snort) of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate officially. But there seems to be no solution. There is no item in the room with which the dead man could have harmed himself, therefore it cannot be suicide. There is no way anyone could have gotten out of the room, therefore it cannot be murder. Eventually, however, clues come Wimp's way that convince him that Tom Mortlake, Constant's fellow tenant and supposed rival, has committed the crime. A trial and conviction follows....but Grodman supplies the final twist that produces the complete solution. This is a well-written and quite witty short novel. The final twist is ingenious for its time. ★★

First line: On a memorable morning of early December London opened its eyes on a frigid grey mist.

Clues, which at such seasons are gathered by the police like blackberries off the hedges, were scanty and unripe, Inferior specimens were offered them by the bushels, but there was not a good one among the lot. The police could not even manufacture a clue. (p. 26)

When he asked him [Denzil] for the True--which was about twice a day on the average--he didn't really expect to get it from him. He knew Denzil was a poet. (p. 46)

There are three reasons why men of genius have long hair. One is that they forget it is growing. The second is, that they like it, The third is that it comes cheaper..... (p. 47)

To dash a half-truth in the world's eyes is the surest way of blinding it altogether. (Mr. Grodman; p.135)

Last line: Some of the working men who had been standing waiting by the shafts of the hansom helped to bear the stretcher.

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

Deaths = 2 (one stabbed; one shot)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue": The classic story credited with starting the whole detective ball rolling.  Dupin is a moody, night-loving character.  Faced with a seemingly impossible crime, he uses an investigative method--observing everything and discounting nothing...until it can be proven irrelevant or impossible.  Definitely a forerunner of Holmes's method: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

First line: The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis.

Last lines: I like him especially for one master stroke of cant, by which he has attained his reputation for ingenuity.  I mean the way has "de nier ce qui est, et d'espliquer ce qui n'est pas."*

*To deny what is, and to explain what is not. (from Nouvelle Heloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1761)

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

Deaths = 2 (one stabbed; one strangled)

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

No Medals for the Major (mini-review)


 No Medals for the Major (1974) by Margaret Yorke

Major Frederick Johnson is a very lonely man who is trying to make a new life for himself in Wiveldown. When he retired from the army, he bought a snug little cottage and began to make it his own with new paint and attention to the garden--taming the wildness that had taken over there. He is just beginning to make friends and try to find his place in the small community when tragedy strikes. A young girl disappears and then her body is found in the trunk of the major's car. Despite the fact that many of the townspeople privately believe the major to be completely innocent of the girl's death, gossip and negative public opinion soon take over--disrupting the shy, quiet pattern of the major's life and changing it forever.

This is a heartbreaking story about the weight of loneliness and the sense of isolation that Major Johnson feels in his new town. It is also about the power of rumor and public opinion; about how those two things can destroy a life just as surely as a deadly accident or murder. This is a well-written book, but a very disturbing one--both for the death of the young child as well as for the psychological suspense. It's definitely not my usual type of read, but those who like inverted mysteries with psychological impacts should appreciate it very much. ★★

First line: Major Johnson closed the front door of his bungalow and tested the lock.

Last line (the last line would be a spoiler--so I'm giving a few lines before): He thought for a moment as he sat down in his armchair of his companions in the army; of the sense of comradeship; the heat and dust of the desert; the calmer postwar life. There were tasks for every day.

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

Deaths = 2 (one run over; one shot)

The Kennel Murder Case


 The Kennel Murder Case (1933) by S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright)

There are a number of odd things going on in this sixth entry in the Philo Vance mystery series. There is Arthur Coe, found dead behind a bolted door in a room with locked windows and no other entry. He has a peaceful, restful look on his face and a bullet wound in his temple. There's a revolver held tightly in his hand (rigor mortis is well established), but the position of his arm relative to the chair in which he is seated and the table under his arm is rather odd. And, yes, the man has been shot--but he didn't die from the bullet wound. He was hit on the head before he was shot--but that didn't kill him either. He was stabbed with a rare Chinese dagger! Not only that, but the man was stabbed through clothes that he had since removed (or had removed for him) and was clothed in his dressing but still had his street shoes on.

Of course, the big question is: If this isn't suicide (and how could it be with three different types of wound?), then how did the murderer get in and out of the locked room? Then there are other trifling things, like the show-quality Scottie dog found wounded behind a curtain. The dog doesn't belong to the household and, in fact, no one in the house likes dogs. And there's the missing priceless Chinese vase which has been replaced by a much inferior piece and is later found broken with bloodstains. Oh, and don't forget the victim's brother, Brisbane, who has also been stabbed and bundled into the coat closet. 

For suspects, we have the victim's niece, Hilda Lake, who disagreed most emphatically with her uncle's views on her money and who she should marry. Raymond Wrede is her chosen intended and he had an argument with Arthur shortly before the murder. Gamble, the butler, seems to be on the spot every time something happens--even though others were closer and should have heard various noises first. Liang Tsung Wei, the Chinese cook, who appears to be less of a cook and more an agent investigating his employer's plundering of rare Chinese artifacts. And Signor Eduardo Grassi from the Milan Museum of Oriental Antiquities who had an interest in both the deceased's collection and his niece. Grassi also had an argument with Coe over a deal on some of the collection--Coe had changed his mind and Grassi was not pleased at all.

Van Dine is not shy about his clues in this installment. He strews them about liberally--in fact, at one point Markham, the District Attorney, complains that there are too many clues. Van Dine frequently points out something in his narrative (such as the chair the victim was seated in and those heavy street shoes he wore with his dressing gown) and adds that this item "constituted one of the vital links in the evidential chain of this strange and perplexing case" or that "the answer to this question was also was to prove a vital point in the solution of the tragedy." The reader certainly can't complain that the clues are too obscure or too well-hidden. We can, however, complain that the kennel of the title isn't nearly as central to the murder as it should be. The kennel helps trace the Scottie dog to her owner and that does help Vance solve the case, but if we're going to hang the story title on that bit of the plot, then The Scottie Murder Case makes more sense.

This is an interesting mystery with several side-stories to make things just a bit complicated. We have the dog angle and the Chinese artifacts angle (both of which give Vance ample opportunity to educate Markham and company, as well as the reader). I found the plot to be enjoyable and the characters to be well-drawn. If I hadn't spotted the murderer and had a good idea of how it all worked out (not down to the last detail--but close), then I'd definitely rate this as a four-star effort or higher. Perhaps Van Dine should have shined the light a little less brightly on some of those clues... ★★ and 1/2.

First line: It was only three months after the startling termination of the Scarab murder case that Philo Vance was drawn into the subtlest and most perplexing of all the criminal problems that came his way during the four years of John F. X. Markham's incumbency as District Attorney of New York County.

On the surface it smacked of strange and terrifying magic, of witch-doctors and miracle-workers; and every line of investigation ran into a blank wall. (p..15)

Have you ever stopped to think how much of all the world's disturbance is caused by butlers being able to see through keyholes? (Philo Vance; p. 21)

...a collector who has just acquired a pair of peach-bloom vases of that size doesn't commit suicide the next day. (Vance; p. 22)

I'm a doctor not a detective. (Dr. Doremus, p. 52) [I love a good echo of Star Trek's Dr. McCoy...]

[after examining the body] "Mr. Markham," he said with precise solemnity, "that baby had been dead for hours when that bullet entered his head." (Dr. Doremus; p. 54)

Interestin' situation--eh, what? Really, Markham, a man doesn't ordinarily shoot himself after death....I fear you simply must eliminate the suicide theory. (Vance, p. 55)

I merely made the suggestion by way of indicating that, at this stage of the game, we should not jump at conclusions. And the more obvious the conclusion, the more cautious we should be. This is not, my dear Markham, an obvious case. (Vance (p. 64)

Oh, well, I'm no moralist. I'm a doctor. (Dr. Doremus, p. 126)

Last line: Sometimes I think that Vance would rather part with one of his treasured CĂ©zannes than with little Miss MacTavish.

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

Deaths = 4 (two stabbed; one attacked by dog; one shot [dog named Ruprecht--important to plot])

Monday, July 19, 2021

Quaker Witness


 Quaker Witness (1993) by Irene Allen

Janet Stevens is a graduate student in the Harvard Paleontology Department. She specifically asked to work with Dr. Paul Chadwick because he was the leading researcher in her field. But she didn't know his reputation with female students--no female student had finished her degree under his advisement. They couldn't take his harassment. When Janet suffers the same issues, she is brave enough to file a complaint with the dean of students. But her troubles don't end there. She is ostracized by faculty and fellow students alike and labeled a "trouble maker." And then Dr. Chadwick is found dead in his lab and what was made to look like an accident with a dangerous gas is determined to be murder.

Janet is the first on the police's suspect list, but she isn't the only person in the department to have had problems with Chadwick. There are male students whose work has been brought into question by the difficult professor and one of his fellow faculty members was facing issues with their tenure case. Janet, who grew up in a Quaker School, seeks refuge and comfort at the local Meeting House where she becomes friends with Elizabeth Elliot. Elizabeth is certain that Janet is innocent and she takes up an amateur investigation to get to the bottom of the mystery at Harvard. In addition to sexual harassment, fraud and blackmail are lurking in the hallowed halls--but which provided the motive for Chadwick's death?

This is an okay academic mystery. The motive is a fairly likely one in the halls of academe and the plotting is adequate. I must say, however, that I found none of the characters to be particularly compelling. I definitely sympathize with Janet and the other students who have had to endure sexual harassment from the thoroughly nasty Dr. Paul Chadwick. But even my sympathy for the characters' situation didn't provide enough investment in the story. I don't mind that Chadwick has been eliminated (it's hard to feel sorry for such a man) and I don't particularly care who did it. Elizabeth isn't a terribly interesting sleuth, either. She seems to me to be rather colorless and to just drift through her investigation. ★★

First line: Lent began in Massachusetts with falling temperatures.

Last line: The lilies on the windowsill sway gently in the breeze as if in answer.

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

Deaths = one poisoned

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Naked Came the Manatee


 Naked Came the Manatee (1995) by Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry, James W. Hall, Edna Buchanan, Les Standiford, Paul Levine, Brian Antoni, Tananarive Due, John Dufresne, Vicki Hendricks, Carolina Hospital, Evelyn Mayerson

Thirteen Florida writers passed around a round-robin crime thriller--each contributing a chapter to this story of two inept, small-time thieves hired to transport mysterious cargo across Biscayne Bay. What follows is a madcap tale that involves a manatee named Booger, a 102 year-old woman who likes to skinny dip at midnight with the manatee, three head of Fidel Castro (and only one is still attached...), Jimmy Carter, and various series characters belonging to the aforementioned writers. We have gangsters and Castro rivals, reporters and lawyers all trying to hold onto the precious canisters containing Castro's heads. We have bodies showing up everywhere from the Bay to a bridge to a low-profile hotel. And with thirteen writers adding more complications in every chapter, it's anybody's guess what the plot is and how it will all turn out.

Sometimes these round-robin writing adventures work out. The Floating Admiral by members of the Detection Club (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, et. al) was highly entertaining and the writers involved made every effort to produce a mystery that not only entertained but made sense and tied up all the threads satisfactorily. Sometimes these things don't work out. This would be a case in point. Every time it seemed like one of the writers was trying to give us a mystery that had some sort of continuity to it, then the next writer would have to throw in something to throw the rhythm off. It seemed to me that most of the writers were playing a game of one-upmanship. "Oh, you introduced that character and that complication? Well...hold my beer and watch this!"

At best, this is a light bit of fluffy entertainment. But it's not at its best very often. The most likeable characters are the manatee and Marion McAlister Williams (our elderly skinny dipper)--and one of the writers in their wisdom (insert heavy sarcasm) decided to kill off one of them. So far, the collaborative novels written post-2000 haven't fared well with me. I gave Natural Suspect  (written in 2001) a one-star review and guess what? This one gets the same. 

First lines: Saturday night, Coconut Grove. It was the usual scene: thousands of people, not one of whom a normal person would call normal.

Last line: Every mammal for himself.

*************** 

Deaths = 6 (one strangled; one blown up; one choked to death; two shot; one killed by boat propellers)

Stone Cold Blonde


 Stone Cold Blonde (1951) by Adam Knight (Lawrence Lariar)

The first in the Steve Conacher private investigator series. Conacher, who has made a name for himself finding missing person, finds somebody in his own office. She's very blonde, very pretty, and very dead. Whoever stabbed her and left her as a present for the detective took every stitch of clothing she was wearing and everything else that might possibly have identified her. Conacher sets out to find out who set him up to take the rap for the dead woman's death and winds up hunting for an amateur jewel thief and the missing jewels as well. He also winds up nearly beaten to death by a suspect as well as seduced by his client in the jewelry case. The investigation will lead him from a luscious lawyer's office to a jazz club in Greenwich Village to an Italian joint near Coney Island and will have Conacher out for blood by the end when the bad guys take out his best friend along the way.

Earlier this year I read a later installment of the Conacher series and it seems that his detective style has remained constant from the beginning. He's not much of thinker. His method of questioning suspects is to yell at them and if that doesn't work, then knock them around a bit with a pistol butt or anything else that's handy. His ability to have hunches and jump into situations rivals the women's intuition school of detection. He's all full of himself for having tracked the missing jewel thief in a mere eight hours. I'm still trying to figure out how he got from Point A to Point Q without any real detection. He just somehow knew who to go yell at to get answers--even though he makes a big deal out of the fact that that he has nothing to start with. And isn't it cool how all the different parts all weave together into one basic plot?

Seriously, if the two Knight books hadn't come as part of a lot of several vintage books (some of which I very much wanted) from Ebay, I doubt I would ever have bought them individually. Signet isn't one of the publishers that I actively collect (like Dell Mapbacks, for instance). And I can safely say that unless he gets shoved into another lot of books I won't be buying up any more of them. I'm not a huge private eye fan anyway and Steve Conacher doesn't have much in the way of appeal. Personally, I liked his friend Abe Feldman a lot more. It's a shame that Abe gets bumped off in this debut novel of the series.

Unlike I'll Kill You Next! (my previous venture into Conacher's world), I can't even say that the plot was interesting. There is a slight twist at the end that might have been good--if the rest of the story had been half-way decent. 

First line: The name on the door was mine.

I didn't know there was a book of etiquette on stabbing. (Steve Conacher; p. 17)

Last lines: But I had plenty of Gus Bryant's dough stuffed away in my haberdashery. And it was a pleasuer to fatten the police on Bryant's money.

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

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