Monday, May 23, 2022

The Body That Wasn't Uncle


 The Body That Wasn't Uncle (1939) by George Worthing Yates

Miss Katheren Meynard, a successful literary agent, receives a plea for help from the family of her godfather. Rosalie Small, her husband Charles, son Cedric, and father-in-law Sidney (the godfather) are in desperate straits and need a loan to meet bills. Katheren is always ready to help out Rosalie and heads to New Jersey to contribute to the cause. But it's a wasted trip--Sidney is too proud to allow Rosalie to accept the money. 

The next morning Katheren rushes towards the train station to catch the first train to New York City and her job when she stumbles across a dead man in the snow. Being a dutiful citizen, she reports it to the police--little knowing the trouble the tramp (as she thinks of him) will cause. First, he's an unknown who asked the way to the Smalls' house when he arrived at the train station. Then Sidney identifies the man as his long-lost brother Stephen. What is first accepted as death from exposure is discovered to be poison and suddenly Sidney decides to fess up and say that he only claimed it was Stephen so they could collect the $50,000 in insurance--and get themselves out of debt. And he'd rather be arrested for attempted fraud than murder. But the police aren't buying it. They insist the man really is Uncle Stephen.

A monogrammed lucky horseshoe seemed to guarantee that it the police are right. Yet the man's dentist comes forward and says it isn't Stephen Small. That appeared to settle it...until Small's common law wife and partner come forward and positively identify the body as the big-time gambler. It's to their advantage that Small be declared dead--just as much as that insurance policy could help out Rosalie and company.

Katheren was pretty sure (from the start) that the dead man wasn't Stephen and that Sidney, the crafty old devil, was really only trying to pull an insurance fast one. She's also sure that Sidney didn't kill the man. But if he didn't, who did? She asks Hazlitt Woar, a British detective of her acquaintance, to look into matters and he winds up sending a telegram to a dead man 

Urgent proof needed of your existence.

But when he doesn't get a reply, he tries something even trickier...he sets out to discover who out of 150,000,000 Americans sat beside the soon-to-be corpse in the train's restaurant car and offered him a drink laced with atropine?

This starts out very strong. Yates opens with a light and humorous touch and I was all set to settle down for a fun, comfortable ride with plenty of witticisms. Katheren won me over immediately and I had high hopes for her interactions with Hazlitt. But then it kind of died--just like the body in the first chapter, it just sat down in a snow drift and expired. The middle drags and the back and forth business over whether the body was uncle or not just got old. Even adding a few more deaths didn't spice things up much. The ending was exciting enough, but it lost some of its impact after the long, dragged out bits. And I didn't much care for the district attorney's vindictive attitude towards Katheren and Hazlitt. Bit of a spoiler here: It seemed contrived just to bring Katheren and Hazlitt to the alter (you'll understand if you read it) and give them a happy ending. ★★ and 1/2 (I had anticipated a much better rating)

First line: The first manifestation occurred on the seventeenth of December.

Last line: It was the spring of the year, an unsettling time for everybody. [Which I feel could also make an excellent opening line.]

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

Deaths = 4 [one poisoned; two shot; one natural]

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Busman's Honeymoon


 Busman's Honeymoon (1937) by Dorothy L. Sayers; read by Ian Carmichael

I could have sworn I had reviewed the audio version of Busman's...but apparently not. No review here on the block and no indication of it on Goodreads. Here's my review from the last time I read the hard copy (just a warning....possible spoilers for anyone who hasn't read the Sayers books that precede this one):

So...Lord Peter finally gets the girl. Well, we knew that at the end of Gaudy Night...what with them kissing madly in the middle of Oxford and all. But this one seals the deal. The book begins with the details of the months leading up to the wedding, the wedding itself, and on to the honeymoon. Not that Sayers is so gauche as to reveal ALL about the wedding night, but it's abundantly obvious that our favorite lord and his new lady have quite a nice time of it.

The mystery fun begins the next day when the body of their neglectful host is found in the basement. It soon becomes clear that the reason the honeymoon house was not prepared was because Mr. Noakes has been dead for almost a week. Harriet rather wishes that Peter need not be bothered with all this murder business while on his honeymoon--if only because it will bring the mobs of reporters descending upon them--but soon realizes that his "job" is something they will need to come to terms with if theirs is to be happy marriage.

What follows is, as Sayers notes in the subtitle, A Love Story with Detective Interruptions. We follow Peter and Harriet as they sort out how their love story will begin and in the intervals they pick up clue after clue that will ultimately lead to the discovery of the culprit. However, the point of the story is not the murder. The point is love and marriage and what Sayers thought was the ideal way for two adults to sort things out.

The mystery isn't a very deep one and it shouldn't be hard for anyone to spot the criminal. But the detective story is not the reason I can read this novel (or any of Sayers' mysteries, for that matter) over and over again. I read them for the language and the characters and their interactions. Rereading Busman's Honeymoon, I was struck once more about how delightful the opening chapter is. It is told entirely in letters and excerpts from the Dowager Duchess's diary and I chuckle over it every single time. The voices of the various characters--from Peter's insufferable sister-in-law to the irrepressible Countess of Severn and Thames--are so distinct and vibrant. And the images they convey are such a hoot--can anyone who has read the stories not snort over the picture of the "hell-hound" reporters trying bribe Bunter? Or Peter and Harriet composing rude rhymes in order to get rid of Helen (the insufferable sister-in-law)?

I love this book. And can only regret that it is the last full-length novel written entirely by Dorothy L Sayers. The books penned by Jill Paton Walsh just aren't the same.

Listening to the audio version with Ian Carmichael, I'm still delighted by the opening. What a wonderful way to let us know what happened to Peter and Harriet between the moment Harriet says "Placet" to the moment they head off to their honeymoon. But I also thoroughly enjoyed the scenes with Tom Puffett cleaning out the chimney--absolutely hilarious. And Peter's reaction to the audible evidence of chimney-sweeping going on is gold.

One is afraid to believe in good fortune. The sweep! I crushed down my rising hopes. I said, No--it is a thunderstorm, a small earthquake, or at most a destitute cow dying by inches in the chimney. I dared not court disappointment. It is so long since I was taken into anybody's confidence about a sweep. As a rule, Bunter smuggles him in when I am out of the house, for fear my lordship should be inconvenienced.

I love the image this conjures and the whole exchange between Bunter and Puffett leading up to the actual sweeping is not to be missed. In fact, there are so many little moments in this novel that I can't possibly talk about them all without completely spoiling the plot. You just need to go read it (or listen to it) yourself. ★★★★★ always.

First lines: Mirabelle, Countess of Severn and Thames, to Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver. My Dear Honoria, So Peter is really married: I have ordered willow-wreaths for half my acquaintance.

Last line: So she held him, crouched at her knees, against her breast, huddling his head in her arms that he might not hear eight o-clock strike.

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

Deaths = 2 (one hit on head; one hanged)


Thursday, May 19, 2022

Be Holding


 Be Holding (2020) by Ross Gay

Ross Gay is a beautiful human being who writes the most beautiful poetry. He uses words to float ideas as effortlessly as Dr. J's move which inspired this book-length poem. Ross holds the readers in the palm of his hand, balancing us carefully between the words and their meaning, the words and their unmeaning, the words and pictures they paint, the pictures that accompany the words and ideas that complement the pictures. He reminds us to be holding each other and in holding to see each other--to see where the other has been and where they are. Who the other is and who they have been...and who they and we can be. Ross makes us delight in language as he weaves language into magic right before our eyes. 

But he also reminds us that in looking we witness the hurts as well as the triumphs...

" we do unwittingly when witnessing the unwitnessable"

and in the holding we should care for the hurting and be holding unholdable. He makes us realize that we are connected--we are all here to bear witness to the unwitnessable and hold what cannot be held. And to support one another in this way is the only be holding that is worthwhile. ★★★★★

First line: You might have noticed there's nowhere to go

Last line: we breathe

Reliquary (spoilers ahead)


 Reliquary (1997) by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Once again there is something nasty lurking in New York City. In Relic, the terror was hiding out in the basement hallways of the Museum of Natural History. And now something has taken over the hidden tunnels deep below the subway and sewage systems of the Big Apple.

When police divers go down in sludgy waters of the Humboldt Kill, dumping ground of sewers and factories and all sorts of icky waster, they're searching for a dumped cache of heroin. What find are two decapitated skeletons. The first is quickly identified as a missing young socialite, but the second poses a puzzle. The skeleton is malformed and has odd additions to the bones...and yet it still seems to be human. The other worrisome problem with the remains is they seem to have been chewed on. And the teeth marks all seem to be human, although the force needed to make some of the bites indicate humans with abnormal strength in their jaws. 

The Lieutenant D'Agosta, heading up the investigation, bring in Doctors Margo Green and Whitney Frock (who helped defeat the terror wreaking havoc in the museum eighteen months ago) to examine the remains and provide what clues they can to the killer (or killers...). And soon Special Agent Pendergast is back in action as well. It isn't long before they realize that something has been preying on the homeless who live in the tunnels beneath the city and only recently has begun working above ground. Their search for answers take them deep underground where they join forces with the leader of the homeless group under Central Park. But there is an intelligence behind the cannibalistic killers and that intelligence has set events in motion that could change human life for good. The team will have to work fast to prevent a catastrophe.

********************Spoilers ahead**************

 I cannot discuss my reaction to the story without spoilers--those who have not read Reliquary or Relic will proceed at risk of having important plot points revealed.

This was still a page-turner. Preston & Child know how to write a story that will keep you reading. However, I found some of the story difficult to buy into (even while suspending my disbelief about magic plants that turn humans into killers while also giving them rejuvenating powers). For instance, how did Gregory Kawakita manage to get his hands on these plants that miraculously survived? The last remaining specimens were supposedly destroyed in Relic. But granted that he did...how did he and the others manage to get these specimens (which came from the rain forest) to reproduce at a rate to fill the New York City reservoir? Again...it's only Eighteen. Months. Later. Part of that time was spent trying to grow the things in aquarium tanks. A great deal of that time was spent experimenting on the plants. When did he have time to play Farmer Joe out at the reservoir? We won't even go into the fact that the New York City reservoir is exposed to a New York winter for part of that time. And the plants weren't acclimated to winter coming from the rain forest and all. So, yeah. That doesn't seem so feasible.

I'm also amazed at the huge number of altered humans that are roaming around following our megalomaniac doctor. Again, it's only eighteen months later. How many people could two people (I'm counting Greg and the doctor--even though we aren't told that the doctor participated in the early experimentation phase, but we'll pretend that there are two the whole time)...how many people could two men give this drug to and convert into killer humans in such a short time? And finally...I'm sorry, but the ending was disappointing. Dr. Frock just comes across as a megalomaniac Bond villain. Not that I'm opposed to James Bond stories. I've read several and enjoyed them to varying degrees. But I know what I'm getting into when I do so. The "oh you pitiful normal humans" and "now I'm going to rule the world once I recreate it the way I want--Bwa-ha-ha" shtick just didn't play well in this particular venue. 

On the plus side, Preston & Child tied this into the previous story well and create a decent mystery that reaches beyond the portions of the story that I had difficulty with. Our main characters are well-drawn and it was fun reading about Green, Pendergast, and D'Agosta again. I enjoyed watching them put the pieces together and the action part of the wrap-was good. A solid story, but not quite up to the level of Relic. ★★★

First line: Snow tested his regulator, checked both air valves, ran his hands along the slick neoprene of the suit.

Last line: Although their conversation remains their own, when they left the restaurant D'Agosta was sporting a large--and apparently relieved--grin.

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

Deaths = 12 (ten beheaded; one throat cut; one electrocuted)

Monday, May 16, 2022

Going Public


 Going Public (1973) David Westheimer

Three bright young men discover, pretty much by accident, that they have a real gift for removing people who are found to be encumbrances in someone's everyday life. They're so good that the deaths are never suspected to be anything more than natural at best or accidental at worst. When all three (individually) are hired by three separate people to remove the same man, they decide to join forces. They call themselves the Three Willies (an inside joke). And eventually, they see the need to incorporate in order to save money on taxes. That's when they learn to call what they do "undertakings" and their subjects "units." They go all in and set up the Three Ws Corporation, complete with publicly traded stock, advertising, and even hostile takeover attempts. Yes, a certain stockholder decides that he wants a controlling interest in the Three Ws and that when the partners determine to make one final killing--in the best sense of the word.

Who knew that murder for hire and the finer details of business and incorporating same could be so funny? And who knew I'd enjoy learning all the ins and outs of how to run a business--including when is a good time to diversify; how to maximize profits; how to sell a service that's difficult to describe (legally, that is); how to go about finding new trainees; etc. I'm not entirely sure that it's fair to call this a mystery--after all, we know exactly who did what to whom and how. But there is a mystery towards the end--how can they get rid of the bothersome individual who wants to take over their company without violating their own personal rule: To never use their skills for personal gain (other than monetarily in the line of business, of course). Their favorite business lawyer has an ingenious solution and, thus, lives up to his status as an honorary Willie.

This is just enormous fun. It skewers the business industry so expertly, that you would think one of the Willies had performed the "undertaking." All the worst qualities of the business world are put to use to further the ends of the undertakings--and it is usually men who display those worst qualities who become "units" in the company's production line. It also shines a light on the religious faction who don't seem to mind being hand-in-glove with dirty business practices as long as they can claim profits "for the glory of the Lord." A terrific commentary on big business with comments that are just as applicable to the business practices of today (unfortunately) and all done with murder mayhem and good humor. ★★★★

First line: The three young me sat patiently in the intimidating opulence of the ante-room of Rhomber, Kissel, and Wurlitz, Attorneys at Law.

Last lines: They all remained fast friends until they died. And when they did, at ripe old ages, all were interred by one or another branch mortuary of Sweet & Low, "Serving the Silent Majority."

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

Deaths = 7 (one fell from height; one shot; one hit by bus; two natural; one blown up; one drowned)

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Lock 14


 Lock 14 (1931) by Georges Simenon [translated by Robert Baldick

Inspector Maigret is brought in to investigate a murder at Lock 14 on the Marne Canal. A strangled woman is found in the stable's hay at an inn along the waterway. She's soon identified as Mary (Marie) Dupin Lampson, the wife of an Englishman taking a yacht up the canal. Since none of her jewelry has been taken, it looks like a crime of passion. But Sir Walter Lampson, retired colonel, seems very lacking in passionate feelings about his wife and there are few others to suspect. Lampson and his passengers are questioned, as well as the owners and crew of barges that lay nearby--especially those aboard the Providence. It seems odd that the Providence's carter, who normally slept in stables along the way, didn't hear or notice anything that night. But he seems to be a simple soul, incapable of harm. Then a second member of yachting party is murdered and Maigret has to determine what secrets are being kept by all concerned.

I keep reading Maigret books and trying to convince myself that I like them. It's not working so well. It's not that the mysteries are bad--there's a good solid plot here and an interesting character study that could have been even more interesting if I didn't constantly feel like I was missing something. I think one problem may be with translation. For whatever reason, the conversations always seem a bit off and disjointed to me--like maybe the translator left out a word or three because he couldn't figure out what fit best in the context (we'll just leave that out...nobody'll notice). The non-dialogue portions of the story don't seem to suffer as much from this. So, perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe it's just the way Simenon wrote. But it comes across as if his characters have telepathy going on for parts of the conversation and he doesn't feel like he needs to report the portions that aren't said out loud. One thing I've learned about Maigret: Apparently the good inspector is in much better shape than I've previously imagined. He bikes like mad up and down along the canal all through the book. Makes me tired just reading about it. Solid mystery disrupted by the difficulties with the conversations.  ★★ and 3/4.

First line: Nothing could be deduced from the most minute reconstruction of the facts, except that the find by the two carters from Dizy was so to speak impossible.

...it was Maigret's turn to smile at seeing his companion* hunching himself over the wheel like a detective in pursuit of a criminal in an American film (p. 87; *driver of a bakery van)

Last line: And the skipper and his wife had gone off into the town to order mourning clothes.

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

Deaths = 4 (two strangled; one poisoned; fell from height)


Murder on "B" Deck


 Murder on "B" Deck (1929) by Vincent Starrett

Vincent Starrett, better known to me for his Holmesian work, gives readers a dose death on the high seas in his first murder mystery. Dunstan "Duns" Mollock, mystery writer and slightly Nigel Bruce-ish sidekick to Walter Ghost, is onboard the Latakia to see his sister and new hubby off on a voyage to England. The bon voyage party participants joke about what would happen if they didn't get off the boat in time and then Mollock manages to do just that. Fortunately, he runs into his old friend Walter Ghost, who seems to have influence over the captain, and, even more fortunately, he seems to run around with enough funds to cover a trip to England at the drop of a hat. He secures a first-class berth and is all set for a lovely voyage. He meets the delightful Miss Dhu Harrington and promptly sets about falling in love.

But the pleasant voyage is soon disrupted by the brutal murder of the Countess Fogartini. Ghost has a bit of a reputation as an amateur sleuth and the captain requests his help in unraveling the crime. There are few clues--in fact, at first it looks like the killer has gotten away without leaving a single trace. But then a rather ragged envelope with a lover's charm is found and speculation follows as to which passenger was the lover and whether he is also a killer. When Major Phillips (who had been quite attentive to the Countess) goes overboard, speculation goes further to say that he was the man. He must have killed the Countess in a jealous rage and then jumped overboard in a fit of remorse. But Ghost is not convinced. The major didn't seem to be that kind of man and he definitely is not the mystery man seen in a certain roll of film secured by the Countess. And when Ghost is attacked one night, it's obvious the culprit is still skulking among the passengers. He's only got five days to solve the crime before the ship docks in Cherbourg and passengers could leave the ship. Five days to track down a very careful killer.

As others on Goodreads have mentioned, I think the "B" in the title stands for "B" movie. I could definitely see this as an old black and white mystery/comedy. A younger, slightly less bumbling version of Nigel Bruce's Watson would be perfect as "Duns." The mystery itself is perfectly okay, though [spoiler encoded in ROT13] V ernyyl zhfg cebgrfg ba gur vqragvgl bs gur xvyyre. Ur'f zragvbarq rknpgyl gjvpr orsber gur ovt erirny. Naq gurer'f ab ernfba ba rnegu gb fhccbfr gung guvf cnffratre unf nal pbaarpgvba jungfbrire gb svefg pynff, yrg nybar gur Pbhagrff. Much smarter heads than mine are needed to figure that out. Another point keeping this from a higher rating is the fact that while a big deal is made about Ghost needing to find out who the killer is before Cherbourg, there is no real sense of urgency or speed. Things move rather slowly in the middle and I just never felt the pressure of time as referred to (more than once). 

This was a pleasant read and enjoyable enough. It just wasn't quite as exciting or interesting as I had hoped. ★★

[If you'd like to decode the spoiler, then copy the coded portion, follow the link, and paste the the code into the box for decoding.]

First line: It was still three quarters of an hour to midnight when Mollock, attired in conventional black, reached the long pier at the foot of West Nineteenth Street and shouldered his way toward the gangplank of the Latakia.

Last line: "I am sure he has better sense."

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

Deaths = 3 (one strangled; one drowned; one natural)

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Killer Loose! (spoilerish)


 Killer Loose! (1953) by Genevieve Holden (Genevieve Long Pou)

Synopsis (from my edition): One young girl died in an alley. Another, not so young, but undeniably beautiful, was murdered in her bath. The other victims were scattered through the city. And all of them word the trademark of the mad killer--a severed right arm...The police believed the murderer had been caught, convicted, and locked up properly in and insane asylum. Then one stormy night he escaped to do his bloody work on yet another girl--lovely young Janet Milton. Surrounded by police, in unfamiliar country, John Anders nevertheless managed to kidnap Janet and her young nephew. Janet's wiles seemed useless against the determined killer--until he grew careless. Then Janet used her last trick and got away. But she made a terrible mistake...

As I mentioned in my last review, I had randomly picked four books off my TBR stacks and, using just the first line (or lines since I misread punctuation on the one I chose), decided which book to read next. I also asked readers and friends on Facebook which line appealed to them. And Holden's first line was a general favorite. So...I decided to read it as well.

First off, I have to admit that woman in danger novels aren't my all-time favorites, though there are some exceptions, and I am especially not fond of those which also put children in danger. This does both. That's the negatives. On the plus side, we do have the sheriff and the police lieutenant doing some very nice standard detective work to unearth the clues that will point to the real killer and helps them to track down Janet and her nephew Tolly before it's too late. The motive is a little iffy for me--I know that the most inconsequential (to the average person) things might set an unbalanced person completely over the edge, but I still had difficulty with the reasoning. 

I did enjoy the two detectives and would definitely be interested in reading a more traditional mystery with either of them conducting the investigation (and no woman/child in danger being tracked all over the countryside). But from what I see on the internet (particularly at Mystery*File), it looks like she preferred Romantic/Gothic suspense-style novels. Still, a good solid mystery of its type. ★★

First line: The dark gray bowl of sky cracked open; light flashed through the fissures, darted down into the tops of distant trees, whitened the roof of a farmhouse on a faraway hill.

Last line: He hung up, and, turning around to find her still  standing behind him, decided that, all in all, it had turned out to be a pretty wonderful day.

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

Deaths = 5 throat cut

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Gaudy Night


 Continuing with my orgy of listening to Dorothy L. Sayers novels on audio, I've listened to the Gaudy Night (1935), the penultimate book in the Wimsey/Vane mystery cycle. As with the other audio reviews, I am not focusing so much on the whole story here. If you'd like to see my thoughts on the novel, please click the linked title above. 


Ian Carmichael gives another fine narrating performance, giving voice to a full range of characters from dons and students at Oxford to American visitors to members of the college staff. This particular round of hearing the story, I was reminded how much I enjoyed the interactions of Lord Peter with Mr. Padgett


For some reason, this affair of a mop and a bucket seemed to have made Padgett Peter’s slave for life. Men were very odd. 

as well as Harriet's encounters with Reggie Pomfret and Peter's nephew Lord St. George. There is a great deal of humor in this novel of poison pen antics at a women's college. Of course, there are also more serious themes from the eternal question of romance between our two main characters to the value of intellectual honesty versus the well-being of a man and his family. Sayers addresses some interesting intellectual subjects under the guise of an entertaining mystery with romantic undertones. Carmichael brings humor, warmth, and depth to his reading of the story. And it is always soothing to reread (or re-listen to) my old favorites. ★★★★

First line: Harriet Vane sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.

Last line: He primly settled his white bands and went upon his walk unheeded; and no hand plucked his velvet sleeve.
*******************
Deaths = one shot

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Parchment Key

 So, for one of the prompts in my Vintage Scattergories Reading Challenge, I'm tasked with randomly selecting four books, reading the first line of each and then choosing one of the four to read--based on that first line. Here are the selections:

Toward morning a little breeze came up and, without walking, Vine burrowed feet and shoulders deeper into the sand. (Death Against Venus by Dana Chambers)

The skating pond at Rockefeller Center was crowded. (The Corpse That Walked by Octavus Roy Cohen)

When the taxi crashed on a New York downtown side street, the radio continued playing. "The forces of fascism and nazism are no new and alien thing in this world of ours," a voice declared rather sententiously into the darkness. (The Parchment Key by Stanley Hopkins, Jr. [Blythe Morley])

The dark gray bowl of sky cracked open; light flashed through the fissures, darted down into the tops of distant trees, whitened the roof of a farmhouse on a faraway hill. (Killer Loose! by Genevieve Holden)

[I'm writing this part on May 7--before I've started my chosen book. I don't know which one grabbed your attention, but as the title of this review indicates, I decided to go for The Parchment Key. The first line makes me wonder how important that taxi crash is to the story and also if nazis/fascists (spies?) might play a part. I haven't yet read a synopsis of the book, so I'm going into this blind. We'll see what I think by the time I get to the final page...]


 The setting is World War II-era New York. Lt. Bob Danvers and Private Peter Marrell are stateside for a bit of well-earned leave. But rest and relaxation is not going to be on the cards for these two servicemen. Danvers and his wife have just visited her sister at Cliff End and can't shake off the feeling that something is not quite right at the home of Alice and Martin Stanford. Oh, there was the poisoning of the Stanfords' prize-winning Great Dane, but it was more than that. A sense of unexplained tension that existed before the dog was killed. There's also the fact that Janny Danvers just lost her job at a prominent magazine--for no discernible reason--and has nearly been run over twice. 

Peter Marrell has earned himself a reputation as a bit of an amateur detective. Danvers met Marrell in England and knew that the private would be on leave at the same time as he. He mentioned the fact to Stanfords, which resulted in the Marrells receiving an invitation to visit Cliff End. Martin Stanford would like Marrell to investigate the dog's death and make sure that it doesn't happen again--especially since a big dog show will be held on the Cliff End grounds the next weekend. More disturbing things happen from a fire in the guest room trash can to the destruction of Janny's B.A. diploma to an outbreak of juvenile delinquency. Between those incidents and various others which seem directed at Alice Martin, Marrell has his hands full and he needs to move quickly to prevent another casualty.

Well, it took nearly the whole book, but I finally found out whether the taxi crash was important. One thing I don't understand (and totally missed if it was explained) is: why the key? I understand why the parchment in question was mutilated. But I don't understand why the culprit left a key shape. Pure destruction of the document was the goal and the bits could have been left to make the same point; the key is superfluous. But that's a minor quibble. The main thing that keeps this story from a higher score is the rather haphazard nature of the opening chapters. It takes the narrative a while to settle down--Hopkins doesn't seem to have been as good at offering several viewpoints in advance of the main story line as some authors. (First, the cop on the scene of the taxi accident; then Bob Danvers, then Peter Marrell...). I wasn't sure who was going to be our primary protagonist for a while.

This is one of the few mysteries I've read from the period where the central issues of WWII are very important but which does not involve spies/espionage (yes, that bit from the radio in the first lines is relevant to the story). I enjoyed the way Hopkins worked the themes into the solution (and how relevant some of the discussion is, unfortunately, in more recent years). I also enjoyed Peter Marrell and was glad that he wound up being our detective. He's not your standard amateur detective and one gets the idea that he just might be involved in intelligence work (despite protests to the contrary). From what I've been able to find on the web, this is the second of only two detective novels by Hopkins (Morley) which is unfortunate because I would have been interested in seeing how her technique developed. ★★ and 1/2.

First line (above)

Last line: "Mummy," she said, may I kiss the nice man good night?"

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

Deaths = 4 (one car accident; one poisoned [Champion Great Dane named: Cliff End Lady]; one pneumonia; one drowned)

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Parcels for Inspector West


 Parcels for Inspector West (1956) John Creasey

The Christmas rush is on at the post office, but the River Way sorting office is going to be short one employee. Someone has murdered the inoffensive, well-liked Tom Bryant when he was on his way home for an early Christmas party. There have been a rash of postal bag robberies and Inspector Roger West has to wonder if Bryant's death is in any way connected. But then there's also the question of why the postal sorter, who makes less than ten pounds a week, had a hundred pounds in his pocket. The fact that the money was thee for the police to find wound seem to indicate that robbery wasn't the motive. 

Then the man's eldest son disappears, someone breaks into his home, and attacks his son's fiancée. What could the Bryants have that is worth killing for? West will need to find out quickly because someone is desperate and ruthless enough that they won't let scruples (their own or anyone else's) get in the way of what they want.

This really is a pretty violent little police procedural (only 157 pages)--what with five people dying from bashing on the head (and several other attacks). But, despite West's focus on the murders, that's not what grabs the attention in the Roger West books. Creasey is terrific with characters and manages to give everyone attention in the short space afforded. We feel like we really know the Bryants--even though some of the family are on stage for extremely brief periods. We become very invested in the family and even more interested in seeing the killers brought to justice. 

The police procedure takes the forefront and less emphasis on puzzling out clues. The most interesting one revolves around the fingerprint. And--if readers are more discerning than I, they will spot a clue given early on that points to the solution behind the mystery of the print. It's planted so casually and so well that I don't even think I need to mark this as a spoiler. Another good mystery plot by a master of police procedurals. ★★★★

First line: The police car turned the corner of the ill-lit suburban street.

Last line: He looked at them speculatively as he sipped his drink

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

Deaths = five hit on head

Thursday, May 5, 2022

The Vanishing Thief


 The Vanishing Thief (2013) by Kate Parker

Georgia Fenchurch owns a quiet little bookstore in Victorian London. She inherited it after watching her parents killed before her eye and she makes enough money to keep herself and two women she helped rescue from unpleasant circumstances. Oh...I forgot to mention...Georgia is also a member of the Archivist Society, a secret group of private investigators who look into matters that the police won't touch. She and Sir Broderick, once her father's partner and now the patron of the society, set up detective service to help bring about justice for others. In Georgia's case, it's her way of atoning for her (what she views as) her failure to save her parents and her responsibility for Sir Broderick's loss of mobility. When her parents were abducted, she ran to Sir Broderick for help. They attempted to rescue the Fenchurches from a burning building, but The roof collapsed and Sir Broderick was crippled by a falling beam.

Since then, Georgia has helped investigate cases that brought her shop assistant, Emma, and their honorary aunt Phyllida (formerly Lady Phyllida Monthalf) into her life. The ladies are settled in for a days' work in the bookshop, when a frantic woman by the name of Edith Carter comes to Georgia with a story of an abduction. She claims that the Duke of Blackford has kidnapped her next door neighbor and that blood was left behind in the man's house. But Nicholas Drake's servants deny the bloodstains (which have since been wiped up) and claim that Drake has gone to visit friends in Brighton. She tried going to the police, but they don't believe her and think she's just a meddling busybody. Georgia is a bit doubtful of portions of the woman's story--her vagueness about what she saw, for one thing--but she's sure the woman really cares for Drake and that something happened. But after asking questions of Blackford and his servants, she's not convinced he's responsible.

The Archivists decide to take up the case and they soon discover that Drake was not a blameless character himself. He's been accused of thievery and it looks like he's been blackmailing some very influential society members. The Duke of Blackford has tried to forbid investigation and says he'll handle things, but he's one of the blackmail victims, so it's certainly possible that he could have had Drake snatched. When Georgia and the Archivists refuse to give up the case, the Duke offers to help--but can he be trusted?

Meanwhile, Georgia has had a glimpse of her parents' killer and spends part of her time trying to track him down. She's vowed to bring him to justice, no matter what it costs her. The Duke offers to help her with that as well. Why is he being so helpful all of a sudden? There are several deaths along the way and it becomes even more difficult to discern who is doing what. The trails lead to blazing finale that's all too reminiscent of the fire that killed her parents and while the mystery revolving around Drake is finally cleared up,  Georgia is left with even more questions about the man who killed her parents.

This was an interesting beginning to a new historical mystery series and I do like the Victorian period. Georgia is a fine character and the supporting cast (comprised of her household and the Archivist members) are also well-drawn. I do tire the trope of the clashing male/female characters who will, of course, wind up romantically involved--it hasn't happened yet, but the plot bears all the hallmarks (and I confess to peeking at the blurbs for future installments and, yep, it's gonna happen). Fortunately, the two characters involved are interesting enough that I think I can get over my tiredness.... ★★ and 1/2 for a strong opening book.

First line: Early spring rain drenched London in a cold damp that either kept customers away or drove them into the bookshop.

Last lines: I knew someday both the Duke of Blackford and the killer would return. I planned to be ready.

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

Deaths: 9 (three burned alive; three poisoned; one strangled; one drowned; one stabbed)

Monday, May 2, 2022

Flying Too High


 Flying Too High (1990) by Kerry Greenwood

The second installment in the Phryne Fisher mystery series set in 1920s Australia finds Miss Fisher with her sleuthing hands quite full. She's first approached by a very nervous Mrs. McNaughton who is quite convinced that her loud, hot-headed son is going to murder his equally loud, hot-headed father in cold blood. The two have clashed regularly ever since the younger man was born and she has found a note where her son says, "If the pater doesn't come to the party, it will all be up. May have to remove him." She's certain that he means remove him...permanently. Phryne isn't so sure, but promises to look into it.

Bill, the son, is a flying enthusiast and, of course, Phryne happens to be a pretty good pilot herself, so she arranges to run across him at the airfield. She exhibits her rather extraordinary flying skill and throws in a bit of wing-walking as a bonus and has his full attention. That's when she tells him how worried his mother is and can't he arrange to argue with his father somewhere where his mother won't overhear. He promises faithfully to do so.

The next thing she knows, Mr. McNaughton has been bashed over the head with a stone and Bill has been arrested as the handiest suspect. Inspector Benson is a man who likes his theories and once he's decided upon one, he manages to make facts fit it or ignore the inconvenient ones that don't. Phryne asks him several inconvenient questions that he passes off as silly ladies' fancies and goes right on believing that he's found his man. Phryne knows better after spotting two clues at the scene of crime and sets off to prove Bill innocent.

Meanwhile, Candida Maldon, a precocious, head-strong six year old has been snatched as she's on her way home from the candy store. A thoroughly nasty man, a slightly less nasty woman, and her less-than-enthusiastic-about-the-whole-thing boyfriend have kidnapped the girl because her father has recently won 10,000 pounds in a sweepstake. And they think he needs to give them half the proceeds. Mr. Maldon's good friend Jack Leonard has heard about (and met) the fabulous Phryne Fisher and suggests that they call upon her to help get Candida back safely. Phryne devises a cunning plan involving an airplane, luminous paint, and a perilous ride (for her) on the back of the culprit's car to track the kidnappers to their hideout. Naturally, since Phryne is the grown-up version of Nancy Drew, her plans to free both Bill and Candida come off and the bad guys are caught and get their just desserts.

Another fun adventure which combines very nice detective work in the McNaughton case with a thrilling car chase in the Maldon kidnapping. We get lots of Bert and Cec as they are sent to track down clues in the former while Phryne lays her plans to thwart the kidnappers. This second installment in the series also introduces us to Mr. and Mrs. Butler and shows us how they acclimate themselves to their rather unusual employer. All in all, a very good entry in the series. ★★★★

First line: Candida Alice Maldon was being a bad girl.

Last line: "You've gone and lost me my murder."

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

Deaths = 2 (one hit on head; one shot)

Sunday, May 1, 2022

April Pick of the Month

 


Another month in the books (😉) and it's time to see what I've read and which mystery stands out among the crowd. I'm still keeping up a good pace--trudging right along. I managed another 22 books in April and all but four had a mystery flair. As long as I keep marching along at this rate, I'll be planting a flag on Mount Olympus on Mars (in my Mount TBR challenge) before the year is out.  I'm still looking for that elusive five-star rating for a new-to-me mystery novel. The only five-star winner this month goes to Berkeley Breathed for his Brand Spanking New Day (in Bloom County). We'll take a look at the mystery star ratings in a moment, but before we hand out the shiny prize, let's take a look at the stats.

Total Books Read: 22
Total Pages: 6,089

Average Rating: 3.34 stars  
Top Rating: 5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 45%
Percentage by Male Authors: 50%
Percentage by both Female & Male Authors: 5%
Percentage by US Authors: 55%

Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  10%
Percentage Mystery: 86%
Percentage Fiction: 91%
Percentage written 2000+: 36%
Percentage of Rereads: 18%
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: 10 (32%)

Mysteries Read:

Take Two at Bedtime by Margery Allingham (3 stars)
Evan's Gate by Rhys Bowen (3 stars)
The Case of the Sapphire Brooch by Christopher Bush (3 stars)
Dead Little Rich Girl by Norbert Davis (4 stars)
The Guest List by Lucy Foley (4 stars)
Raisins & Almonds by Kerry Greenwood (3.5 stars)
The Body in the Fog by Cora Harrison (4 stars)
The Haunting of Horse Island by Carolyn Keene (3 stars)
Nancy Drew Ghost Stories by Carolyn Keene (3 stars)
The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes (3.5 stars)
The Sunburned Corpse by Adam Knight (1 star)
Lieutenant Pascal's Tastes in Homicide by Hugh Pentecost (3.5 stars)
Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers (4 stars)
The Black Mountain by Rex Stout (1 star)
Death & the Professor by E. & M. A. Radford (4 stars)
Luck Be a Lady, Don't Die by Robert J. Randisi (3 stars)
The Black Hand by Will Thomas (3.5 stars)
Always Lock Your Bedroom Door by Roy Winsor (3.5 stars)


As mentioned above, the only five-star winner this month was a non-mystery book. The best that mysteries could do was four stars and we have five books in that garnered that rating: Dead Little Rich Girl by Norbert Davis, The Guest List by Lucy Foley, The Body in the Fog by Cora Harrison, Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers, and Death & the Professor by E. & M. A. Radford. Sayers was a reread, so I'm afraid she's disqualified. Let's take the others in the order read. The Body in the Fog is a fast-paced, middle-grade mystery set in Victorian England. The main characters are an interesting and quick-witted group of street urchins who find ways to help the official police. Lots to like here for young readers and the plot is pretty good for the age range. Death & the Professor has a group of experts in various fields (or a group dedicated to mysteries) with one member who shines at solving the puzzles and who points out the solutions. The set-up has been used before by Anthony Berkeley in The Poisoned Chocolates Case and by Isaac Asimov in his stories about the Black Widowers. Miss Marple does it in the Tuesday Club stories as well. The classic outline is well done in the eight interconnected stories given here...and the Radfords put their own special twist on it. And The Guest List was a wild ride--just over 300 pages and I read it all in one day, and nearly all in one sitting. It's always interesting to read a thriller where the group is cut off from civilization or whatnot by weather; when you just know something's going to happen because help is going to be so long coming. Foley provides lots of motive and plenty of twists and turns to keep the plot moving in this real page-turner. I did figure out the primary motive, though I wasn't sure to whom it belonged. The one real drawback is how few of the characters are really likeable and it was difficult to find anyone worth rooting for. But overall a good, well-plotted story. 

Having three such disparate styles doesn't make our judge's task any easier. Shall we go to a commercial while we wait for the final verdict?


Oh...hey there. Back so soon. Okay. Yes, I know. I need to make a decision. That being the case.... [psst...drum roll please...] April's POM Award goes to....Cora Harrison and The Body in the Fog. I just really enjoyed my visit to Victorian England in the company of Alfie and his cohorts. And I especially appreciate that Harrison was able to give us such a good mystery as well. Let's hear it for Alfie and friends!


May By the Numbers Reviews

 




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May Virtual Mount TBR Reivews

 




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May Mount TBR Reviews

 




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May Vintage Scattergories Reviews

 




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Raisins & Almonds


 Raisins & Almonds (1997) by Kerry Greenwood

When a young Jewish scholar is poisoned in her bookshop, Miss Sylvia Lee is immediately arrested for the murder. The young man owed her money and Detective Jack Robinson suspects there is something of the love gone wrong about the situation as well. But Benjamin Abrahams, an influential Jewish business man and Miss Lee's landlord, doesn't believe it, and he hires Phryne Fisher to get to the bottom of things. She soon learns that a group of young Zionists, including Abrahams's gorgeous son Simon, have been using the bookstore as drop site for secret messages...and it looks like someone left a booby-trapped book for the scholar (also named Simon). Now, all Phryne needs to find out is who and why. 

The Zionists come under suspicion, but Phryne's sure that there's something more going on than the need to furnish the militants with funds. Nearly everyone in Phryne's sphere gets an assignment to help unravel the mystery. Dot interviews the shopkeepers surrounding the bookshop, Bert and Cec get temporary jobs in the area so they can scout for clues, even Phryne's adopted daughters keep their ears to the ground when invited to tea at a home in the Jewish community. And, of course, Mr. and Mrs. Butler keep everyone fed and supplied with cocktails. 

I enjoyed returning to what I like to call the grown-up's Nancy Drew. Just like Nancy, Phryne can do it all--from drive splendid cars to fly air planes to take down bad guys--and has it all--from wealth to looks to an enviable wardrobe. And, of course, she loves a good mystery. I enjoyed learning new things about the Jewish community and watching Phryne navigate the unknown territory. And I always like the way she's willing to research any new topics that come along. The story finds her sitting up late reading up on Zionism and Jewish mysticism. The culprit isn't too hard to spot (we're not teeming with suspects), but it's still good fun to go along for the ride on another fast-paced adventure with Phryne. ★★ and 1/2.

First line: The ranked books exhaled leather and dust, a comforting scent.

Last line: "So I just took them in the next room and asked them to sing me Raisins and Almonds," said Phryne.

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

Deaths = 2 (one poisoned; one stabbed)

Saturday, April 30, 2022

The Case of the Sapphire Brooch


 The Case of the Sapphire Brooch (1961) by Christopher Bush

Ludovic Travers is called in by a previous client. In the first case Paul Farrell had asked Travers to trace a missing wife who had run out on him. At that time, the detective had passed the case on to a colleague who remembers that Farrell suddenly called a halt to the investigation after very little investigation had been done. Now Farrell has asked for help again. This time there are mysterious goings-on in his apartment. Farrell, a talented photographer, was lured out of his apartment by a phone call purporting to be from an agent of an American television company wanting Farrell to do some photographic work. He was invited to the man's hotel to discuss details, but when he asked for the room number he was told that there was no one by that name staying at the hotel. He arrived home to find that someone had been searching through his things and decided to aske Travers to check things out.

Travers makes a more detailed search and discovers what looks like blood mixed with water in the sink and pinkish stains on a towel. Did the searcher cut his/herself in their haste to find whatever they were looking for? He also finds a sapphire and diamond brooch--at first he and Farrell take it to be costume jewelry, but Travers has a hunch and takes it to a friendly jeweler to have it valued. It's not worth a fortune, but the stones are real enough. The next day a dead man is found in the vicinity--shot--and something tells Travers that this is the man who searched the apartment. Who is he? Did he find what he was looking for? And did somebody shoot him for it?

Travers joins forces with his old friends Matthews and Jewle of Scotland Yard and finds himself sorting out these questions as well as five women with likely motives, a crippled nightclub operator and his male nurse/bodyguard, four doctors, a band leader, and a couple of French confidence men. There are also impersonations, blackmail, robbery, and suicide to go along with murder. So, there's plenty to keep Travers busy and out of trouble. 

This was a solid enough mystery--though I really think it took our detectives much too long to figure out the connection with the dropped sapphire brooch. The plot starts out very nicely with the mysterious search of Farrell's apartment, but drags a bit in the middle while we're sorting out the various women and figuring out who's who and how many names she might have gone by. I enjoyed Travers's interactions with Matthews and Jewle and wish that there had been a bit more of them. It would have helped to push this average mystery into a higher ranking. I thoroughly enjoyed an earlier Travers novel (1946) much more and I'm wondering if all of the later mysteries will lack the pizazz of the earlier stories. ★★

First line: Neither Norris nor myself has any set hours at the Broad Street Detective Agency.

Last line: That's why I muttered something to Matthews went quietly out of the room.

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

Deaths = 6 (two natural; one shot; one drowned; two drug overdose)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Black Hand


 The Black Hand
(2008) by Will Thomas

Private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn begin their fifth recorded case at the docks of London's East End. The bodies of an Italian assassin and his wife, who was just as deadly as her husband and never far from his side, are discovered floating in a barrel near the docks. Then Sir Alan Bledsoe, Director of the East and West India Docks, is found assassinated in a very Italian way. Soon Scotland Yard and the Home Office are asking Barker to take up the case, knowing his ability with out of the ordinary cases. More corpses appear around London--as well as notices from The Black Hand, the Sicilian mafia. No one wants the mafia to move into the British criminal classes and Barker must find a way to bring antagonistic parties--the tough dock workers, French Apaches, and the Italian (non-Sicilian, anti-mafia) Camorra together to fend off a common enemy. The job becomes very personal indeed when Barker's chef is attacked and even the home of his lady friend (Llewelyn isn't quite sure of her status in his boss's life) is invaded. Barker's ultimate goal is to bring the mafia mastermind behind all the killings out into the open. He has an idea who the man is, but unless he can flush him out it will be difficult to bring him to justice.

Thomas continues to expand on this new look at the Holmes and Watson/Wolfe and Goodwin detective team.  Lots more action than most of the Holmes stories and Barker is far more mobile and physically involved than Nero Wolfe generally is.  And I continue to enjoy the characters.  They are very  interesting and I particularly like the interaction between Barker and Llewelyn.  They have the chemistry necessary to create a duo to follow in such auspicious footsteps.  In the first book, we learned a lot about Llewelyn's background with more revealed in each installment, but we get just bits and pieces about Barker. Barker is a very private man and it's a good indication of their developing relationship that he finally introduces his assistant to the Widow (his mysterious lady friend). There is still plenty more to be revealed about Barker and I look forward to learning more in the next book.  The other members of Barker's staff from Mac the butler and general factotum to Etienne Dummolard, his French chef, are also well-drawn. We see quite a bit of Etienne this time, though the circumstances are unfortunate for the chef. He's stabbed twice and barely survives the attack, but recovers with full force (and plenty of vim and vinegar).

The book ends with a lovely scrap on the docks--Barker and company taking on the Sicilians. And Llewelyn gets to display his newly learned knife skills. Quite an action-packed final scene. Entertaining and very informative on the early years of the mafia.  ★★ and a half.


First line: I stepped across the sill of the conservatory, glass crunching under the heels of my boots, and steadied my Webley pistol with both hands, reluctant to step inside.

Last line: And so it began again.

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

Deaths = 9 (seven shot; two stabbed) [more--unnamed]