Friday, May 31, 2024

Tied Up in Tinsel

 Tied Up in Tinsel (1972) by Ngaio Marsh
[read by Wanda McCaddon]

Agatha Troy Alleyn, who is finishing up a portrait of her host, is spending Christmas at Hilary Bill-Tasman's country house. Bill-Tasman is from an old family, but had re-purchase the family pile with earnings from a lucky and lucrative business partnership as well as a few big win in the pools.  But it's not a typical country house Christmas. The entire staff of the manor are "oncers"--men who have murdered once, in a kind of brainstorm of passion and have been released from prison for good behavior. The authorities believe they aren't dangerous. Less likely to do it again because they know what being in prison is like now. In addition to this rather unconventional lot of servants, there is the Christmas festivities themselves. A kind of mash-up of druidic/pagan, Christian, and Santa Claus all rolled into a weird bundle. And--once all the guests arrive, there is an odd kind of tension. We have Bill-Tasman's fiancee, the lovely and totally mod Cressida Tottenham, who punctuates every sentence with "you know" and who thinks Alleyn (once he arrives) is "the mostest." We have Bill-Tasman's Uncle Flea (Colonel Fleaton Forrester) and Aunt Bed along with Uncle Flea's former batman cum valet, Moult. And we have honorary uncle & business partner, Bert Smith. None of them are too fond of the staff--especially after a series of practical jokes referencing the style of the various "oncers" is played upon them.

Uncle Flea is all set to do his usual round as a Father Christmas turned Druid when he has one of his "turns" (weak heart) and Moult steps in to take his place. But things get really tense when Moult disappears directly after handing out the gifts. A search of the house and as much of the grounds as is practical in the obligatory snow storm gives no trace of the man. Where is he? Why has he disappeared? he still alive? There was a kind of armed truce between Moult and the manor house staff--and the staff were certain that Moult was behind the practical jokes meant to make things look bad for them. Would they go so far as to do away with the man? Alleyn has been out of the country on special assignment, but he arrives home just in time to be invited to join the house party (ostensibly so he won't have to be alone for the holidays, but Bill-Tasman really wants him to lend the local constabulary a hand). And when Moult's body is discovered, it turns into a real busman's holiday and Alleyn is asked by the local police to take over. 

This is a mixed bag for me. Marsh does the country house set-up well. She's got quite a crew of eccentric characters. The plot is pretty good--but I don't see any way that the reader could know the motive for the killing. I just don't. I knew exactly where the Moult's body would be found as soon as we knew he was missing. And can I say that I found Marsh's attempt to use "hip" late 60s/early 70s slang to be the furthest thing possible from "the mostest." If felt forced--like, you know? Alleyn and Troy are delightful as always, but Alleyn's appearance comes much too late in the game. And we barely get to see Fox at all. A decent mystery for the Christmas season, but not one of Marsh's strongest. ★★★

First line: "When my sire," said Hilary Bill-Tasman, joining the tips of his fingers, "was flung into penury by the great slump, he commenced scrap merchant."

Last line: "I bet you anything you like," said Alleyn.

Deaths = Two (one hit on head; one natural) [for the purposes of the Medical Examiner's Challenge, it's a shame that all those people that the "oncers" knocked off weren't given names....]

Book Challenge by Erin 21.0


Book Challenge by Erin 21.0Book Challenge by Erin 21.0

First and foremost, have fun. Don't stress. No one is being judged, graded, or penalized. Even if you finish only one book the entire challenge, if you enjoy it and it's an accomplishment for you, then that's awesome.

The challenge runs from July 1, 2024 - October 31, 2024. You submit your book list prior to beginning the challenge. Exchanges are accepted for the first round, but not in the bonus round (announced later). No books started before 12 a.m. on July 1 or finished after 11:59 p.m. on October 31 will count. (We live in different time zones--follow according to your own time zone.) Each book must be at least 200 pages long. Audio books are fine too. Read one book for each category. For full details see Erin's page on Facebook (link above). You will need to join the private group to view (link above).

Initial challenge complete:

Book Challenge by Erin 21.0 – Categories

• 5 points: Freebie – Read a book that is at least 200 pages
Death in a Small World by Laura Colburn [Ian McMahan] (207 pages)

• 10 points: Read a book with a two-word title (note: articles A, AN or THE count as a word)
Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr (238 pages)

• 10 points: Read a book from this Goodreads list: *Best Books of 2024 (so far)* (
The Phoenix Crown by Kate Quinn (391 pages)

• 15 points: Read a book because you loved the cover art when you saw the book:
Dance of Death by Helen McCloy (238 pages) [because I love the mapback covers]

• 20 points: Read a book which is set in more than one country (each country should have a significant role, can't be that first page is set in one country, and then rest in another)
Passport to Crime by Janet Hutchings [ed] (420 pages)

• 20 points: Read a book with a protagonist who plays or coaches a sport or is a member of a sports team:
Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac [Edith Caroline Rivett] (233 pages)

• 25 points: Read a book with one of the following words in the title: second, minute, hour, day, week, month or year
The May Week Murders by Douglas G. Browne (220 pages)

• 30 points: Read a book with a mode of transportation on the cover art (e.g. train, car, boat, bicycle, motorcycle, bus, plane…I’d even accept a spaceship!)
The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett (256 pages)

• 30 points: Read a book with a punctuation mark in the title (e.g. comma, apostrophe, hyphen, colon, question mark)
What Rhymes with Murder? by Jack Iams (256 pages)

• 35 points: Read a book with a protagonist who is unemployed or changing jobs
My First Murder from Susan Baker (216 pages) [from parole officer to private eye]

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Murder in Brass

 Murder in Brass
(The Brass Ring; 1946) by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore)

Seth Coleman is a private eye oddity. He's a private eye who hates his job. As soon as he got successful enough, he hired men to run his agency and provide him and his wife Eve with a nice, steady income and left the business. Or so he thought. Eve has other ideas. Eve likes it when her man is being all brainy and brawny in equal measures and tracking down crooks. She especially likes it if she gets to hang out on the sidelines and "help." So, when a mystery pops up in her old home town of Raleigh, she wangles things so Seth will be pulled back into the saddle again. He tries to keep out of it, but he's no match for Eve when she's in full throttle.

Off he goes to Raleigh, with his least favorite ex-operative, Art Bedarian, in tow. Eve fixed that up somehow as well. It seems that Bruce Farr, twenty-something son of a man who used to be brass baron--now deceased, went crazy when he found his old man dead a few years ago. Bruce has been fairly well-behaved though he hates brass with a passion and has outbursts when confronted with the stuff, prefers to sit or lay in the dark and not move at all, and won't interact with anyone. Or wouldn't. Now Bruce has disappeared and his mother fears he's gone off the deep end into homicidal tendencies. When Bruce's doctor is found brained with a brass paperweight, it looks like she might be right. And when another man who looks (in the dusk) like one of the men who ruined Bruce's father is murdered it looks like there is a method to his madness. But Seth isn't so sure that Bruce is really the culprit and he follows a trail that leads to stolen keys and blackmail in order to find out the truth.

So...eight years ago I read my first Padgett book. It was a pretty decent suspense novel (not a Seth Coleman book). Nothing extraordinary, but solid. This....well. This is something else. The basic plot is okay. It's even decently clued. But there isn't really a likeable character in the whole book. No one to root for. Eve is a conniving wench who plays Seth for reasons that aren't worth mentioning. Seth allows himself to be played and you don't even get a sense that he loves this woman enough to allow her to do it. Why on earth is he with her? Why should we care if he solves the mystery she's wrestled him into investigating? There's a reason why Bedarian is Seth's least-favorite operative. He won't listen to the man who is paying him. He uses all his money to buy booze. And he's an irritating little snot in the bargain. The best thing he does in aid of the investigation is to lie through his teeth to get the culprit to fess up. Oh, and Bruce's mother is a real piece of work. And even the victims of the blackmailer make it difficult to sympathize with them.

Kuttner & Moore as Padgett seem to like psychology in their mysteries. My earlier read (The Day He Died) featured a woman under psychological assault by someone who seems to be able to enter her apartment at will. And this one, of course, has a certifiable young man as the central suspect. Padgett does make some interesting commentary on the views about and treatment of psychological patients at the time and this, in part, contributes to the few stars I am willing to give out. And, while I don't like Coleman much in general, I do like the sympathy he has with various characters--even when it's misplaced. He seems like he could be a detective with heart. He just doesn't get to display it much. I can't really say that recommend this one. ★★

First line: On Monday I woke late, with a dim recollection of a bell ringing in the night and a familiar voice that told me to go back to sleep.

Last lines: Very gently I put the receiver back. I crossed the hotel lobby and went out to the parked car.

Deaths = 5 (three hit on head; one natural; one overdose)

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Mystery of the Ivory Charm

 The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (1936) by Carolyn Keene 
[revised text version]

Mr. Stanley Strong, owner of the Bengleton Wild Animal Show asks Carson Drew to investigate some trouble, perhaps illegal activities at his show. But Mr. Drew can't make the appointment and asks Nancy to go in his stead. Nancy, Bess, and George attend the show and meet a young Indian boy who works with the elephants. Rishi is an orphan and his guardian, the elephant trainer Rai, is a cruel man who may be behind the suspicious activities. Rishi stows away in Nancy's car and pleads for her help in getting away from the cruel trainer. As she dives deeper into the mystery, she discovers proof that the young boy may not be an orphan after all and that his father, possibly living in River Heights, may have been a very important man in India. 

This is a standard Nancy mystery--lots of bad guys, mysterious tunnels, a kidnapping or two, a weird lady who goes into trances at the drop of a hat, an ivory charm complete with luck and potions, and a missing treasure. There is a cave-in in the tunnels and Nancy & her father must escape. There is an attack on a professor who had agreed to tutor Rishi in English. The ivory charm is stolen and reclaimed. And...of course there is a happy ending for Rishi and his father and a jail cell waiting for the bad guys. 

Not one of my all time favorites when I read these while growing up. I did like the animal connection and the background from India. Even though we find out exactly what Rai has been up to, I found it odd that Mr. Strong called in the Drews. He doesn't really have any actual incidents of "suspicious activities" that he can tell Nancy about. All he can say is that Rai is "secretive" and thinks it's okay to disobey US laws--but he doesn't give any examples of what laws have been broken. There is an incident where Nancy tells Rai that he can't whip Rishi in America--but corporal punishment by parents (or guardians) was not illegal in the 1930s (when this was written). I didn't think about it this thoroughly when I was nine or ten, but reading it now I think it would have been nice if there were a better hook to get Nancy into the mystery. Still--a decent adventure and a fairly good story. ★★★

First line: Nancy sat in her father's law office, waiting for him to finish a long-distance call.

Last line: Everyone laughed and agreed the idea was a good one.

Deaths = one natural

Monday, May 27, 2024

The New Shoe

 The New Shoe (1951) by Arthur W. Upfield

When the lighthouse inspector makes an unexpected second trip to now automated Split Point Lighthouse on Australia's southeast coast, he discovers the naked body of a man hidden in a little-used storage closet in the wall. There is nothing to identify the body and advertisements of his description yields no help. So, Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte is dispatched to help the local police. Bony has yet to leave a case unsolved and he's confident he'll crack this one. But even with his disguise as a holiday-making sheep farmer, the local inhabitants are reluctant to tell more than they've already shared with the police. But Bony knows that they know something. The only one who will really talk with him is old Ed Penwarden, an expert wood craftsman who specializes in coffins.

Bony wonders why a certain coffin is moved in the night, why the girl was seen struggling with Dick Lake on the cliff top, why Elred Wessex never came home from the war, and what the Bully Buccaneers have to do with it all. It isn't until his new friend, the dog Stug, brings him a shiny new shoe at the cliff's edge that he finds the clues that will lead him onto the correct path and when someone tries to brain him with a rock he knows he's getting close. And if he's not careful, he'll find himself resting permanently in one of Penwarden's beautiful coffins...

Although Upfield employs some of the standard Bony tropes (going undercover, ignoring his chief's urgings to hurry up, etc), this is a slightly different take than most of the detective's cases. Here he finds himself in a more centralized rural area--with far more people around, rather than using his tracking skills in the outback. I really enjoyed his interactions with Penwarden and the empathy he showed to various characters he met during the course of his investigation. And, as always, it's fun to see him melt into another persona as seamlessly as Holmes donning a disguise. ★★★

First line: The evening sky was a true prophet.

"People don't hink about next week, tomorrow....No pride these days...get through work as quickly as possible for as much as possible...and refuse to do any thinkin' because thinkin' hurts." (Mr. Penwarden;p. 30)

"Putting the dead man in that locker don't make no sense to me, and I allus say that what don't make sense ain't worth worryin about. (Penwarden p. 64)

Last line: He walked on, and Mr. Penwarden tarried at the gate to watch him until he reached the main road.

Deaths =  3 (one shot; one natural; one fell from height)


 Amphigorey (1972) by Edward Gorey

An anthology of 15 short illustrated books by the master of creepy, gothic sketches. And creepy is an understatement in a handful of these--children skewered and thrown off buildings and piers. Adults killed in a variety of ways. Edward Gorey was at times a bloodthirsty fellow. But I do adore his drawings and it was great fun to explore these 15 short books. I picked it up from the library originally for The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Gorey murderous alphabet depicting 26 ways that the Tinies were bumped off. [I needed an "A is for Alpha" type book for one of my challenges.] I even got a bonus A-Z with The Fatal Lozenge. This one was about devilry and despondency of all types--not just murder. 

In addition to the dark alphabets, Gorey gives us lessons in what type of pet one ought not to invite into the house, a look at the trials and tribulations of an author, a peek at the types of antics guests get up to in a country house (not suitable for children...), a slew limericks--both naughty and nasty (and some in French), a saga about a group of bugs, the sad story of Charlotte who was orphaned and mistreated, and the travels of Edna, Sam, & Harry on a railroad handcart--among others. 

A fascinating book and an interesting look into the mind of the man who first came to my attention with his rendering of the intro to Mystery! ★★★

First line (1st book): Mr. C(lavius) F(rederick) Earbrass is, of course, the well-known novelist.

Last line (Last book): The wind came and took them through an open window; she watched them blow away.


Deaths: 33 [The Listing Attic = 3]; [The Object Lesson =1]; [The Hapless Child = 2]; [The Gashlycrumb Tinies = 26]; [The Insect God = 1]

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Tenth Life

 The Tenth Life (1977) by Richard Lockridge

 When M. L. & Susan Heimrich's Great Dane Colonel falls ill, they take him to Dr. Adrian Barton's veterinary clinic. His assistant Carol Arnold tells them that the doctor is finishing up a surgery and will be right with them. But after time goes by and no doctor, Inspector Heimrich asks Carol to check how much longer it will be.'s going to be quite a long time because the doctor is dead. It looks like the middle-aged Barton has had a stroke or a heart attack or perhaps a diabetic coma, but all of Heimrich's police alarm bells are going off and he's not so sure. And when the analyst finds curare in the syringe discovered under Barton's body, it winds up his alarm bells were ringing out murder.

But who wanted the veterinarian dead? Did his wife think he was messing around with the pretty young Carol Arnold and decide death was better than divorce? Did Carol's young man decide the "old" vet was too interested in his young assistant. Did one of the pet owners decide to take revenge for their pet's death? Are any of these motives strong enough to warrant murder? Apparently someone had a grievance strong enough to kill over, but will Heimrich find the right one before the killer strikes again? 

This is the last of the Heimrich novels and it was good to see the Inspector and Lieutenant Charley Forniss and Corporal Purvis in one last outing. The mystery is pretty straightforward and it shouldn't be difficult for those well-acquainted with the series to spot the killer. But I don't really read these for intricate plots. I enjoy the comfortable characters who behave in ways I've grown accustomed to and whom I live very much. Heimrich has been at this long enough that he knows when murder has occurred, even when it's not immediately obvious. And I've been reading the Lockridge books long enough that I know which characters are the most likely villains no matter how many red herrings he tries to throw my way. It was interesting to see curare used as the murder method in a modern mystery (pardon me, my Gen X card is showing--the seventies don't seem like they should be 50 years ago...). I thought everyone had given up the "obscure" South American poison long before then. But it does fit with the veterinary setting since it was used at one time (in very small doses) to immobilize animals for treatment. While this isn't the strongest of the Lockridge books, it was a nice comfortable read and a solid ending for the series. ★★★

First line: It was a few minutes after six in the afternoon, and the afternoon was in mid-July.

Last line: "And no stud fee," Susan said, and picked up the tray.

Deaths = 4 (one poisoned; three natural)

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

What Cannot Be Said (spoilers)

 What Cannot Be Said (2024) by C. S. Harris

Fourteen years ago Sir Henry Lovejoy's wife and daughter were killed in Richmond Park. They were found shot and their bodies posed in an eerie parody of crypt statues. Lovejoy was sure that they had captured and hanged the killer, a disturbed veteran found covered in blood at the scene. But Daniel O'Toole went to his execution swearing he was innocent.When Lovejoy is called to Richmond Park to investigate the murder of Lady McInnis and her daughter, found shot and posed in a manner that brings the past rushing into the present, he wonders if O'Toole had been telling the truth after all. Either Lovejoy helped send an innocent man to the gallows or someone is copying the previous murders for purposes of their own.

Lovejoy immediately calls on Lord Devlin, Sebastian St. Cyr, to assist with the case. Hero, Lady Devlin, assists as well. She was friends with Laura McInnis and knew of her work with the Foundling Hospital and behalf of those apprenticed through the workhouses. Lady McInnis's work made her pretty unpopular with some of London's most influential people, including her own husband and Basil Rhodes, the Prince Regent's favorite illegitimate son. But would anyone have taken the trouble to kill both Laura McInnis and her daughter over her work on behalf of London's poor? And, if so, why bother to copy the murders from fourteen years ago. The deeper Sebastian digs and the more questions Hero asks, the more troubling information is discovered within Laura's family and friends. Is the crime more personal than was first thought? But again...why the ties to the murder of Lovejoy's family? Until Sebastian can answer that question, he won't be able to come close to the solution.

***Spoilers ahead--just in reference to Sebastian's over-arching story line. No spoilers about the mystery's solution. But if you haven't read earlier books in the series, you might want to skip this part unless you don't mind learning bits and pieces about Sebastian's history.***

This is still my favorite historical series. It's just about the only series written by a current author that I have to read the next one as soon as I can get my hands on it. I love the way Harris focuses on different aspects of society and ties her mysteries into them. The historical detail is terrific, as one would expect from a historian. In addition to the details about the baby farms (though not called that at the time), workhouses and the conditions for apprentices, this particular outing explores madness and the use of that label to get difficult family members put away. And I continue to enjoy Sebastian and Hero together. I'm very glad he wound up with her--she's every bit his equal and a good match.

There are just a few things that I either get tired of in this nineteen-book series or have questions about. I'm tired of the whole Jarvis warning Sebastian off thing, for one. Every single time. I would absolutely love it if we could have one where Jarvis actually needs his son-in-law to investigate. That would make an interesting character exploration and also expand their interactions. The other things that niggle--can we pretty please find out who Sebastian's father was and whether Jamie Knox was really his half-brother {I find it hard to believe that he wasn't}. I also (and this may be just me) strongly suspect Cousin Victoria of having hurried Hero's mother into the grave. We keep getting references to how Hero doesn't like Victoria but can't give a particular reason--maybe she's getting vibes that her father's new wife is a killer. But, despite these little niggles, excellent series and excellent installment. Do I really have wait almost a year for another one? ★★★★★

First line: "I've figured out what's wrong with women," declared Ben.

Last lines: Then Gibson swallowed hard, set his jaw, and summoned up a jaunty grin. "Ready."

Deaths =  18 (five shot; one hanged; five natural; five stabbed; one beaten; one fire)

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Who Cries for the Lost (audio)

 Who Cries for the Lost (2023) by C. S. Harris
(read by Jenny Sterling)

In this latest chronicle about Sebastian St. Cyr, Lord Devlin, all of London is waiting for news that Wellington and the allies of Britain are ready to unseat Napoleon for the final time. But, although Waterloo lies ahead of him, Wellington seems content to party and seems confident that the Little Corporal will meet him on the battlefield at time of his (Wellington's) choosing. Sebastian isn't so sure and is chafing at the bit to join his former comrades on the continent. However, Sebastian is still recuperating from a nasty leg wound received in Paris over six months ago while on a mission to find his missing mother. And his detective skills are needed at home when the mutilated corpse of Major Miles Sedgewick is dragged out of the Thames.

Sedgewick was known to Sebastian during the war on the Peninsula--known as a man who could be charming, fearlessly brave,  and clever as an undercover officer, but also treacherous, untrustworthy, willing to do anything to get what he wanted. He was also known, under the name Miles Sauvage, to Paul Gibson's French lover Alexi whom he tricked into a bigamous marriage during the war and discarded as soon as they were in England. Given the nature of the wounds on Sedgewick's body, it appears that someone hated him enough to mutilate him--could it have been Alexi? Or one of the other women he deceived, including his wife and his most current mistress, a governess who lost her position because of him? It's also possible that a cuckolded husband (and there were several) may have decided to seek revenge.

But when more mutilated bodies are found--several with ties to the military and/or espionage--Sebastian begins to wonder if the deaths are political. And when he learns that Sedgewick had been carrying a list of those who once spied for Napoleon, he's sure that his father-in-law, Lord Jarvis is involved somehow. But those killed by Jarvis's men are usually killed more cleanly and efficiently. Then, of course, there is Sedgewick's odd interest in folklore and the occult. Sebastian's investigation reveals that many of the mutilations have connections to folklore about werewolves. Did Sedgewick's interest in the occult lead to his death? Sebastian needs to work fast to find out because someone doesn't like his nosing about for clues and has sent him a message threatening all he holds most dear.

My review of the audio novel: This is the last novel I needed to read/listen to before diving into the 2024 release of What Cannot Be Said. I've spent the last year revisiting the previous books so I would be ready for Sebastian's latest adventures. As I mentioned when I read this one last year, this is one of Harris's best and more intricate plots. There are several threads that might lead to the killer and it consists of quite a tangle of lies, deceptions, and apparently contradictory evidence and the intrigue is enough to keep the reader engaged from the first page to the last. I just wish Jenny Sterling as the narrator were as engaging. She's adequate, but she doesn't have the range of voices that Davina Porter displayed and, well, she doesn't seem nearly as engaged in the text. She doesn't speak in a monotone, but neither are the exciting aspects of the events in the text fully represented. The story is a five-star winner, but the audio version doesn't meet that standard.
★★★ and 3/4.  

First lines: The dead man smelled like fish. Rotting fish.

Last lines: And then he said it again in case she couldn't quite believe him. "I mean it."


Deaths = 13 (three stabbed; three natural; three strangled; two fell from height; one shot; one drowned)


Six Queer Things

 Six Queer Things
(1937) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Marjorie Easton has grown weary of her uncle's miserly ways. Yes, he took her in when her parents died. But he begrudges every penny spent on food and is incredibly unpleasant to boot. So, when he complains about how little she makes at her current job (and how little her contribution to the household), she determines to get a better job and get out. So, when the opportunity to do "research" for Michael Crispin and his sister comes up--a position that includes room and board--she eagerly accepts. Ted, her young man, is suspicious of the position which will pay five guineas a week--more than he makes. Marjorie insists that it will be perfectly respectable.

She is a bit surprised to find that the "research" involves seances. But she soon gets used to taking notes at the sessions and is utterly convinced of Crispin's powers when her mother speaks to her and tells things that no one else could possibly know. Before she knows it, Crispin reveals that she--Marjorie--has mediumistic qualities and begins to train her. But as her powers as a medium grow, her demeanor changes and her vitality seems to drain. Ted is worried begins a campaign to get Marjorie out of the clutches of the people he believes to be charlatans...or worse. Then...during the first seance that Ted attends, Crispin is killed, Marjorie disappears, and Ted is accused of murder. Inspector Morgan shows up with a full complement of common sense and begins to unravel the mystery of the "six queer things" found in a locked drawer. Items that he's sure will "reveal all." doesn't really expect to find Victorian Gothic, Wilkie Collins Woman in White vibes echoing so strongly in a Golden Age mystery. Lots of atmosphere. Lots of evil relative, woman in danger stuff. Lots of eager young hero rushing in where angels fear to tread (to not much effect, actually). I wasn't terribly impressed with Inspector Morgan or the queer clues. The best part of the whole book was the opening scenes and the establishment of the characters involved. But the mystery left a lot to be desired and I must confess to skimming my way through in order to finish. I'll probably put this away and give it another try at another time. But right now... ★★ and 1/2 stars (and I'm not sure about the half).

First line: Marjorie's uncle was a fat, white-whiskered accountant who was a popular figure at the Bilford Liberal Club.

Last line: "I shot the bitch dead before I came here."

Deaths = 4 (two accident; one poisoned; one shot)

Monday, May 20, 2024

Death in Five Boxes

 Death in Five Boxes
(1938) by Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr)

Dr. John Sanders is on his way home after a late night of trying to figure out how someone poisoned ice cream. Sanders is a doctor who sometimes analyzed evidence for the Home Office. Standing outside an old house that has been broken up into offices and a flat or two is a young woman who approaches him for help. Her father, Sir Dennis Blystone, has attended a late-night party and she's worried about him. The man is not a party-goer and he doesn't normally drink and before he left for the party he re-did his will, and, well, she's just worried. Will he go with her to check on Sir Dennis?

Sanders, who despite occasionally being in the public eye for criminal cases, normally keeps himself to himself, but he agrees and finds himself in the middle of a very unusual criminal case indeed. Inside the flat of Felix Haye they find Sir Dennis, Haye, Mrs. Bonita Sinclair, and Mr. Bernard Schumann. All four are full of atropine. Three are unconscious and fighting for their lives and Haye is dead--from a swordstick wound in his back. Chief Inspector Masters is sent to figure out who did it and why each of Hayes's guests have odd items in their pockets--from the four watches in Sir Dennis's pockets to Sshumann's inner workings of an alarm clock & convex piece of glass to the bottles of quicklime & phosphorus in Mrs. Sinclair's handbag. His task isn't made any easier when the three poison victims recover and swear that no one could have possibly doctored the drinks. Such bizarre circumstances seem tailor made for Sir Henry Merrivale, so Masters calls upon The Old Man to help get to the bottom of things.

I really enjoyed the set-up at the beginning of the book and the apparent impossibility. And the explanation of how the deed was done was pretty satisfying--and I'm sure much more surprising in 1938 than it was now. A couple of things do bother me though. Why did Sir Dennis redo his will? That's never explained. In fact, after Marcia Blystone lists that as a reason why she's worried about her father, that little detail never gets mentioned again. I'm also not sold on the motive. That wasn't nearly as satisfying as the means. But overall, a good outing. I always enjoy Masters and Merrivale and Sergeant Pollard almost steals the show with efforts to try and do Masters in the eye. Just when he thinks he's gotten ahead of his superior, something comes along to take the wind out of his sails. ★★ and 1/2.

First line: At one o'clock in the morning Dr. John Sanders closed his laboratory.

Last line:"[Redacted]," said Marcia. "I'm sorry. I beg your pardon."

Deaths = 2 (one stabbed; one poisoned)

Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Owl in the Cellar

 The Owl in the Cellar (1945) by Margaret Scherf

Charlie Murphy is a young man with all kinds of troubles. He's home for a vacation, but his dreams of time to do whatever he wants whenever he wants die quickly. His mother is trying to set him up with a young woman who gives him a pain in the neck. Another young woman is dogging his footsteps wherever he goes. And the gangly, overall-wearing young woman next door keeps dragging him into murders. Well, not exactly. Charlie comes home late one evening to a mother who wants to know where he's been and who he's been with (and how on earth are you going to be awake enough to go play golf with Constance [the pain-giver] tomorrow?). Oh, and by the way, would he take care of the exotic bird in cellar before he goes to bed? Huh?

But Charlie, ever the dutiful son, goes down and finds an ordinary owl. He opens the cellar window and tries to encourage the bird to fly away. The owl has other ideas. He's taken a fancy to Charlie and refuses to go. So, Charlie leaves the owl and the open window and toddles off to bed. Later, he hears a noise and goes to investigate. The owl is still there...and so is a dead man dangling from the open window. When the police arrive in the person of Lieutenant Ryan, a wheelbarrow track leads directly to the house next door and blood is found on the Regents' wheelbarrow. The bodies start piling up and it begins to look pretty bad for someone in the Regent household. Charlie has developed a soft spot for Blue Regent (is that a name or what?) and plays hero, apparent accomplice, and amateur detective all at once. But is it possible his lady love is a killer after all?

As with most of the Margaret Scherf mysteries I've read, this one is great fun and a little off-the-wall. Charlie's mother is bigger-than-life Irish and the most meddlesome woman ever. If I were Charlie, I'd be moving out pronto. Of course, he's got bigger troubles than "Mayme" (as he calls her)--what with trying to dispose of guns and a second murdered man and Lt. Ryan implying that he might get locked up at any minute. But Charlie and Blue come through in the end and help Ryan nab the culprit. I had a sneaking suspicion "who" that was--but I didn't realize who the "who" was. (I promise that makes sense when you read the story...). Lots of frantic to-ing and fro-ing by Charlie and Blue and Daffy (Blue's sister) as well as others. Lots of bullets flying (though few hitting anything vital). Lots of clues and red-herrings and action. Just plain lots of fun. ★★★★

First line: "There's a bird in the cellar, Charles."

There was nothing of the silent, enigmatic sleuth about Ryan. He did all of his thinking out loud, and for him out loud meant halfway across the harbor.

Last line: Audrey is the worst sister anybody ever had.


Deaths = 5 (one stabbed; three shot; one natural)

Friday, May 17, 2024

Crows Are Black Everywhere

 Crows Are Black Everywhere (1945) by Herbert O. Yardley & Carl Grabo

Peggy Cameron is the spoiled daughter of an influential newspaper publisher. But she is determined to be a good reporter and flies to Chungking China to get the real story of the Sino-Japanese battles of the early years of World War II. The U.S. hasn't entered the war yet and is actually more pro-Japan--still sending materials and doing business with the country that would soon send war planes to Pearl Harbor. The officials all want to shuttle her through official Embassy channels, but Peggy knows they won't show her what it's really like on the ground in China. On the way in, she makes friends with Ted, the pilot, who promises to get her in contact with the Americans in China who are trying assist the Chinese efforts to repel the Japanese who will in turn help her interview Chinese citizens. 

Although she says she wants to report the facts, she does come with a certain bias and she'll have to learn to overcome it if she's going to do her job properly. It isn't long before she's in the thick of things--just when there are rumors of Chinese traitors and even Americans helping the Japan bombers find their targets in the blackout. She meets Bill and Henry, Americans helping to train the Chinese fighters, and Tina, Olga, Mei-Ing are women of various backgrounds (mixed, Russian, Chinese) who are also assisting the cause. There are others whose loyalties are uncertain. When Henry intercepts coded messages originating from their location and directed at the Japanese, the hunt is on for the traitor(s), but can they find them before a devastating attack?

Herbert Yardley was a code breaker in World War I. He also served as a personal adviser to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and later as an adviser to the Canadian government. So, he knows his onions when it comes to codes and situation in China. Carl Brabo was a professor of English at the University of Chicago. The story is a pretty standard war-time spy thriller novel. But it was definitely interesting to see a World War II novel from the American point of view, but set before America officially entered the war. And so many of the war-time thrillers I've read have been set in the European theater, so it was also interesting to have one set in Asia. Pretty good characterization and good background on a part of the war I didn't know. ★★

First line: For three hours the plane had been flying over the Rice Bowl of southern China on its way to Chungking.

"Indiana is in America," Ho replied loftily as to one unenlightened. "It is a city famous for its swear words. So Number Three told me."

Last lines: "No," Bill said. "I don't think you'll forget. And none of us will forget either. I won't forget, Peggy."

Deaths =  7 (three shot; one natural; three bombed)

Twice Retired

 Twice Retired (1970) by Richard Lockridge

Professor Emeritus Walter Brinkley bounces his way into another murder investigation. That's the way this round little man is described as moving about...he never just walks into a room; he always bounces. He may be emeritus, but he definitely hasn't lost his vitality. This time Brinkley returns to Dyckman University for a book party. He's finally finished and published his A Note on American Regional Accents (having grown from a "note" to a 515 page tome) and the university wants to celebrate him in proper style. But getting to the Faculty Club is quite an ordeal--it's 1970, the Vietnam War is on, and the undergraduates are protesting the war, the establishment, and the police. Roughly in that order. Police are trying to direct traffic away from the center of campus and if the good professor really insists on going to the Faculty Club...well, then he'll have to detour quite a ways around. After the party, Brinkley returns to his car to find a dead man in his backseat. The body is General Philip Armstrong, chair of the board of trustees and a strong believer in putting down the protestors. Someone has put a pig mask on him, making it appear that the general was the target of the protestors--the pig masks had been used to mock the police. Lieutenant Stein and Assistant District Attorney Bernie Simmons have several avenues to follow--from an attack by one of the protestors to a disgruntled professor who just found out he's not getting tenure due to Armstrong's influence to family members who may not have been as devoted to the general as they would like everyone to believe.

I really love the Lockridge mysteries with the bouncy little professor. He doesn't show up quite as much throughout this story, but the opening with him and his little cameos later are perfect. It is somewhat fortuitous that I picked this one up just now. The background for the story is the deep unrest on college campuses and the protests taking place across the country. Here at the university where I work (and at many across the U.S.) we went through a period of protest at the end of the semester. And our brilliant (read that in the most sarcastic tone you can manage) university president decided to call out the state riot police on students peacefully protesting in (take note of this) the designated place on campus for protests and free speech. We had snipers on the roof of our student union building with their scopes on our students. It was appalling. [sorry for the momentary soap box moment...]

The students in Twice Retired aren't peaceful. They're openly mocking and baiting the police and administration. They're throwing things and destroying property. There's plenty of opportunity for someone to get hurt and for someone to get killed. The question is were they killed because of the protests, as a direct statement on the part of the protestors--or were the protests used as a cover for something more personal? After all of the characters are introduced and interviewed after the murder, it isn't difficult to answer that question. The interesting part is following Stein and Simmons to see how they will catch the culprit--how will they break an alibi? Very entertaining. ★★★★

First lines: Walter Brinkley searched his vocabulary, which was more extensive than most, and came up with the word. The word was 'pudgy.'

Last line: It was almost, Bernie thought, as if she's running to open the door.

Deaths = 5 (two natural; one wartime; two hit on head)