Friday, June 28, 2024

Still Life


 Still Life (2005) by Louise Penny

Jane Neal, retired teacher, was much loved and respected in her small community of Three Pines (a suburb of Montreal). She was a good teacher, a kind woman, and someone you'd want on your side in moral battles. When a group of masked boys threw manure at a cafe owned by a gay couple, Jane stopped them. When someone needed an ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on, Jane was there. So, why was Jane killed by an arrow one early morning? At first it looks like it may have been a hunting accident, but when Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Montreal-based force takes up the case and makes it clear that it would be better to admit the accident--no one comes forward. And it soon becomes clear that no one using the type of bow that was used could have possibly have thought Jane Neal was anything but a human being. So, murder it is. Now Gamache just needs to find out why Jane was out on that trail early in the morning without her dog; why she finally decided to submit her artwork for the local competition and what that has to do with her death; and why she suddenly let her friends come further into her house than the kitchen. Oh--and of course, he needs to find out who had access to the older-style bows and who could shoot them. And who could have had such a deep grudge against this apparently harmless old woman.

This is the first book in the Inspector Gamache series and Penny's debut book. It was also my first introduction to the series after hearing many of my friends say how good it was. I read somewhere that Gamache is a modern-day Poirot. Well...I wouldn't necessarily say that. Gamache is a good detective. He has an eye for detail and he knows how to read people. He gets to the heart of the matter without being caught by distractions and without jumping to conclusions (unlike the little trainee who's with his team and is both insecure and very full of herself at the same time--and very annoying to boot*). He really sells the mystery and he's surrounded by good people (with the one exception just mentioned) who work well together.

Penny also does a good job with the plot. It's intricate enough to keep the reader guessing till the end and she leaves no loose ends. A really strong debut novel. ★★★★

*Gamache has enough of her attitude and sends her back to Montreal. I really hope she doesn't come back into the series.

First line: Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. [Canadian Thanksgiving]

Last lines: Life was far from harried here. But neither was it still.

*********************
Deaths = 3 (one stabbed; one poisoned; one logging accident)

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Fer-de-Lance


 Fer-de-Lance (1934) by Rex Stout [read by Michael Prichard]

This is where it all began...at least as far as Rex Stout was concerned. Robert Goldsborough has written a book telling about how Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe met--which I have, but haven't read yet--but Fer-de-Lance is the first book in Stout's series about the crime-solving duo of West 35th Street. This debut sets up many of the Wolfe/Goodwin tropes--from Wolfe's love of orchids to his habit of storing the beer caps in his desk drawer; from Archie's needling Wolfe about putting his genius to work to make ends meet to his ability to report verbatim; from Fritz Brenner's superb cooking to Theodore Horstmann's tender-loving care of the orchids in Wolfe's plant rooms; and Wolfe's main three operatives Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather. The only thing missing is Inspector Cramer (who doesn't show up until The League of Frightened Men).

Fred Durkin arrives at the brownstone to ask a favor of Wolfe. His wife's friend Maria Maffei is certain that something terrible has happened to her brother, Carlo. He had been telling her of good fortune and promised to meet her and pay back a loan she had made to him. But he never showed. Wolfe suggests that Carlo has run off with all the cash, but Maria insists she knows her brother better than that and manages to convince him the case is worth checking out--at least superficially. He sends Archie to Carlo's rooming house to look for clues, but it isn't until he gets an answer to a chance question from Anna Fiore, a maid in the house who overheard Carlo's last phone call, that he really believes there may be something to investigate. What he and Archie learn during this initial investigation leads Wolfe to suspect a connection to the recent death of Peter Barstow, president of Holland College. All he has to do is convince the officials to dig Barstow up and prove him right. Then maybe he can get someone to pay him to find the murderer. 

This is a great introduction to the Wolfe stories even though the characters are still a little rough around the edges--Wolfe is more pompous and apt to use the largest word in existence than in later books (not that he can't be/do both then too) and Archie is far less polished. And the story goes on a bit longer than necessary; we really don't need Wolfe to take a little vacation in the middle. But even with that, it's a good story with interesting characters and a nice murder method. Would it really work? Maybe--but it is chancy. 

I've read this before (long ago and far away) and had a great deal of fun listening to Michael Prichard read it to me this time. I have listened to several of the Wolfe stories as read by Prichard and his voice is what I hear in my head for Goodwin when I read. I've seen the series with Timothy Hutton in the role (and enjoyed it as well), but Prichard's voice is what sticks with me. Good mystery and even better audio edition. ★★★★

First line: There was no reason why I shouldn't have been sent for the beer that day, for the last ends of the Fairmont National Bank case had been gathered in the week before and there was nothing for me to do but errands, and Wolfe never hesitated about me running down to Murray Street for a can of shoe polish if he happened to need one.

Last line: "Indeed," Wolfe murmured.
********************

Deaths = 4 (one poisoned; one stabbed; two plane crash)

Monday, June 24, 2024

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine Aug 1959


 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine Aug 1959 by Ellery Queen (eds)

Another in a bunch of EQMM's I've picked up over the years. And, as with all of the collections, it is a mixed bag. Two of the stories (Pentecost & Lord Dunsany) I've read before. Some are so short as to barely qualify, though "Smoke Rings" by Craig Rice has a nice little kick in the tail end. The best of the stories are "The Seeds of Murder" (an apparently impossible crime--if you believe the detective that the most obvious suspect didn't do it) and "Look to Your Skeletons." ★★  for the collection.

"The Ring in the Fish" by Charlotte Armstrong: Sally Cassidy, in a fit of wifely virtue, offered to filet the fish that her husband caught that day. When she slit it open and found a diamond ring, she felt that virtue had been rewarded. But her husband, being an honest man, thought they should advertise for an owner first. If not claimed, she'll be able to keep it with a clear conscience. Will Sally be able to keep the ring out of the clutches of a couple of con artists and keep it as planned?

"The Girl Who Lived Dangerously" by Hugh Pentecost (Judson Philips): A man who runs rigged carnival games finds himself caught up in a much more deadly game when his helper is killed--apparently over a poker game gone wrong. [two shot; one hit on head]

"The Seeds of Murder" by Rufus King: When Mikhail Natakova is shot in his study, there are many suspects. Each member of his family had monetary reasons for wanting him dead. But the prints in the wet cement outside his study make it seem that only one of them could have done it. But is that true? (one shot; two natural)

"Jeeves & the Stolen Venus" by P. G. Wodehouse: Bertie's Aunt Dahlia wants him to steal a certain painting to ensure that she will receive the serial rights to a famous author's latest novel. And of course the plot is even more intricate than that. But with the help of the inimitable Jeeves, Bertie will be able to help his aunt as desired.

"The Case of the Two Questions" by E. X. Ferrars: Uncle Jonas, retired investigator, relates one of his first cases. The questions:#1 Can someone run outside and shoot someone and run back inside within five minutes? #2 Can someone drive through a watersplash without getting their tires wet? But Uncle Jonas knows those aren't the most important questions.(one shot)

"Rich Little Poor Girl" by Dick Ashbaugh: When a mink coat gets mixed up in a donation basket, the two teenage girls who are sent to return the coat to the rightful owner find themselves mixed up in a plot to extort a huge sum of money from the owner's mother.

"In the Morgue" by Dashiell Hammett: The discovery that his wife was killed in a theater fire isn't the only shock in store for Walter when he goes to the morgue.(one fire)

"Three Men in a Garden" by Lord Dunsany: The "mystery" of the murder in an Irish garden--and the real mystery to me is why it's been included in this collection. There's no mystery--we know who did what. But we never learn the "why" behind the initial set-up. [one shot]

"Widow's Mite" by C. B. Gilford: A 70-year widow decides that, rather than live her last years in poverty, she's going to use her ingenuity and a bit of nerve to live it up a little. It helps that other people are a little gullible and eager to get revenge on rivals. (one natural)

"Smoke Rings" by Craig Rice: Who ever heard of woman shooting her husband just because he blows smoke rings? And why is the psychologist so sure that John J. Malone will be able to get her off? (one shot)

"Look to Your Skeletons" by Eva-Lis Wuorio: Willie likes to invite his "friends" to visit periodically--so he can give the skeletons in their closets a good shake. But this time one of them has had enough. It may add another skeleton to their closet, but at least Willie won't be around to expose it. (one stabbed)

First line (1st story): Sally Cassidy found the ring in the fish.

Last line (last story): "Let's get out of here, Jeff," he said.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

A Vacation to Kill For


 A Vacation to Kill For by Eunice Mays Boyd with Elizabeth Reed Aden

Olive Wallace is your typical wealthy older woman with various relatives and hangers-on who all expect to be remembered in her will. She also (per usual) entertains herself with regularly writing them in and out of her will, depending on who has fallen out of favor most recently. And, in classic detective fiction fashion, she gathers them all around her--though not a country house to announce the latest will re-write. Olive decides to do things in style and takes them all on a long. leisurely bus tour through post-WWII Europe. 

They're headed for the ancient fortress city of Carcassonne in the South of France when the accidents begin. When the group stops on a bridge near Avignon, Olive falls in to the river and only the quick action of Henri, their driver, saves the woman who cannot swim. Then at the Nimes Colosseum, she falls down the stairs but is again rescued before plunging all the way to the bottom--this time by her secretary Brian. Her friend and companion Allegra tries to convince her that these are more than accidents, but she isn't convinced until she narrowly escapes being run over by a bus after someone gives her a shove. The worst happens when a young woman is stabbed to death near their hotel. A young woman who was wearing the suit that Olive had given away after it was damaged in one of the "accidents." Allegra does her best to play amateur detective, but will she be able to discover the killer before s/he hits the correct target?

Slow to start--introducing all the characters and fitting them into place, but the pace seems to fit with the leisurely bus trip through the French countryside. It's a solid mystery with plenty of suspects, but I am a bit disappointed in Allegra, our self-styled amateur detective. She's not really very good at it and the solution has to wait until Olive's lawyer (whom she has summoned) arrives on the scene. I much prefer Boyd's grocer sleuth, F. Millard Smyth. He actually does some detecting worthy of the name. It's also a bit disconcerting that after the slow start and slow pace we have a fairly abrupt ending. The lawyer shows up and just solves the mystery--no real detecting on his part either. The descriptions of the fortified city are fantastic as are the descriptions of the countryside along the way. The plot itself is pretty good though I would have liked a bit more clues (real and false). All told this is an entertaining afternoon's read. ★★ 

This novel's manuscript (along with others) was found among Boyd's things after her death and her goddaughter, Elizabeth Aden, has worked to prepare the stories for publication. I'm grateful to her for sending me a copy to review. I recommend you check them out--particularly those featuring F. Millard Smyth. I accepted this free copy with the understanding that I would provide and honest review and have received no other compensation of any kind.

First line: The rain began to fall.

Last line: "Now we must call the police."
*****************

Deaths = two stabbed


Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Dragon Boat Mystery


 The Dragon Boat Mystery (1943) by John Bechtel

Doreen Matthews, Mary Chan, and their group of friends are visiting Mr. Chan's Golden Dragon Curio Shop. They are discussing the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival, an event where they plan to hand out tracts and copies of the Gospel. They ask Mr. Chan for details about the Festival--especially details about what a dragon boat looks like. To give the girls an idea, he takes them to the back of his shop to show them a replica and when a rat startles Mary the boat is dropped--revealing a hidden message. And when the message is translated from Chinese, it indicates that there is a treasure waiting for the one who will diligently seek it. 

 The boat originated in Ng-chow (Wuchow), city on the river where the festival runs, and the group decide to take their tracts there and then when the festival is over they will hunt for more clues to the hidden treasure. Along the way, they will run into an unscrupulous rival antique dealer as well as a notorious pirate named Scarface. The girls and their parents face danger and are imprisoned in the secret hiding place, but their faith never wavers and they're sure that good will triumph and the treasure will belong to its rightful owner.

John Bechtel, an American missionary, developed the plot of this mystery for young people while he was interned in a Japanese concentration camp at Stanley, Hongkong, China. Later, when he was repatriated to the United States, he wrote the book as part of his recuperation process. Given his missionary roots, the book is steeped in Christian themes--focusing on a group of Christian girls, their parents, and the Chinese girls they have shared their faith with. Bechtel uses these particular characters to spread the Good News while telling a mystery/adventure that will keep kids interested. It's a fairly simple mystery for adults and, keeping the time of writing in mind, there are stereotypes that wouldn't go down well today--despite the author's best efforts at keeping a respectful attitude. A pleasant story on the whole, particular for those who share the religious viewpoint.★★

First line: Doreen gave a mighty tug, extracted a copy of The Hongkong Evening Star from the pocket of her school jacket, deliberately unfolded it, and read: "These men were drowned and a number of others were seriously injured Wednesday afternoon, when, during a practice contest, a dragon boat was overturned in a swirling whirlpool caused by the rapid, swollen waters at the juncture of the Cassia and West Rivers.

Last line: "Of all the treasure we found in haunted house, most valuable treasure were two Precious Jewels--Mr. Sin and Mr. Pan."
*******************

Deaths = one drowned

Friday, June 14, 2024

The Golden Eagle Mystery (spoilerish)


 The Golden Eagle Mystery (1942) by Ellery Queen, Jr.

Djuna and his Scottie dog Champ are all set to spend a quiet summer on the coast with "Aunt Patty" (everyone calls her that). He's looking forward to swimming and sailing and making new friends...and finding out what's bothering Aunt Patty. Miss Annie Ellery (with whom he lived) had sent him to Aunt Patty with instructions: 

Go and find out what the trouble is at Aunt Patty's house. There's trouble of some sort. She may even be in great danger. But, if you ask her, she will probably say there's nothing wrong at all. Just go there and keep your ears open....Listen to what her neighbors say there in Stony Harbor, and find out for yourself what is worrying her. No one need ever guess that a boy like you is a real detective.

So, he follows instructions. He makes friends with a boy named Billy. He meets the neighbors. He begins to suspect that Aunt Patty's worries are money-related. And up in Aunt Patty's attic, he and Aunt Patty finds a bunch of letters from her great-grandfather with clues to a missing treasure. He also finds some slips of paper that refer to a golden eagle as well as a nest egg being "put  where it be." When egg-shaped items begin disappearing from Aunt Patty's house, he's sure that there is something valuable to be found and he enlists Billy's help in tracking it down.

***********Possible Spoiler Ahead!************

As with most of these Ellery Queen, Jr. stories, the mystery is pretty straight-forward and doesn't take much guesswork. To be quite honest, all I needed was the title and I knew what it was all about. But also as is generally the case, the characters are engaging and there is adventure and mystery enough for the young readers who are the target audience for these books. Djuna and Champ are great leads and the friends they make along the way in their adventures are well-drawn. A good solid mystery. ★★

First line: The new boy closed the door behind him and looked up and down the unfamiliar street.

Last line: "Gee," he said, "Alberto's going to miss Champ a lot!"
****************
Deaths= one drowned

Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Phantom of Pine Hill


 The Phantom of Pine Hill (1965) by Carolyn Keene

Nancy, Bess, and George head to Emerson University on the Ohio RIver to celebrate the school's June Week with their steady dates Ned, Dave, and Burt. But when they arrive at their motel, they find that there has been a mix-up--their reservations weren't recorded and there is "no room in the inn." Ned comes to the rescue and arranges for the girls to stay with an older gentleman and his housekeeper. There's even a bonus mystery thrown in to keep Nancy busy if the June Week activities don't fill up the hours. John Rorick aka "Uncle John" is a great friend of the university and its students and he is more than happy to give the girls a place to stay--especially if Nancy can help with his mystery.

For some time now, a phantom has been entering Uncle John's house and stealing things. All the doors and windows are locked and there seems to be no way for anyone of flesh and blood to have gotten in. Mrs. Holman, the housekeeper, is sure it is a phantom because only something that could walk through walls could get in. Not to mention the ghostly lights she's seen bobbing around up on Pine Hill. When Uncle John tells them a family story about lost treasure on a river boat--fabulous wedding gifts that sank in a nearby cove on the Lucy Belle, Nancy is sure the phantom must be after clues to the treasure. By the time she and her friends are through, they will discover how the phantom gets in, locate all of Uncle John's missing property...and find his family's missing treasures.

The Phantom of Pine Hill wasn't really one of my favorites when I read these as a young girl. And I'm not sure why. It has so many good things--a phantom, a lost treasure, a hidden passage, and even a boat race. As with most of Nancy's stories, it's not difficult to figure out who the bad guy/s are, but the solution to the entry into the library isn't quite so obvious--in part, because Nancy initial checks the area and can't find anything. Reading this now, I appreciate all the fun factors in the story a lot more and it was nice to see Burt and Dave get a little more action this time. Good story. ★★★★

First lines: Nancy Drew stared incredulously at the motel clerk. "But I made reservations!"

Last line: "All of us forget things now and then--even," he added, patting her hand, "the best of young lady detectives!"
*************

Deaths = one drowned (there were others, but only one named)

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Old Hall, New Hall--Or "Treasure, Treasure...Who Get's the Treasure?"


 Old Hall, New Hall (1956) by Michael Innes (J. I. M. Stewart)

Colin Clout has returned to his alma mater in search of job. Not that one has been advertised, he's just sure that one will magically open up for him. And, lo and behold, it does. He maneuvers his way into the Shufflebotham Fellowship--the only requirement of which is to take on a few students in a subject called "Higher Literary Form" and to write a biography of a subject that will be given to him after acceptance. It winds up that he is appointed to write the biography of Sir Joscelyn Jory (circa early-mid 1800s), of the Jories from whom the buildings for the university had been purchased. Clout doesn't expect the research to be riveting (but then neither does expect it to be too onerous). But...

It seems that Sir Joscelyn and his brother Edward had gotten themselves into an epic wager. Joscelyn was an amateur archaeologist in a way--digging up things to bring home. He had designed a mausoleum which was to serve as sort of museum for his collection. Edward was a collector of sorts as well--a collector of feminine beauty all round the world. Friends of the brothers had egged them on in a wager where each brother was to produce the finest specimen from their collection that they could and Sir James Dangerfield (first of the friends) was to judge whose was better. Joscelyn was supposed to have produced a fabulous treasure and Edward a beauty like never seen before. But odd things happened, a swap was supposed to have taken place, and, to cut a long story short, the treasures disappeared. So...

Instead of biographical research, Clout, the Jories, various academics and hangers-on are all on a hunt for the fabulous treasure. Clout thinks he's working with Olivia Jory (descende, a lovely young woman whom he met on his first day back and with whom he's fallen in love. He has a rival in George Lumb, another academic type who had also wanted the Sufflebotham position. There's an American academic wandering in and out of the picture. Professor Gingrass, the man who hired Clout, wants to find the treasure for the prestige. The Jories want to find it--but the question is whose descendants should get to have it? Joscelyn's--because he produced it--or Edward's--because of the rumored swap? Soon the entire grounds are riddled with holes as Professor Gingrass arms the undergraduates with picks and shovels and a mandate to find the treasure!

This is not, in my opinion, one of Innes's successes. There is too much build-up to the action (such as it is). It takes way too long to get to the treasure-hunting and even then the hunt isn't particularly exciting. There's a bunch of digging, but the actual discovery of the treasures takes place completely off-stage. He makes an effort at academic satire, but it doesn't really come off. The writing is dense and convoluted--the only defense of it could be that he was making fun of dense, convoluted academic writing but it doesn't really approach good parody. He has done much better with his commentary on academic life in The Weight of the Evidence, Death at the President's Lodgings, and to a certain extent The Open House (which does odd and elliptical rather well).

Optional reasons for my lack of enthusiasm for this particular Innes academic-oriented "mystery." Possible spoilers ahead....

1. This is Innes as his most whimsical and elliptical and I just wasn't in the mood. Or I'm getting too old for this nonsense.*
2. I've just gotten tired of Innes's whimsy and elliptical style.
3. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
4. There really isn't much of a mystery here and, though deaths are mentioned, there are no murders. And...it's really obvious that the "villain" of the piece is really the "villain" of the piece. (Quotes because even the villain isn't really all that villainous.)
5. Clout, Lumb, Olivia, and Sadie (our main four) are all pretty annoying people.
6. The "twist" regarding one of the treasures was heavily telegraphed...I'm surprised that Clout was surprised.
*7. Nonsense alert...Clout and Lumb's rivalry is meant, I think, to be funny. Looking at it from this side of fifty, I'm appalled at how quickly they adjust their sights from one young woman to the next. If I'm Sadie, I certainly wouldn't be flattered.
8. All I could think about when Clout met Olivia and immediately fell in love with her while sheltering her under his umbrella was the song "Bus Stop" by the Hollies. "Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows under my umbrella." Except it didn't--love didn't grow, not matter how much Clout deluded himself about Olivia's interest in him.

I've given it two stars...but it's possible I'm being generous. ★★

First line: It didn't seem much to have changed, Clout's authentic University, during the four years he had been away.

It hasn't come to them yet that they may need books. They think getting a degree is a matter of attending lectures and writing down as much of them as they can remember afterwards. (Sadie Sackett; p. 45)

It was clear that Professor Milder had evolved principles of discourse which approximated his conversation to the behaviour of bodies in outer space. Once launched, there was no reason at all why it should ever stop. (p. 91)

And English gentleman cannot, of course, steal. But it seemed to me only too likely that Joscelyn's acquiring of these costly objects had been not unattended by some measure of legal irregularity. (letter from Sophia Jory; p. 118)

Last line: But they glowered at each other from time to time as they walked.

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

Deaths = 3 (two natural; one hanged)

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Reading Baseball: The Abra Cadavers




 Somehow I missed opening day when Rick Mills, that crafty creator of reading challenges and sometimes literary team captain, made the call for team members for one of the finest ball clubs around...the Abra Cadavers. So, I've grabbed my cleats and am heading out to the field. If you'd like to join the team, just prove your skills by fulfilling the following plate appearances (reading requirements). You too could be an All Star! For full details, check out Rick's page: HERE


I've got my cleats on and have already started swinging.

My Plate Appearances
Single: Death, My Darling Daughters by Jonathan Stagge
 
Double: 2 books by C. S. Harris
When Blood Lies
Who Cries for the Lost
 
 
Triple: 3 books by John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson
The Emperor's Snuff Box
The Unicorn Murders
Death in Five Boxes

Homerun: 4 titles by Frances &/or Richard Lockridge
Death Has a Small Voice
Death Takes a Bow
Write Murder Down
Twice Retired
 
Cycle: completed previous four (done)

Foul: The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray (Amy Vincent)

Bunt: "Jericho & the Silent Witness" by Hugh Pentecost
 
Stolen Base: What Cannot Be Said by C. S. Harris (read by Sue C.)

Strike Out: The Rocksburg Railroad Murders by K. C. Constantine

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Brother Sebastian at Large (mini-review)


 Brother Sebastian at Large (1961) by Chon Day

Brother Sebastian is a whimsical little monk. A man of few words (none in this collection, actually) with an almost mischievous sense of humor. But he's always on the side of the angels and has very positive messages to convey along with the dose of laughter. Very cute, very gentle humor. Apparently Brother Sebastian was pretty popular in the late 50s/early 60s because the author says in a preface that he is now seven years old. In fact, the Brother Sebastian comics appeared in Look magazine from 1954 to 1971, in three book collections (including this one), and Chon Day received the National Cartoonists Society Special Features Award for his Brother Sebastian work in 1969. Since there is no text...


First comic:



Last comic:


Good night, Brother Sebastian. I see you have your alarm clock turned off. 😊

★★ for a pleasant evening's entertainment.



Black As He's Painted


 Black As He's Painted (1974) Ngaio Marsh
[own the cover pictured, but listened to the audio novel narrated by Wanda McCaddon]

The story opens with Mr. Samuel Whipplestone, recently retired from the Foreign Office. He had told himself that "he was tuned in to retirement and now realized he was in no such condition." He was dissatisfied. He was at loose ends. He felt like he had nothing to look forward to. So he takes a walk in the Capricorn area of London and before he knows it he has acquired a new living space at No. 1, Capricorn Walk as well as new cat. The little cat adopts him and though he tells himself he doesn't want a cat he soon has named her Lucy Locket, bought her a fancy cat bed and a new walking harness, and she's taking over the house. After he's settled in, he takes another walk and runs into an acquaintance form his working days--the Ambassador from Ng'ombwana, a fictional emergent African nation--who invites him to a reception for their president. 

Meanwhile...Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn has been roped into the Ng'ombwanan President situation. Alleyn and "the Boomer" (as the President was colloquially known) were at school together. And the Special Branch would like Alleyn's help in keeping the President in check. There are all sorts of factions who would like nothing better than to see the President assassinated--and there have been several attempts on his state visits to various places. The powers that be do not want an attempt to succeed while he is on British soil. It doesn't help that the Boomer believes he is invincible and thinks he ought to be able to flit hither and yon as the fancy takes him or change plans at the last minute so the special guards assigned to him have trouble keeping up. Alleyn is supposed to rely on the "old school tie" to get his friend to behave himself.

After much back and forth, the Boomer agrees, but even though he sticks to plans (mostly) tragedy still strikes. In what looks to be another attempt--at the reception and under Alleyn's and Special Branch's noses--a killer strikes. But it isn't the Boomer he lies dead from a spear thrust...it is the Ambassador. Did the killer miss his mark or are there even deeper political machinations afoot. Alleyn and Gibson (his Special Branch counterpart) have their hands full--dancing around international protocol, working with the Boomer, and sorting out all the folks who might have it in for either the President or the Ambassador. There are people who just don't like blacks, there are people with personal hatred for one or both of the men, and there are those who are disgruntled with Ng'ombwana in general because they were tossed out of the country when the new regime took over. And Sam Whipplestone will come in handy as well--he knew Ng'omwana well at one time, he knows the language, and...he seems to have a large number of the suspects swirling around his neighborhood in Capricorn.

This story has an absolutely delightful beginning. Sam Whipplestone is a treat and I'm so glad that he (unlike another delightful side character in another novel) makes it through the whole plot unscathed. I love how his two sides blend--on the one hand, he's a slightly whimsical man who takes possession of No. 1, Capricorn Walk without a moment's thought and allows Lucy Locket to steal his heart despite his determination that he's not a cat man. On the other hand, he's a very shrewd ex-Foreign Office man who has great insight into the characters milling about the President. His observations are of great value to Alleyn. I also took great delight in Troy and her sessions of painting the Boomer's portrait. She longed to do so and was beside herself when he suggested it. Marsh captures the intensity of the artist at work so well. And the mystery is an interesting one--not terribly complex; one knows the suspects who are at the heart of things right away. But Marsh does manage to give things a bit of a twist to spice things up a bit.

Marsh attempts to address the race question--a topic that was (and still is, to be honest) very prominent at the time. Her success is uneven. I think she does pretty well with Alleyn. I think she manages to show him as unprejudiced as it was possible to be the early 70s, but there are still a few cringy things that are attributed to him. She also manages to show that race relations are more complex than just hating the "other." That various factors can work into a person's reasoning--from hating all of a particular race based on one particular horrifying incident to blaming them for job loss or loss of prestige to just plain greed and the need to be superior to some group of people. There definitely are going to be viewpoints represented here that modern readers will have issue with--but modern readers should keep in mind when this was written.

A good, solid mystery from the latter portion of Marsh's writing career. ★★ and 1/2

First line: The year was at the spring and the day of the morn and God may have been in His Heaven, but so far as Mr. Samuel Whipplestone was concerned the evidence was negligible.

Last lines: "What have you got there?" he asked. He inserted his eyeglass and bent down to see. It was a white pottery fish.
******************

Deaths = 4 (one stabbed; one strangled; two hit on head)

Friday, June 7, 2024

The Haunted Bridge: A Nancy Drew 2-For-1



 The Haunted Bridge (1937/1972) by Carolyn Keene (Mildred Wirt Benson)

This mystery review gives you two for the price of one. I decided to read both the original and revised texts since I now own both. In a few of the mysteries, the story line between the two versions are drastically different, however, in most (as in this one) the changes are less sweeping. The basic story remains the same. Carson Drew is assisting in an investigation into a gang of international jewel thieves. His official female counterpart, a Miss Ingle (almost my maiden name!), has fallen ill and he plans to ask Nancy to help him out. In the meantime, Nancy, Bess, and George have been enjoying a vacation at the Deer Mountain Hotel--with tennis and golf. Nancy's golf game is good enough to qualify her to take part in a prestigious amateur golf tournament.

While waiting for her father to need her on his case and practicing her golf, Nancy's golf caddy refuses to enter the woods at the edge of the golf course to search for Nancy's prize golf ball (signed by Jimmy Harlow--a real-life golfing figure!). When she presses him about it, he tells her that none of the caddies would do it for her--because the woods are haunted. There is a ghost that walks back and forth on the bridge leading to the neighboring property; a ghost that moans and shrieks and generally scares the pants off anyone who comes near. Nancy naturally isn't afraid of ghosts and decides the haunted bridge needs investigating.

Then Carson enlists her help in tracking down a woman suspected to have connections to the jewelry gang. The only clue: the woman is known to carry a jewel-encrusted compact with the picture of a little girl in it and authorities say she is supposed to be in the area of the summer resort where the Drews are staying. So, father and daughter check out the local hotels--eyes peeled for a compact. Nancy comes across a young woman with a suitable accessory...minus the picture. But she just knows the young woman is important. Winds up the woman's name is Margaret Judson and she just happens to own the property adjacent to the resort. Is it possible the haunted bridge ties in with the jewel robberies? Nancy thinks it likely when she discovers a brass jewelry box buried in the mud below the bridge. But is Margaret Judson really involved? What about the pushy man at the hotel who seems to change his signature every time he signs something? Is he just an annoying braggart who wants to get Nancy interested in him? Or does he have a deeper purpose? Well...we all know Nancy will figure it out with help of Bess and George...as well as Ned and his buddies (Buddy & Bill in original; Burt & Dave revised).

So...what are the differences in the two versions? Mainly descriptions. Lengthy descriptions of the  grounds of the resort and the adjacent property and the background of Nancy's caddy are given a drastic cut.  The order of certain events is rearranged to no apparent purpose (and with no real change to the story). A couple of the names are changed: Mortimer Bartescue becomes Martin; the caddy Sammy Sutter, Jr. becomes Chris. And in the original text, Bess and George have not yet been given steady dates in Burt and Dave. Ned just brings along two random fraternity brothers who are more than happy to help out in whatever cause Ned's girlfriend enlists them (in this case--sitting up with the injured gardener of the Judson estate among other chores which would be a spoiler to reveal). The cuts streamline the plot and make the action a bit tighter.

I remember this being a favorite when I was young. I liked the ghost aspect and the way Nancy handled "Barty the Barge-In" with his persistent attentions. It was also fun watching her win the golf championship under adverse conditions (she had suffered an injury to her hand). Reading it now, the reveal on the ghost comes a little too quickly and Mr. Drew's logic in how he and Nancy search for the jewel thief really doesn't hold up. But coincidence is a great thing in the world of Nancy Drew, so it works out. ★★★★

First line: "Oh, that was a beautiful drive, Nancy." (Original text)
                 "Sorry, miss, but I wouldn't go near that bridge for a million dollars," said the young, freckl-faced caddy. (Revised text)

Last line:  "Good-by, old Mr. Ghost!" she addressed him gaily. "A million thanks for a very pleasant mystery!" (Both Original & Revised texts)

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Deaths = 3 natural

Thursday, June 6, 2024

The Rocksburg Railroad Murders


 The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972) by K. C. Constantine (Carl Constantine Kosak)

The first in the Mario Balzic, police chief, mysteries finds Balzic managing traffic control after the local high school football game. He just gets home afterward, when he gets called out again. A man has been found beaten to death at the train station. The beating was so furious that Balzic doesn't even recognize John Andrasko, a man he went to school with. The station master tells Balzic that Andrasko took the eleven-thirty-eight every night to his job at Knox, walking to the station through rain, sleet, or snow because he hated to drive. Andrasko was an unexceptional, steady family man whom Balzic can't imagine anyone wanting to kill. And then he meets the man's stepson Tommy Parilla. When he tells Tommy of his stepfather's death, Tommy doesn't even blink an eye--you'd think he had stepfathers dying every day of the week. So, Balzic immediately has his eye on the boy.

But the DA (a royal pain in the fanny) is just sure it has something to do with the supposed drug-running he claims is going on in his town. Balzic thinks the DA is right out of The Music Man--"We've got trouble in River City!"--and wants any excuse to bear down on the long-haired hippies he thinks are behind every bad thing that happens. Balzic has a more sympathetic ear in Lieutenant Moyer of the State Police. And the two men set out to find out what really happened to John Andrasko that night and why.

So...there are quite a few things to like about this one--chiefly our Chief of Police Mario Balzic. He's smart and cares about the community he grew up in and now serves. He's interested in finding the right answer (not the most expedient or most convenient answer--see DA above) and is truly interested in justice. We get a very good look at small town America in the early 1970s. And even though this is a small town and not New York City, Balzic and the entire set up gives me Kojak vibes. Kojak could be tough on crime, but he had heart and really cared about the people involved in his cases. I also enjoyed Balzic relationships with Father Marazzo and Lieutenant Moyer. Both are down to earth and serve as sounding boards for the chief's ideas. 

On the negative side, this isn't really a mystery. Sure, Constantine tries to drag a few red herrings across the path, but they aren't attractive enough to grab the attention. The story is more accurately a tough, gritty police procedural and it has a pretty bleak ending. I wouldn't have minded the bleak ending as much if I thought it made sense. But it just didn't. It didn't solve the murder--that was done. It didn't serve justice in any way and the reason given for the action just wasn't compelling.  ★★ for a fair beginning to the series.

First line: Even with the hand-talkies, it took Chief Mario Balzic a half hour after the game to get the auxiliary police coordinated.

Last line: Everybody except the teachers and Balzic.
********************

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

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Doom in the Midnight Sun


 Doom in the Midnight Sun (1944) by Eunice Mays Boyd

Our favorite grocer turned amateur detective is back for a second round of sleuthing in the wilds of Alaska/ F. Millard Smyth is visiting Harding Lake while he contemplates whether he wants to buy his friend Blaine's grocery store in Fairbanks. Blaine has a cabin on the lake which he has put at Smyth's disposal--where the little grocer can enjoy the Alaskan countryside and read his Flatfoot detective magazines to his heart's content. While there he meets the members of the Abby Association, a group of friends and relatives who have a shared interest in a mining concern. There are the Kingdom brothers, Virgil and Benny; Virgil's wife, Bella; Abby Thorne and her daughter Chris; Ethan Frazee, his uncle Trigger Joe, and his half-sister Jade Lothrop. He immediately notices the tensions between the brothers as well as between Ethan and Jade. Trigger Joe is all worked up--apparently everyone in the Association wants to sell out except him, and it's an all or none deal. 

Mysterious goings on also get the amateur sleuth's attention--clandestine meetings between various Association members, "Dipper" symbols left along the paths winding through the cabins, flashlight signals, and someone has been getting into his cabin. When Trigger Joe's body is found with a bullet in the heart in a burning empty cabin, it looks like someone got impatient for the the sale to go through. Do any of the mysterious activities have anything to do with the murder? Smyth is eager to put his Flatfoot skills to work, but the deputy marshall who shows up to take charge of the investigation isn't inclined to accept amateur help. He isn't swayed by Smyth's success in the earlier case involving the Senator's daughter (Murder Breaks Trail). So, Smyth teams up with a set of boy scouts (in Benny Kingdom's charge), all improbably named Bill and so known as One, Two, & Three, to do what they can to clear up the mystery.

Bits and pieces of Trigger Joe's most recent will--which left his assets divided between Ethan and Jade--are discovered. Since the previous (and still existing) will left it all to Ethan, suspicion rests on Ethan for a while. But then other evidence is found that spreads the suspicion around. A second murder takes place and Smyth comes up with a plan to draw the killer into the open, but will the little grocer survive long enough to tell the deputy marshall who it is?

As with the first Smyth story, we have a closed circle mystery. A storm cuts the lake residents off from the main roads and the marshall arrives by plane--there is no other way in or out. Boyd also gives us a memorable cast of characters with well-developed backgrounds and built-in tension. The brothers have always been rivals with Virgil, the "King," outshining his brother on every score. Ethan and Jade have never gotten along either and Chris has always envied Bella's luck in capturing the King. We have another compelling background character in the Alaskan landscape. The area around the lake comes alive and seems intent on keeping the group stranded until the killer can be caught. 

I found the story to be tightly plotted and enjoyable overall, but I have to say that Smyth seemed much more diffident and nervous in his amateur investigations than in the first novel. One would (and did) expect him to be more confident after his success in Murder Breaks Trail, but he stutters his way through several discussions of the murders and clues. I'm also really curious (and this is just me wondering about things)--why on earth does Smyth go off to Harden Lake in the first place? If he's thinking about buying a grocery store, why isn't he in Fairbanks where the store is? You'd think he'd want to get the lay of the land of the place he was going to be--not off in the wild. It's not like the man actually swims (everyone else does) or boats or really seems to enjoy doing outdoorsy stuff. He likes looking at the scenery, but that's about it.

But--despite my slight quibbles over Smyth--this is an entertaining mystery and I once again appreciated getting a glimpse of Alaska in the early years before statehood. I'm grateful to Boyd's goddaughter, Elizabeth Aden, for sending me a copy to review. These novels have been difficult to get hold of and she has had them reprinted as well as publishing several novels that were left unpublished at Boyd's death. I recommend you check them out. I accepted this free copy* with the understanding that I would provide an honest review and have received no other compensation of any kind. ★★ and 1/2.

First line: F. Millard Smyth snugged the magazines in the crook of his elbow, hitched the sack of jumbled clothes and groceries higher on his shoulder, and wondered how much farther he had to walk.

Last line: "I'm going to buy Blaine's grocery."
*****************

Deaths = 8 (two shot; one rockslide; two in fire; one car accident; one strangled' one drowned)

*I had forgotten that a good friend had given me a hard copy of this last year--so this also counts as an owned book for Mount TBR.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

The Best English Detective Stories of 1928


 The Best English Detective Stories of 1928 (1929) by Father Ronald Knox & H. Harrington (eds)

This is a real mixed selection of Golden Age short stories. Those that are good are very, very good--see "Through the Window," "The Poison Bottle," "Drops That Trickle Away," and "The Secret of the Mountain." There are a couple that are nearly as good: "Trial by Ordeal" and "The Tuesday Night Club." Even if I hadn't read the Christie story several times in the past, I still wouldn't rate it as one of her absolute best shorts. The rest are okay--nothing spectacular and not really terrible. I'm glad to have read the entire collection but I do wish there had been a greater percentage of really top-tier stories. ★★ for the collection.

"Trial by Ordeal" by F. Britten Austin: David Kinlan, actor extraordinaire, learns of an old friend's murder and decides to take on one more role to help bring the killer to justice. (one shot)

"A Race for Life" by Marie Belloc-Lowndes: Mrs. Brantwood asks French detective Hercules Popeau to save her husband from a certain death. One of the few stories where the detective is actually successful at preventing a murder....

"The Artificial Mole" by J. D. Beresford: When Miss Hannah Gray goes missing, her sister asks for help from our narrator Hatton. And when he learns that Miss Gray was middle-aged and rather plain with her own income and that she was last seen in the company of a younger man claiming to be her husband, he fears the worst. (one strangled)

"The Secret of the Mountain" by C. Bobbett: Inspector Travers, on holiday from the Yard in the mountainous Lake District, is asked to investigate the apparent accidental death of one Mr. Watson. His wife is sure that a rival has engineered the death, but there doesn't seem to be any way he could have done so. (one fell from height)

"The Master Touch" by Christopher B. L. Booth: The Revenue Service has been the track of Slippery Jim, well-known jewel smuggler, for quite some time. They just haven't been able to catch him with the goods. But this time, Mr. Conklin & Mr. January are sure they've got him....do they?

"Through the Window" by K. R. G. Browne: A lovely little story about the death of a loan shark. Told in the manner of P. G. Wodehouse and the reader is definitely on the side of the killer. (one neck broken)

"The Poison Bottle" by Bernard Capes: When the young heir is poisoned with cyanide used in his new hobby of butterfly collection, the death is ruled an accident. He was young and just didn't know what he was about. But the housemaid is sure it was murder. (one poisoned; one hanged)

"The Tuesday Night Club" by Agatha Christie:  Sir Henry Clithering tells the story of poisoning. Three people sat down to a dinner and it seems that all three ate the same things. But only one of them dies of arsenic poisoning (or even gets sick). How was it done? And who did it? Miss Marple knows. [one poisoned; two natural]

"The Diary of Death" by Marten Cumberland: When a beautiful woman dies in poverty, she leaves behind a diary vilifying her friends for not helping her in her time of need, someone begins killing the people mentioned--leaving the relevant pages of the diary beside the bodies. But how is the killer getting to their victims? [one natural; one shot two stabbed]

"Under a Thousand Eyes" by Charlotte Dockstader: An actor plots to kill his rival--his rival onstage and in love--but can he act his way out of a guilty verdict? [one poisoned]

"Mr. Leggatt Leaves His Card" by J. S. Fletcher: The Reverend Mr. Leggatt puts on a deerstalker to hunt down the thief who stole his church's famous Hislip Chalice.

'Who Killed Castelvetri?" by Gilbert Fankau: A man is on trial for killing his brother-in-law. He says it was self-defense, but one woman in the gallery believes it to be cold-blooded murder. Can she get the evidence to convince the jury? (one shot)

"The Late Edition" by Kelman Frost: How a newspaper proves that an apparent suicide must be murder.  (one gassed)

"The Night of the Garter" by Arthur Hougham: A man comes to Rappley Hall to purchase the fabled "Luck of Rappley" (a garter of fine rubies). He encounters the ghost of Sir Ridley Rappley and finds another treasure. (one shot)

"The Sign of Seven" by John Hunter: A tale of the end of a great crime syndicate known as "The Seven." A tale of bluff and double-bluff. (two shot)

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

"An Artist in Crime" by Denis Mackail: Long Hobson, artist, is called upon to identify a safe (painted prop) used in a robbery. He isn't able to help the officer at the time, but later chance leads him to the artist in question.

"Blackman's Wood" by E. Phillips Oppenheim: The beaters for Sir Richard Carnell's pheasant hunt are good steady lads--loyal and willing to obey their master in anything. Except one...they won't they won't enter Blackman's Wood where the ghost of Barney Middleton waits for anyone foolish enough to enter.  (two strangled; one shot)

"Overwhelming Evidence" by Baroness Orczy: A case of the long-lost heir showing up to stake his claim to the de Momerie manor house and fortune. But is he real or an imposter? (two natural)

"The Langdon Case" by Gladys St. John-Loe: Did John Langdon commit murder when he shot Anthony Roche? Or was it really just an unfortunate accident as Julian Harcourt, one of the principal witnesses maintained? (one shot; two natural) [last line below is a spoiler...be warned]


First line (1st story): In front of the curtain, already raised and dropped half a dozen times upon the finale of the last act, old David Kinlan bowed his acknowledgments of the tumultuous vociferation, the storm of ever-renewed hand-claps, which would be stilled in the crowded house dark beyond the dazzling row of footlights.

Last line (last story): "No I never knew the truth about that. All I can say positively is that Langdon never intended to shoot Roche.

June Reading by the Numbers Reviews

 


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