Tuesday, December 1, 2020
Monday, November 30, 2020
Sunday, November 29, 2020
The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie is a non-series mystery (no Poirot, no Miss Marple, not even Colonel Race). It opens at Sittaford House in a small village on Dartmoor. Mrs. Willett and her daughter Violet have rented the house in the country from Captain Trevelyan. The villagers all think it a bit odd that the ladies from South Africa would want to come to the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter--but there's no telling what foreigners will do, is there? The ladies are quite outgoing and issue invitations to call to all and sundry. Captain Trevelyan is a self-declared "woman hater" and refuses all advances.
But that doesn't stop the ladies from having regular dinners and little parties--even when it's snowing like no tomorrow. The story opens with one such party. Captain Trevelyan's long-standing friend, Major Burnaby, Mr. Rycroft. Mr. Ronnie Garfield, and Mr. Duke all brave the winter storm to attend. But due to the heavy snowfall, the Captain isn't expected to make it from Exhamptom--his current place of residence while the Willetts occupy his home. And he doesn't.
When it becomes apparent that they all don't play bridge, it's suggested that they indulge in a harmless bit of table-turning. It's all fun and games until the spirits suddenly tells the group that Captain Trevelyan is dead. The spirit's communication ends with a single word...M-U-R-D-E-R! At first they assume that one of the group is just playing a somewhat morbid joke, but there's a certain unease and Major Burnaby, who had declared it all "Tommy rot!" before they began, becomes worried. Since it's an evening that he and Trevelyan normally got together for chess and acrostics, he decides to venture out into the snow and walk the six miles to his friend's place.
When he arrives, he can't get an answer to his repeated knocks and peals of the doorbell so he drags the local constable and doctor away from their warm fires to help him investigate. They find the captain dead from blow to the head with a sandbag...and if the doctor's estimate is correct, he was killed at 5:25 pm--the exact time of the spirit's message. Inspector Narracott is summoned from Exeter to sift through the clues and suspects. All of the Captain's relatives inherit equal shares of his rather large fortune and all but one have alibis. When it's discovered that James Pearson was actually on the spot at the right time and that he has a very pressing need for cash, it looks like the police will have a quick wrap-up to the case. But Pearson's fiancée knows her Jim and knows that he couldn't possibly kill anyone. Not that he's a saint...but she knows what his limits are. So, she forges an alliance with a willing young reporter and sets out to prove Jim's innocence. It isn't long before she provides the police with broken alibis and a renewed cast of suspects.
An entertaining read from Dame Agatha. I spotted the murderer right away, but I'm quite sure that was because I've read the novel before. I know that I didn't figure it out the first time I read it. And I'm pretty sure who I chose as suspect #1 before, because s/he tempted me into changing my mind again this time around. This is classic Christie with several possible solutions, red herrings galore, and all the clues on display. I gave the story four stars the first time I read it and I give it ★★★ and a half now--only because she didn't quite fool me on the re-read. She very often does--if enough time has elapsed between reads.
First line: Major Burnaby drew on his gum boots, buttoned his overcoat collar round his neck, took from a shelf near the door a hurricane lantern, and cautiously opened the front door of his little bungalow and peered out.
Last lines: "She never gave him the chance," said Mrs. Curtis. "Ah!" said Mr. Curtis.
Deaths = (one hit on head)
Saturday, November 28, 2020
Mortmain Hall (2020) by Martin Edwards
The drawing is an optical illusion Clever artists delight in them. Your eyes are drawn to a picture. But on a second viewing, you realize that you're looking at something else entirely. That's the way I feel about this gathering here at Mortmain Hall. We're seeing one thing, but something very different is going on, without us even realising. Right in front of our eyes. [Rachel Savernake]
The theme of this book is "the perfect crime." We're clued in to that from the very beginning--in the unusually placed excerpt from the Epilogue where an unknown (at least at this point) man is dying and Rachel Savernake is speaking with him. He knows that she has discovered the truth about what he thought was a perfect crime. And now she wants him to fill in and/or confirm details.
Then we're whisked back to the beginning. Rachel Savernake prepares to board the Necropolis Railway, but she is not a mourner. Her mission is an attempt to save a life--the life of a man who is supposed to be dead. But the man is too afraid to admit his identity and won't take the lifeline she offers him. And he winds up dead (again) on the railway tracks. Her interest in the forces that sought to silence Gilbert Payne lead her to investigate a series of murders: the death of a tramp in a blazing car; a woman strangled in seaside bungalow; and a husband drowned in a freezing lake. In each case the most obvious suspect is proven not guilty through a last-minute witness or someone else conveniently commits suicide, leaving an apparent confession or a hostile judge prejudices the jury in the suspects favor. Rachel is convinced that these cases have a connection--but what can it possibly be?
Jacob Flint, crime reporter, is in attendance at the blazing car trial and he--like everyone in the court--is amazed when an eleventh-hour witness comes forward to clear the accused. But his reporter's sense tells him there's more to this than meets the eye and when Rachel invites him to her house and suggests he also take a look at the write-ups of the other deaths, he starts an investigation of his own. His questions put a few noses out of joint and soon he's warned off by Inspector Oakes of Scotland Yard. Oakes has received word through mysterious channels leading to his superior. He doesn't really expect Flint to heed the warning...and he's right. Flint keeps on and finds himself framed up for murder. It's only through quick thinking on both his and Rachel Savernake's part that keeps the frame from sticking.
Also on the scent of mystery surrounding these deaths is Leonora Dobell, an eccentric female criminologist, who lives at Mortmain Hall on a secluded coastal estate in the north. She decides to invite those who have recently escaped the clutches of the law--as well as Rachel Savernake--for a weekend house party. She presents them with an audacious conclusion to her researches and then the house party ends abruptly when death strikes once again and their hostess disappears. Was the death the accident it appears or is part of a plan to commit the perfect murder?
This is the second of Edwards' Golden Age historical mysteries and I enjoyed it every bit as much as Gallows Court. Perhaps even more--because as I mentioned in my review of the previous book, the one slight quibble I had was a bit of a deficiency in fair-play cluing. I can't complain about that this time. The clues are all there for those who can catch them. And for those of us who can't, he has provided a "Clue Finder" section (as appeared in numerous mysteries written during the Golden Age) that shows us exactly what clues we missed. It was good to visit with Rachel and the Truebloods (her loyal servants/friends) and Jacob again. Rachel has her own style of investigations and justice which may not suit everyone, but I do appreciate her strength of character. And don't think that I've given anything away by mentioning the perfect crime--twice. The perfect crimes just may not be exactly what you think. A very fine addition to the series. ★★★★★
First line (Epilogue--which appears at the beginning): The man was dying. He knew it and so did Rachel Savernake.
First line (Chapter One): The ghost climbed out of a hackney carriage.
Last line: "Yes," she said, "he died."
Deaths = 12 (one ran over by train; one drowned; two strangled; one beaten; one natural; one shot; one stabbed; two fell from height; one house collapsed on; one poisoned)
A Halo for Nobody (1947) by Henry Kane is the first of his Peter Chambers series and it features quite a murder fest. Peter Chambers is the tough guy, rougher half of Scoffol and Chambers, Investigators. One evening he is an eyewitness to the murder of Rochelle Curtis, wife of the wealthy Blair Curtis who owns half of an elite jewelry business. But when Blair Curtis approaches him to investigate it isn't his wife's murder that he's most interested in--it's the fact that he thinks he's being blackmailed. Getting to the bottom of the blackmailing business, will lead him to find connections between Rochelle's murder, the death of Joe Pineapple (one of the men involved in Rochelle's shoot and run death), as well as half a dozen more deaths including that of a reclusive, wealthy bookmaker. Curtis doesn't think it really has anything to do with him or his circle...Chambers may just prove him wrong.
Kane's story takes us on fast-paced journey through seedy dives and upscale clubs with equal abandon. Chambers may walk the mean streets but he glides easily between the two worlds and just as easily sidesteps threats from both the upper class and the denizens of New York's underworld. Along the way he manages to collect quite an arsenal of hand weapons from those looking to ensure that this case is his last...he'll prove them wrong as well.
Hardboiled crime fiction isn't my usual fare and for those who like this sort of thing, I'm not sure that it's the most shining example. But I liked it. There was something about Chambers and his methods that just clicked with me. It's amazing that he didn't get knocked off several times in this book (but then Kane wouldn't let that happen to his hero, would he?). I did enjoy how one of the suspects underestimated him and misjudged exactly what Chambers would or wouldn't do. Not that the estimation was all that misguided given past performance, but Chambers has a few tricks up his sleeve that he only uses when necessary.
Certainly not a fair play mystery, but I don't expect that from this type of crime fiction. A fun, fast-paced read that made for an enjoyable afternoon. ★★★
First line: I saw the thing happen, and in a cockeyed, roundabout way I was mixed up in it, so the policeman had every right in the world to ask questions.
Last line: "Ah," I said, "the lovely Lolita..."
I fully realize that the man was trying to do his job of work and I was doing my darnedest to be nice and proper and placid, but his method and his manner were about as efficacious as sandpaper on the rough edge of a tombstone, and it was becoming irritating. (p. 5)
Deaths = 9 (eight shot; one fell from height)
Monday, November 23, 2020
The Whispering Death (1947; 1st US printing*) by Roy Vickers
The Whisperer holds all of London in a grip of terror--holding innocent victims for ransom and killing whenever his demands are not met. Using the fairly new wireless technology, he has devised a diabolical system that prevents his targets from lining up police help in advance. A bag with a wireless set is delivered to the target, who must don the headset and follow the hoarse whispered instructions exactly as they are given. Only one step is revealed at a time, so they never know where they're going or what they must do. So far, Scotland Yard has been powerless to stop the reign of terror--each time the Whisperer escapes their grasp and too many times a lifeless victim has been left behind.
Then the Whisperer sets his sights on Roland Blatch. Roland wouldn't seem to be an ideal target--he's a lowly secretary pulling a mere six hundred pounds a year--just enough that he and his girl Joyce Merrow can now think about getting married. He rather imprudently (as it happens) tells her not to worry about the Whisperer--he'd never go after people like them who couldn't pay up. But Roland has forgotten that his employer, Sir Henry Glazeborough, had given him the keys to a safe where 80,000 pounds of jewelry was stored....
The next thing he knows, he has received a threatening note telling him that Joyce has been kidnapped and also one of those dreadful wireless boxes. When he dons the headphones, he is told in periodic bursts of instructions to go and remove the jewels from his employer's safe, take a taxi to Liverpool station, which train to take, and then upon seeing a black flag signaling along the tracks to toss the bag with jewels out the window. Even having a Scotland Yard man pick up his trail immediately and accompany him on his little journey doesn't prevent the Whisperer from getting what he wants.
Joyce is released and Roland is happy for that--but he knows he can't face his employer. He's now a thief--even though an unwilling one. When a phone call comes telling him that he can throw his lot in with Whisperer, he decides to play a risky game. He'll join up with the Whisperer all right...but only so he can wreak revenge on the man who dared to threaten his girl and who ruined his career. What follows is a high-octane adventure where Roland does his best to outwit the cleverest criminal in London. He'll endure several hair-raising episodes, including two attempts on his own life--but will our hero win the day?
Vickers has put together a fine example of the "innocent man pulled into situations beyond his control." Roland is a brave, intrepid hero...willing to beard the lion in his den. The thrills and the ambiance of 1930s London is perfect and keeps the reader turning the pages. The only (small) downside to this exciting action/adventure mystery is that the identity of the Whisperer is all too obvious. But Roland holds up his end of the show so well that we don't mind too much. ★★★★
First line: Nine-thirty to ten-thirty--the slack hour of a London evening. In the lounge of a well-known hotel-restaurant a few late diners were taking their coffee.
Last line: "Oh, by the way, as a temporary detective for a period of five days, you're entitled to six pounds fourteen shillings and expenses."
*1st British printing, 1932
Deaths = 3 (two poisoned; one shot)
Sunday, November 22, 2020
"Alibis, alibis, he added bitterly. I never heard so many alibis. You'd think somebody was printing the damn things and selling them on street corners."
Dave Calder, former attorney, has set up shop as a private investigator. His first job is for an old friend in the insurance business--find out who has stolen the priceless Stradivarius violin belonging to Igor Krassin, the renowned violinist. The violin disappeared from backstage at the concert hall where Krassin and the orchestra practice and perform. A successful investigation means $6,000 for Calder...a very welcome start for his business. But he gets very little help from the members of the orchestra and Krassin, who raised Cain when the instrument first vanished, doesn't seem all that concerned now.
Before Calder can make much headway, Krassin is killed and the suspect list covers pretty much anyone who knew him. He didn't exactly know how to win friends and influence people. Heading the list were Stanley Price, a petty thief who has was caught stealing from the orchestra and fired--and who has now vanished; Paula Drake, Calder's former flame as well as one of Krassin's cast-offs; her husband Arthur, who has a double-barreled motive--jealousy and, as Krassin's manager, a life insurance policy on his client; James Pascal, an art gallery owner with an odd interest in violins; Felix Hilf, who claims the violin is rightfully his; Lina Gehris, who is actually Krassin's estranged wife and now heir to his estate; and Simon Lear, who--since Krassin didn't live to sign a will in favor of Lear's music school--seems to have no motive, but keeps popping up in the oddest ways. Will Calder be able to find the Strad before the cops do and earn his fee? Will he be able to find it before someone decides his meddling needs to stopped permanently?
This had an excellent beginning and Calder is an interesting character who has a nifty relationship with his girlfriend/secretary Ann. The set-up within the world of orchestral concert musicians was appealing. But...although there was plenty of scenes with action, the plot just didn't seem to move. It seems a little bizarre to say this about a 161 page book, but it felt like a lot of the action was padding. Despite a murder or two and Calder getting beaten up and Paula trying to make moves on Calder (and making Ann jealous) and people disappearing and reappearing all over the place, Calder just seems to be spinning his wheels--through no fault of his own. Page just didn't seem to know how to use the action to advance the story. The ending also seemed to come out of left field--if there were any clues pointing to the connection made in the Calder's wrap-up, I managed to miss them. I really thought I had pegged the least likely suspect (though I hadn't a clue as to motive) and then Page gave me an even less likely solution. ★★ and a half.
First line: The rehearsal was scheduled for noon but by ten-thirty there were already a dozen musicians in the orchestra dressing-room and more were straggling in one or two at a time.
Last line: The door closed, the footsteps and the clatter of pails gradually receded, and then it was quiet.
Deaths = two stabbed
Saturday, November 21, 2020
By Hook or by Crook* (1947; 1st US publication) by Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Malleson)
Normally Arthur Crook, lawyer-cum-private detective, is in it for the money. But occasionally a case takes his interest and the client is in no position to pay, so he treats it like Robin Hood--allowing his richer customers to pay for those who can't. Such is the case when he receives a plea for help from Miss Janet Martin. Miss Martin is a spinster in reduced circumstances who has befriended a charming little girl, Pamela Smith, and her governess Miss Terry (Teresa) Lawrence.
Miss Martin, who can no longer see well enough to read, spends her days watching people from her window. She is quite taken by the little girl in the red coat and red tam-o-shanter and is delighted when her little dog chases her landladies cat and gives her and excuse to meet Pamela. They--and Terry Lawrence--have a lovely time chatting over biscuits and then they exchange a couple more visits. Pamela is the ward of a very well-to-do gentleman who has given Miss Martin to understand that the girl will be very well looked after in the event of his death. He even has Miss Martin witness his will. But when Mr. Scott dies from an overdose--possible suicide--there is no such will to be found and his sister, the ominous Mrs. Barnes, whom Terry and Pamela have always referred to as an imposing, interfering woman, has Pamela sent away to an orphanage. Terry is called upon to help, but she soon fades out--she's got a fiance; is she too busy to worry about the little girl? Miss Martin knows that something is not right and asks Crook to investigate. His detective work unearths not only abduction, but fraud and murder as well. But just how many people are in on the plot anyway?
This isn't a usual whodunit in the classic tradition. We pretty much know who the bad guy(s) is (are) from early on. What is up for grabs is how many people are involved and whether Miss Martin and Mr. Crook are going to be able to convince the authorities. What is really interesting is the depiction of the plight of older women in post-war Britain. It's dreadful to have a dwindling pension and to be so dependent on the (hopefully) good will of relations. And then to not have many friends or much of a way to entertain oneself can make for very long days.
As with so many of Gilbert's books, she brings Crook in quite late. My favorites bring him into the action sooner. But Miss Martin is such an interesting character and the back ground involving her is so important that I didn't miss him quite as much. A good, solid read. ★★★ and a half.
First line: "Before you set out to commit a murder," said Arthur Crook--who was like certain Cabinet Ministers in that he rejoiced in sweeping statements--"there's one important point to bear in mind, something like a lion in your way. And even a lion-tamer can't be sure of circumnavigating this one: that is, there's no foolproof method of murder."
Last line: "Well, what would you do, chum?"
Deaths = 4 (three poisoned; one hung)
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) by Nathanael West
Synopsis (form the back of the book): Miss Lonelyhearts was the very sensitive young man who conducted the advice-to-the-lovelorn column in a New York newspaper. Unable to bear the tragic implications of the messages which poured into his department every day, he attempted to adopt the role maliciously suggested to him by the feature editor: that he was one of America's twentieth-century priests...
And the New York Herald Tribune had this to say: "Chapter after brilliantly written chapter moves like a rocket in mid-flight, neither failing nor falling...A grotesquely beautiful novel; if you are thoroughly shockproof, Nathanael West will richly reward your attention."
Well...I can go along with the grotesque part--but I must not be sufficiently shockproof. If I ever had a taste for high concept books, I think I must have lost it long ago. The style of West's book reminds me a great deal of Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz & Guild Are Dead which also did not do a whole lot for me (as evidenced by the linked review). And it definitely made me think of the quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth: Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
West's novel is just a very sad and disillusioned look at America during the Great Depression. It has taken a very bleak subject and made it--if possible--bleaker still. And has done so using a most disorienting style. Definitely not my cup of tea. ★
Friday, November 20, 2020
Peril at End House (1932) by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are having a holiday on the Cornish coast. Poirot is, he insists, retired. He has, in fact, turned down an appeal from the Home Secretary which has just arrived by post. But then Miss Nick Buckley comes into the garden below where he and Hastings have been sitting on a terrace. They invite her to join them and in the course of conversation, she reveals something alarming:
I've had three escapes from sudden death in as many days so I must lead a charmed life.
They aren't quite sure what to make of her story of a heavy portrait crashing from the wall above her bed, of a boulder plunging into the sea where she was swimming, and the curious failure of car brakes. Then there is a buzzing as if from a wasp and when her friends call her to join them for drinks and she leaves her hat behind Poirot finds evidence of a fourth attempt. A bullet hole in the hat and a bullet in the garden.
Poirot quickly leaves retirement behind and determines to protect Nick from whomever may be plotting against her. He meets her friends and those in her household at End House (her family home) and makes a list of suspects and their possible motives. But although he is certain that he has given Nick all the protection she needs, death still visits the lonely house on the cliff. But it isn't Nick who dies--her cousin Maggie is shot while wearing Nick's red shawl--and Poirot is even more determined to catch the murderer who would dare to kill right under the detective's nose.
Not my all-time favorite Christie, but still very good. I enjoy the different ways that Christie has used the mistaken identity theme over the course of her books. I had the right culprit early on, but I couldn't figure out the motive. Then I got distracted by Christie's red herrings (as she intended) and decided I must have been wrong. So...once again, she fools me. This is why she gets ★★★ and a half. What keeps this from a higher rating is the characters. There just weren't any vivid characters in this particular outing--Poirot and Hastings didn't even seem to be at the top of their game (from my point of view). Generally speaking in Dame Agatha's work there is at least one memorable character (other than our detective) and sometimes there's a whole train full of interesting people. But even Nick, who is at the center of the action, doesn't leave a great impression. I read nearly all of Christie's mysteries 30-40 years ago and despite my memory being more and more sieve-like (I rarely remember whodunit except for the biggies--like that train mystery), I can usually name a character from the book. I definitely would not have come up with any of the characters' names for Peril...and I'd bet good money that it won't be long before they fall out of my head again.
First line: No seaside town in the south of England is, I think, as attractive as St. Loo
Last line: "Now I know everything," he said happily.
Deaths = 1 definite (shot) [one more is implied--but we aren't told for sure]
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Replay (1987) by Ken Grimwood
As the cover indicates, Grimwood's novel poses the question: What would you do if you could do it all over again? Or even just part of it? Jeff Winston, a 43-year-old radio journalist gets the chance to find out. In 1988, he dies from a heart attack while on the phone with his wife. But he immediately becomes conscious again and finds himself back at college in 1963. He's naturally disoriented at first, but quickly realizes that all his memories of the next 25 years are intact and begins to figure out how he can use that to his advantage. A few strategically placed bets and soon he...and his partner Frank are set for life. (Since Jeff was underage, he needed Frank to place the bets.) The two set up a company and begin making investments based on Jeff's "sense" of the market. Along the way, Jeff makes an effort to change history for the better--attempting to prevent the assassination of JFK by tipping the FBI off about Oswald. But it's all for naught...someone else does the job and history unfolds as if nothing had happened.
He even tries to avoid his own death in 1988 by living a far more healthy lifestyle. But when 1988 rolls around, he's hit with that same slam in the chest and finds himself back in 1963--just a few hours later than the last time. He goes through several rounds--trying various life-styles and producing small, but insignificant (in the grand scheme of things) changes. And then he meets a woman (Pamela) who is experiencing the same thing. They fall in love and then they try to find a way to have a happy ending. But the resets keep getting shorter and they don't know what will happen when there's no more time left to reset. Will there be a happily-ever-after after all?
I read this back in the late 80s, shortly after it first came out and absolutely loved it. I was deep in my science fiction mode at the time and I really enjoyed the theme of reliving your life and trying to get things right...or better. I absolutely would have agreed then that this was an award-winning book (as it was--World Fantasy Award 1988). This time--it just didn't hook me in the same way. I still can see that it was an influential book. You can see its stamp on Groundhog Day, for instance, and other stories where traveling into your own past is involved. At times, the writing is really, really good. But I did get bogged down a bit in the various resets. They just didn't interest me as much on a second reading 30-some years later.
One thing that I did think about this time: Why was this happening? Was the point to make Jeff and Pamela realize how their choices affect their lives? And how exactly did it happen? There's no real attempt at explanation. It just happens. Because. I gave the book four stars when I first read it. ★★★ now.
First line: Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.