Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: DEATH HAS DEEP ROOTS (1951) by Michael Gilbert


Remember when I went on a Michael Innes tear? Well, I'm kind of doing the same thing with Michael Gilbert, so bear with me. This is the sixth (or maybe the seventh) of Gilbert's books I've read so far - and I'm currently also in the middle of some of his Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens short stories.  Though there was one clunker back in the beginning right after SMALLBONE DECEASED (a brilliant classic), the rest have been excellent in varying degrees. Kind of a revelation really, because for a writer this good to have languished undiscovered by me for so long is odd, considering that Gilbert wasn't entirely unknown by everyone else AND he'd already written one classic. You'd think I would have stumbled over him at some point or other. But better later than not at all - right?

Michael Gilbert is kind of unique in that he didn't write the same book over and over -  not that that's always a bad thing, in fact there are some writers I return to over and over precisely because I know what to expect story-wise, but not Michael Gilbert. With this author, you just never know what you're going to get. He writes more in the thriller style than whodunit but somehow manages both equally well. Not all his protagonists are cut from the same cloth though all, so far, have been English, reasonably pragmatic and competent. A bit like Eric Ambler, but maybe not as dry and removed.

DEATH HAS DEEP ROOTS is set a few years after WWII and concerns the plight of a young French woman, Mlle Victoria Lamartine - a minor player in the Resistance - on trial in London, accused of the murder of Major Thoseby an ex-lover and father of her deceased child. Thoseby too had worked for the Resistance, though in a more important capacity and it was during that work that he is supposed to have hooked up with Mlle Lamartine at a lonely farm in the then dangerous French countryside teeming with partisans and Nazis.

But the accused denies any involvement with Thoseby and in fact, claims that the real father of her child was a young English flyer named Wells who was last seen in the clutches of the Gestapo on the same night as the residents at the farm were betrayed and rounded up. Later that same night, an unsuspecting Mlle Lamartine had stumbled right into the Germans on her way back from an errand. Yet somehow she survived incarceration and wound up storm tossed and jobless in London after the war. Very sympathetically a French refugee service found her a job as a receptionist at a small hotel providentially owned and staffed by people from the same area of France as the accused.

When Major Thoseby turns up dead in his room at the hotel (having gone there to meet Mlle Lamartine for reasons unknown) she is almost immediately placed under arrest by the officious and short-sighted Inspector Partridge. Later, the case will receive guidance from the author's series detective, Inspector Hazelrigg,  who hesitates to show up Partridge, but wants to see justice done. His presence in this book is minor but important.

Up front, the accused looks guilty. She seems to be the only one with any previous connection to Thoseby and she's the only one who could have gone into his room and stabbed him at a time when everyone else is accounted for. In fact, no one could have gone upstairs and entered Thoseby's room without having been seen by staff and/or guests. This almost seems like a locked room murder, except that it isn't. Mlle Lamartine insists she had no motive to kill Major Thoseby as he was not the man who had abandoned her and her then unborn child.

But it's obvious that the present crime harkens back to the past in Basse Loire during the war at the French farm when all were betrayed and rounded up by the Gestapo.

After a short postponement when new counsel is brought on board at the accused's last minute request, the case develops a kind of back and forth rhythm between antics in court and the actual nuts and bolts of the investigation. The trial moves swiftly forward with the tenacious Mr. Macrea in charge for the defense and the law firm of Markby, Wragg and Rumbold, Solicitors of Coleman Street in the energetic personification of junior partner Noel Anthony Pontarlier Rumbold (known as Nap) traveling to France to track down any possible leads. The sense of France just a few years after the war is well established as is the notion that old crimes are not dead and done for.

I am not a huge fan of shifting stances and points of view and the back and forth of locales, except when it's handled expertly. Michael Gilbert is a master at this sort of sleight of hand.

Intrigues, lies, shifting alibis and courtroom theatrics abound in London while in France, Nap follows various and nebulous leads at the risk of his life. In the meantime back at the office, his father Rumbold senior, frets in very British stiff upper lip style. Author Michael Gilbert is so good at creating these sorts of competent men who aren't flashy but have just enough charisma to entertain. He's not bad at fashioning intriguing women either.

What can I say? A terrific book set in a time that still fascinates me.

It's Friday and this week, Todd Mason is doing Forgotten Book hosting duties at his blog Sweet Freedom


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Salon: The Astounding Work of Contemporary Canadian Painter Judy Garfin






























Judy Garfin is an extraordinary Canadian painter whose majority of work reveals the close-up entanglement and odd scattered beauty of nature, often mixed with a kind of hard-edged fantastical twitch - as when she adds birds to the mix. She specializes in dense detail and texture and elusive hints of mysterious forces at work.

To my mind, she seems the perfect painter for those of us who enjoy reading mysteries.

"In 1990, I returned to canvas for large works and painted on panel for the smaller ones. I painted images of dried and living plant forms to describe an interior world rather than to represent external nature. These gardens, in their concrete description and diversity of forms, textures and patterns, are fictions that tell stories about living things....

My method of working is fused to the content of my painting. I work on a white surface, finishing each element before moving on to the next. There is no underpainting or sketch. Each work grows into its own presence, element by element, on an undifferentiated field." 

Judy Garfin


I discovered Garfin's paintings online (as I have done with many other artists whose work had remained unknown to me until recently) which is why I say, thank goodness for the internet (is it still called that?). If it were good for nothing else but helping us find hidden works of art by brilliant artists, the thing would have been worth all the other angst attached to it. Almost without my consciously knowing it, I also seem to have widened my knowledge and experience of art and find that the most thrilling things of all.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE HOUSE AT SEAS'S END by Elly Griffiths


This is not really a 'forgotten' book, but maybe an overlooked one. I hadn't heard of it until very recently myself. It is the third entry (and possibly my favorite) in an excellent series I've just begun reading with great enthusiasm. Actually I've already read six of the books (my local library being very handy to have close-by) because I can read quite quickly when I want to. The books reminds me, in a very singular way, of Julia Spencer Fleming's Russ Van Alstyne and the Rev. Claire Fergusson mysteries set in a cold and snowy upstate New York town. Those of you who are familiar with those books will get what I'm talking about in a moment. Those of you who haven't, well add another great series to your list. Besides this one, I mean.

The main characters in Griffith's series are involved in a long term 'will they or won't they ever wind up together' relationship in which a married cop and a single professional woman are drawn to each other despite the fact that the cop is happy enough in his marriage and loves his wife. Hey, these things happen especially during a very intense criminal investigation in which a child is the victim and turbulent emotions are running high. (See the first book in the series, THE CROSSING PLACES.)

The result of this particular indiscretion is that in this third book, Ruth Galloway is just back from maternity leave and struggling with the dual difficulties of being a new single mother and a Dr. of Archaeology working with the police while also teaching at an university.

But you won't hold it against the doctor, that's how sympathetically her character is written (again in common with Julia Spencer Fleming) and her motivations are understandable. As are Harry Nelson's (the cop involved) mixed feelings of guilt, desire and confusion. For this reason, I'd recommend that the series be read in order of publication. I did exactly that. The various character relationships will be richer for you taking the time to do it this way.

However, if you don't want to, it's not the end of the world but you'd be missing out on the behind the scenes details of ongoing plot lines developed over time by an intelligent writer who has obvious affection for her characters and their various plights. Everything here is evolving book by book and as one might expect, the reader (as well as the characters involved) will begin to take sides.

Dr. Galloway is a forensic archaeologist and head of the archaeology department at the University of Norfolk. Norfolk is a county in mostly rural East Anglia, U.K. The area is bordered by the North Sea and by an estuary known as The Wash. So you can imagine that winters in this section of England might be a trifle frigid and windblown. Most of the books I've read so far seem to have plots which unravel during rainy, cold, icy, winters which add enormously to the atmospherics.

The mystery is almost an afterthought, if you will, an embellishment to the memorable characters which I grew to care about more and more. Plus there's a bleakness of mood and setting which practically make a hot cup of tea a necessity while reading. All good, in my view. And since I'm a big fan of archaeologists in general, I do gravitate towards them when they add solving murder mysteries to their resume.

Now to the plot:

When erosion reveals six skeletons - hands tied behind their backs - in a ravine on a remote Norfolk beach, Dr. Galloway is called in to take a look. Bones are her specialty and she soon determines that these male skeletons are of German extraction. So the cops are dealing with a possible war crime - the coast having been manned by home troops on the look-out for an invasion early in the British part of the war 70 or so years before.

The on-going erosion not only reveals long buried secrets, but continues to peel away at the ground beneath the property perched atop the cliff. The few inhabitants of Sea's End House know that they must soon abandon their home since it will eventually fall victim to the sea. Jack Hastings, the current owner lives there with his elderly mother and his troubled granddaughter. His father, Buster Hastings, was a member of the Home Guard during the war but apparently the family knows next to nothing about six dead Germans found on the beach.

The problem with old crimes is that possible witnesses are surely dead or almost so which makes learning what might have happened that much more difficult. When a veteran in a nursing home is questioned, he winds up dead shortly thereafter. Then another elderly veteran turns up dead in his own home. Whatever information they might have revealed is buried with them. Someone is moving quickly to stop the true story of what happened beneath the cliffs from coming out. Eventually a German journalist shows up looking for answers. As Nelson and Ruth consider that the locals are not telling all they know, another murder occurs unleashing the possibility that Ruth's baby girl, Kate, might be in danger. The last quarter of the book, a fast-paced anxiety inducing race against time in the middle of a coastal snow storm, makes for terrific reading.

Alongside the clever mystery which, by the way, is loaded with clues (though far-fetched, I especially like the clue of the bunch of mystery books left to someone in a will) just in case you're into trying to solve the case ahead of Nelson and Ruth, we get further visits from a continuing cast - various characters who are not only memorable but are the sorts of people one wouldn't mind knowing.

For instance: Cathbad the druid, a good friend to Ruth and an immensely likable hovering presence in a purple cloak. And Shona, a not as likable friend who doesn't know anything about babies, but is happy enough to babysit when desperation calls for it. And Detective Sergeant David Clough, the not-so-politically correct detective and McDonald's aficionado who grows on you as the books progress. And Detective Sergeant Judy Johnson, the female cop of the team who is engaged to be married to her childhood sweetheart as she finds herself intrigued by the guy in the purple cloak.

Author Elly Griffiths makes us care about all these imperfect characters in a way which gives them additional life, her writing style helps the story develop in a very visual way - the way the best books do. I know that devoting oneself to a series takes a dedicated amount of time, but I wouldn't be recommending this particular series if I didn't think it was worth it. And it's not as though there are thirty books involved - there are only 10 including next year's book. AND there is a handy dandy omnibus with the first three mysteries available. I mean, things couldn't get any easier.

And since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: WHO KILLED THE CURATE? (1944) by Joan Coggin


When this book was recommended on someone's recent blog post I first thought it was one of those modern charmless ultra-cozies being written by everyone these days, but turns out I was wrong. Joan Coggins is a Golden Ager - who knew? I forget where I read the review but whoever it was - A BIG THANK YOU! The book was a joy from beginning to end.

Quote from the backcover: "Coggin writes in the spirit of Nancy Mitford and E.M. Delafield. But the books are mysteries, so that makes them perfect." Katherine Hall Page, mystery author.

Actually this is an ultra-cozy, but loaded with charm and the little delights that writers of that era were so clever about. Why hadn't I known about her work? It turns out that Joan Coggin was not the most prolific of writers, she wrote four mysteries and then stopped. She also wrote a few 'girl books' under the pseudonym of Joanne Lloyd - books with titles like JANE RUNS AWAY FROM SCHOOL and BETTY OF TURNER HOUSE - that sort of thing. After the mysteries published from 1944 - 1949, she wrote no more for thirty years and died in 1980. I can't find any other book listings for her online. For whatever reason four was all she wrote and maybe that's why she never rose up the ranks of fame and mystery-writing fortune. So now it's up to us to spread the word about her talents and her delightful heroine, Lady Lupin Lorrimer Hastings.

Remember how I've previously mentioned books with certain titles will always catch my eye - well, who could resist the allure of WHO KILLED THE CURATE? Not me.

I love a good mystery set in an English village just before or during WWII, especially when it's loaded with the types of villagers that in real life would drive you crazy, but in book form are highly entertaining. AND oh by the way, Christmas happens in the middle of it all. I mean, come on, what could be better?

Lady Lupin Lorrimer is a young bored about town member of the 'smart set' when at a London party she first meets Andrew Hastings, the vicar of Glen Marks Parish. She is in her early twenties, he is in his early forties. It is love at first sight to the consternation of friends and family.  Before long  'Loops' as she's known by her close friends, marries the handsome vicar and off they go (after a proper honeymoon) to his quiet house in a quiet country village in Sussex and a life of quiet parish doings.

Unfortunately Lady Lupin is not sure how a vicar's wife is supposed to behave since she's never actually spent much time around clergy or churches. Her duties seem strange and utterly bewildering and life at the vicarage, instead of being the too quiet life she'd been dreading is instead full of social invitations, dinner invitations, tea parties, sherry parties and villagers coming and going at all hours seeking advice and wanting Lady Lupin to join this committee or that or plan one fete or another without hardly giving the poor girl a chance to breathe.

From the back cover: 'She's hopelessly at sea at the meetings of the Mother's Union, Girl Guides, Temperance Society. Nonetheless, she's determined to make her husband Andrew proud of her - or, at least, not to embarrass him too badly.' 

It doesn't help that Lady Lupin is a scatterbrain who lives up to her nickname of Loops. However, since she is charming, endearing and utterly guileless, she is not faulted for her lack of brilliance. The vicar is besotted with her and she with him and so she's determined not to be undone by expectations except occasionally, but then she thinks how life without Andrew wouldn't suit her at all, and she buckles down to do her best to get things right.

The villagers welcome Lady Lupin with open arms, thankful their vicar has at last brought home a wife even if she is not exactly what they had imagined for him.

The setting is just right: Glanville, a charming village in the English countryside of Sussex, a warm and comfortable rectory with cozy nooks and crannies, working fire places and comfy chairs, the requisite English garden and an exhausting array of assorted villagers to keep things hopping.

Much of the first half of the book is taken up with Lady Lupin's hapless forays into the life of the parish - often just carried along willing to do her duty, reluctant to give offense, nudged here and there,  as things somehow come together and work out in the end. No one seems to really mind Lady Lupin's misunderstandings and occasional faux pas probably because she is, first and foremost, a lady. And being an attractive young woman doesn't hurt.

"The evening on which she was to go to her first dinner party found her rather nervous. She had bought two black evening dresses while they had been in Paris on their honeymoon, laboring under the delusion that they were suitable for a vicar's wife. Andrew was not sure of their suitability, but he liked seeing her in them.

"How do I look, Andrew?" she asked, turning from her looking-glass as he came into the room. Her fair hair had been brushed back until it looked like silver, she had really put on very little rouge or lipstick, and her dress was black; but somehow she didn't look like a clergyman's wife. Andrew burst out laughing, then he caught her up in his arms and kissed her until she had to recomb her hair and repowder her face.

Andrew sighed as he watched her. "To think," he said, "that after sixteen years of blameless priesthood, that this should happen to me! You don't look like a wife at all, least of all a vicar's wife. Come along, we mustn't be late. When they say seven forty-five in Glanville, the mean seven forty-five."

The rest of the cast of characters include Lupin's close London friends Duds and Tommy Lethbridge who, currently traveling, will show up by invitation to spend a few days, alongside the vicar's nephew, Jack Scott, who happens to be a secret service agent on leave and visiting over Christmas.  The curate in the title, Mr. Young is not the most likable sort but is devoted 'to the adventure of Christianity...I should like to see a missionary box in every home, I should like children to spend their leisure hours in reading lives of missionaries; I should like every boy and girl in the parish to grow up with the wish to be missionaries themselves."  See, that's the sort of thing that after awhile just gets to be too tedious - no wonder the guy gets bumped off.

Other villagers worth noting are the ascerbic and witty Diane Lloyd, a 38 year old writer of children's books currently writing a detective story, and her room-mate 20 year old June Stuart whom Lupin thinks she'll turn into a friend. In fact, Lupin likes both women and is therefore most terribly upset with Diane is first suspected of poisoning Mr. Young, the curate. She has a strong motive which you will probably deduce rather quickly.

But almost everyone in the village sooner or later comes under suspicion (for a brief moment, even Andrew!) including the single-minded Mrs. Brown wife of the town doctor, unable to keep her servants for long and always on the lookout for that rarity - an unemployed maid, churchwardens Mr. and Mrs. Grey - she who is involved in almost every social and/or church activity in the village - they are the couple with whom the unfortunate curate had tea on the fateful day and in whose house he died, there's also Phyllis Gardner whose chief interest in life is the Girl Guides and a pimply young fellow named Lancelot who is sure he's going to be arrested at any moment. And of course a whole gaggle of girl guides themselves and a bunch churchy ladies, all in the habit of walking in and out of the vicarage looking in vain for Lady Lupin to take the lead in all manner of activities of which she knows nothing. All very nice people, very respectable and not the sorts of people who would ever think of committing murder.

But you know what Agatha Christie had to say about respectable people.

So when murder does come to Glanville, what else is Lady Lupin to do but turn sleuth especially since Andrew's nephew Jack the secret service agent, is on the premises willing to lend a hand. Her motive is that she doesn't want any of her friends to be the murderer because everyone's too nice and anyway even if she does find out who killed the curate, she's sure they must have a very good reason.

Christmas comes and goes and the day after (Boxing Day in England) is philosophized on by Lady Lupin:

"What I like about Boxing Day," said Lupin, "is that no one can expect one to do anything. The shops are shut, so even if there is no food, one doesn't have to go out and get any. One's friends are occupied in writing thank-you letters, and the poor are usually feeling ill after their one square meal of the year, so one is bound to have a little peace for once."

But not for long.

WHO KILLED THE CURATE? is lots of fun abetted by lots of laughs in service of a pretty good whodunit. Though the primary reason for liking the book is Lupin Lorrimer Hastings herself, with ambience a close second, not to mention the sorts of English village goings on that seem quaint and engaging and oddly attractive - at least to me. Not serious literature by any means, but still a treat and I'll be reading the other three in the series sooner rather than later.

Once again it's Friday, so don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's host blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE CURSE OF THE BRONZE LAMP (1945) by Carter Dickson


Yes, I can hear you saying: But Yvette, you swore you would not be reading anymore Carter Dickson books for awhile. Yes, I did and I gave good enough reasons why in my recent post. But as you all know, I am a woman of capricious nature and faced with a book entitled THE CURSE OF THE BRONZE LAMP – what would you have me do??
I’m not made of steel, you know.

And besides, Sir Henry Merrivale is not, in general, his usual obnoxious self in this one. But I didn’t know that going in and I groaned thinking what I might be in for, but damn me if I could resist the lure of the title. And when I saw the word ‘Egypt’ in the synopsis – it was a done deal. I mean, this is the sort of thing that makes my heart beat just a little faster – THE CURSE OF….or THE MURDER OF….or THE ADVENTURES OF…or THE DEATH OF… and remember MURDER ON SAFARI?? These are the sorts of titles that make my heart go pitter-pat.

(I’ve got another great title coming up next week, but it’s not a Carter Dickson and I’m still in the middle of reading it.)

Hint: Plot-wise, THE CURSE OF THE BRONZE LAMP has something specifically in common with another Dickson/Merrivale book, AND SO TO MURDER. Though one takes place in a movie studio in London and the other takes place in Egypt and then in a big old stately manor house in the English countryside. I can say no more.

If the following doesn’t have you itching to get your hands on THE CURSE OF THE BRONZE LAMP, then your idea of a fun read and my idea of one are irreconcilable. 

In 1934-35, a group of British archaeologists headed by a Professor Gilray and the Earl of  Severn had discovered the tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh on the west bank of the Nile. The world was thrilled. Reporters eager to rhapsodize about the riches supposedly discovered descended on the site. Remembering what happened when the tomb of King Tut had been unearthed a few years earlier, they searched about for a curse angle that would thrill their readers. They wouldn’t have long to wait.

In the second year of the dig, Professor Gilray was stung by a scorpion and promptly died. The curse angle was on with a vengeance. Was it the tomb or the bronze lamp that killed the professor? Or both? Severn and his daughter Helen as well as his associate Sandy Robertson (who happens, of course, to be in love with Helen) all poo-poo the curse.

But now Lord Severn, feeling a little under the weather, insists on sending his daughter along with the infamous bronze lamp, home to Severn Hall. He and Robertson will follow along at a later date.

At the train station surrounded by reporters Lord Severn's daughter emphatically states that there is no curse and all she wants to do is get back to Severn Hall and place the bronze lamp on the mantelpiece in her room. But a local soothsayer named Alim Bey, declares (on the train platform in full view of reporters) that Lady Helen will not reach that room alive.

What fun.

Meanwhile Sir Henry Merrivale traveling on the same train is also headed back to London after his own trip to Egypt.  Not so coincidentally, Lady Helen is sharing the carriage with ‘the old man.’ She garbles some nonsense about curses and gossip and reporter speculation and could he (Merrivale) in his wisdom give her some advice but before he can say much she suddenly has a change of heart and decides she doesn’t want Merrivale’s help at all. And you thought I was capricious.

Sir Henry will later weave this odd moment into his who-did-what-to-whom theory as he puts together the truth of the entire matter.

But before that happens, we have a disappearing Lady Helen who vanishes as soon as she enters Severn Hall. Then we have the matter of a missing portrait AND a mysterious man named Beaumont who shows up wanting to purchase the bronze lamp. Then there is the matter of Kit Farrell, another young gent in love with Helen who is frantic to discover what has happened to her. Not to mention their mutual friend Audrey Vane who happens to be in love with the aforementioned Sandy Robertson – so lots of romantic complications as well as mysterious doings. Not the least of which are the missing gold artifacts which disappeared from the original Egyptian haul and are nowhere to be found – have they made their way illegally to London?

Inspector Masters and Sir Henry are soon on the scene as the merry mix-up gets more and more complicated and yet another person vanishes.

This is one of those hidden in plain sight stories in which the clues are pretty fairly distributed except for the identity of the bad guy which, in the end, seems to me to be more of a ‘close your eyes and pick a killer’ moment than anything really logical. But other than that, a terrific book with plenty of page-turning diabolics to keep those of us who love this sort of thing, reading late into the night.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE ARROW POINTS TO MURDER (1937) by Frederica de Laguna


Thanks to John at Pretty Sinister Books, I was recently able to read this cracking good mystery set in one of my all time favorite murder spots: a natural history museum! I think we can all agree that the atmosphere for murder is ripe in this sort of setting. Think about it: creepy animal dioramas, skeletons of all shapes and sizes, weird anthropological minutia, archaeological rarities, exotic botanical samples, ethnological displays, drawers full of bugs and spiders, mysterious bits and pieces of jungle exotica and natural history and best of all, obscure poisons and blow guns! It's a wonder more murders don't occur there.

I first heard about this book (by an author unknown to me at the time) from John's excellent review at Pretty Sinister Books, so if you want a more detailed look at THE ARROW POINTS TO MURDER, go directly there. He does this sort of thing much better than I do.

Behind the scenes at the ornate New York Academy of Natural Sciences teems a hive of highly dedicated scholars and curators. They are as one might imagine, a quirky, scruffy, pedantic bunch overflowing with enthusiasm for their own scientific specialties, each with their own ax to grind, especially when it comes to funding. But on the whole the group is genial enough so that some of them even lunch together at a local aptly named dive, 'Ptomaine Joe's.' Their conversation there is, as you might expect, mostly museum shop talk which I very much enjoyed.

As soon as they were established in the restaurant and had made the dubious choice between wild rabbit (including the shot) draped with gravelly spinach, and flabby ravioli flanked by sinister string beans (more string than legume), Reichenbach pounced upon his audience.

"I've just made a thrilling discovery," he announced, no longer able to suppress the news. "in that batch of lice and fleas that the Hill Museum sent me to identify I found a new type of louse. It's a head louse - the specimens were actually found on the head of one of their oldest Egyptian mummies - but it looks more like a body louse. The type is extinct. And there's no doubt of its antiquity.....Now in Pediculus humanis capitis - head louse to you - the body is somewhat more slender, and the claws for grasping the host's hair are more highly developed than in Pediculus vestimenti - the body louse. In this respect, and in others of a more technical nature -"  Reichenbach, noting the bewildered expressions of his audience, decided to omit these interesting technicalities.

Our sleuth to be is Barton the archaeologist. (The museum is the sort of place where the men all refer to each other by their last names.) In his eagerness to solve the crime he will withhold pertinent information and surmises from the police. His rationale: he insists the cops would never be able to sift through the museum's behind the scenes arcana and day-to-day details in the same way he could. In reality this would place him in great legal jeopardy, but in a book, all is forgiven when the murderer is revealed.

If you (like me) have a liking for esoteric information (not necessarily about head lice) and other obscurities such as curare poison and its uses by jungle tribes and you enjoy reading about museum hierarchy and the nuts and bolts that the museum going public isn't privy to, then this is definitely the book for you.

In the meantime, here's the plot in a nutshell:

When not-so-nice department head Dr. Oberly is found dead on the floor of his office, it is assumed he pricked his fingers on the sharp end of a poisoned arrow. The arrow was part of a shipment of artifacts being packed up for lending to a museum in Russia.

Oberly's death is seen as a tragic accident. But when a second curator dies horribly, gassed in a sealed store room, it appears a murderer lurks in the museum. Dr. Barton deduces this almost immediately, convinced that he alone can solve the crime. He possesses a bit of knowledge that if revealed would put the murderer on his guard.

"...Give me a week! If I can't discover the guilty person withing that time we must call in the police."

An oddity in the story (or so it seemed to me) is the fact that a medical examiner isn't called in until the second death AND neither are the police. Dr. Oberly's body is cavalierly moved and sent off to the funeral parlor without any official notification of the police. One would think that dying from some form of poisoning might be seen as a suspicious death - even if it looks like an accident. I wonder if that was the norm way back then in Manhattan?? No, I don't think so. After all, Nero Wolfe and his ilk were busy then solving crimes in which a dead body always meant the involvement of the cops, one way or another. (Well, most of the time.)

By the way, this very same thing happened in a British mystery I read recently - the body was moved and the cops weren't even called, just a local doctor. Go figure.

At any rate, once the two murders are linked, Barton sets to work with the help of a doctor friend who will contrive to send results of pertinent scientific tests in the nick of time and the aid of the museum's head guard, a man with the unfortunate name of Winterbutt. Barton not only has to find out who the murderer is, but how the killings were done since most everyone has some sort of alibi for the relevant times and there is no apparent motivation to speak of. He has just a few days to solve the thing before his friend must report their suspicions about the second death to the authorities.

The two main reasons I enjoyed this mystery so much were the museum ambiance which added a nicely unique aspect to the story and the often arcane scientific minutia which runs throughout. Who knew that such intrigue goes on behind the scenes in a place where all the exhibits are dusty and long dead?

Oddly enough, I recently read another mystery in which an arrow also plays a part - THE CHELTENHAM SQUARE MURDER by John Bude. It's odd how that happens some times. I mean, it's not like death by arrow is a regular run of the mill occurrence.

John's review of THE ARROW POINTS TO MURDER will reveal pertinent facts about this talented author who, for reasons unknown, only wrote a very few mysteries, hence her dwelling in obscurity. See link above.

Todd Mason, at his blog, Sweet Freedom, is doing meme hosting duties today for author Patricia Abbott who is away. So don't forget to check in at Todd's for the links.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: DESTINATION UNKNOWN aka SO MANY STEPS TO DEATH (1954) by Agatha Christie


When in doubt, reach for a Christie - words to live by. A quick re-read and all's right with the world again - at least for the moment. (This post is a re-working of a review I did several years ago of a book I never get tired of re-reading, especially when I'm in need of escaping to a more comfortable, more familiar world. And boy, these days do I ever need that.)

Destination Unknown (aka So Many Steps to Death) by Agatha Christie is a stand-alone published in 1954 - the book doesn't feature Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot nor any of the other Christie sleuths. In fact, for the most part this is a thriller though it also has, as a major plot surprise, an element of whodunit thrown in for good measure at the end. Christie was often tricky like that.

Probably not as well known as the titles in the Poirot and Marple canons, but I think this is in many ways, one of Christie's more comforting bests, even if the oh-so-improbable plot requires a larger than average suspension of disbelief. It is in my view, perfect escapist entertainment. The story begins with a sad woman on the verge of suicide and ends with her a heroine no longer sad. Through an extraordinary set of circumstances, she has found the strength to survive.

Hilary Craven is a young, typically subdued British woman who has lost her beloved child to illness and her husband to ennui. As an escape she gets on a plane to Paris, a runaway who discovers almost immediately that you cannot run away from yourself - wherever you are, there you are. Seeing no point to the emptiness of her life, she plans a nice, quite out-of-the-way suicide - wouldn't want to bother anyone back home in England. Christie was not being especially subtle when she named her heroine Craven. Though, in truth, her character's motivation is easy enough to understand.

This quest for oblivion is deduced at a conveniently opportune moment by a shady character named Jessop (of the intelligence service), who picks up on Hilary's intention with no more than an experienced hunch, To watch him reel her into his grand scheme of impersonation (it's her flaming red hair, you see) is a Christie, fairy-tale delight. (Yeah, this is definitely a candidate for my Fairy Tale Crime sub-genre which would also include THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT and THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD, both also by Christie.)

As she is lining up some pills, Jessop stealthily breaks into Hilary's hotel room and upsets her immediate plans:

"...You're not interested in life, you don't want to live any longer, you more or less welcome the idea of death?"

"Yes."

"Good," said Jessop, cheerfully. "So now we know where we are. Let's go on to the next step. Has it got to be sleeping pills?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I've already told you that they're not as romantic as they sound. Throwing yourself off a building isn't too nice, either. You don't always die at once. And the same applies to falling under a train. What I'm getting at is that there are other ways."

"I don't understand what you mean."

"I'm suggesting another method. Rather a sporting method, really. There's some excitement in it, too. I'll be fair with you. There's just a hundred to one chance that you mightn't die. But I don't believe under the circumstances, that you'd really object by that time."

The gist of the plot: several top-notch scientists have disappeared from their various corners of the world and no one knows where they are - not their governments, families, closest friends or fellow workers. Because of the delicate nature of their scientific specialties, government agencies are naturally concerned. The suspicion is that these learned men and women have gone over to the other side, slipped away behind the Iron Curtain - it was that time in history. If so, there's not much to be done, but if there should be another explanation then...

When Olive Betterton, a young, trim red-headed English woman suspected of being on her way to wherever her husband Tom - a nuclear physicist - is hiding, is badly hurt in a plane crash on the very plane that Hilary Craven would have been on had not the weather forced her connecting flight to detour away from the airport, well then, you kind of know where this is headed. Olive Betterton is pulled barely alive from the wreckage and taken to hospital where all she knows (IF she knows) about Tom Betterton's mysterious disappearance will die with her, unless...

Well, this is an Agatha Christie plot, so you have to expect surprises on top of surprises and boy do you get them here. Such an outlandish plot, but I go along with it every time I re-read the book. I mean, why not? It couldn't happen now, but it could have happened once upon a time...

Hilary Craven is quickly remade into Olive Betterton and sent on her way to join a bunch of disparate travelers, any one of which may or may not be an unknown contact, touring Morocco and other exotic locales. When contact is at last made, it comes in the least expected way and Hillary almost blows it.

Then the circuitous adventure begins. Hillary and certain traveling companions are led away from civilization towards 'a new world.' Their destination? A sinister Utopian society hidden away where no one would ever think of looking. 

Terrific book if you're stricken with the doldrums and feel like a strangely comforting tale of spies, murder, travel, an incredible secret hideout, a cold-hearted villain and last, but not least, a bit of romance and a whodunit twist.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book (s): BLOOD AND JUDGMENT (1951) by Michael Gilbert and DEATH IN FIVE BOXES (1938) by Carter Dickson


Two books today. First a book in which I couldn't wait to see what happened next and second a book in which (sadly) I didn't care what happened next because I lost interest in who did what to whom.

BLOOD AND JUDGMENT by Michael Gilbert, a really terrific and - far as I'm concerned - criminally unheralded book. I've only recently become a fan of Gilbert, being a relative newcomer to his work. Somehow I'd never heard of him except vaguely as if his books existed somewhere 'out there' and were not relevant to what I wanted to read at the time. Silly me.

Once I read the classic, SMALLBONE DECEASED, I became a fan. I also blogged recently about THE EMPTY HOUSE, another Gilbert book which I enjoyed though it was completely different from SMALLBONE - a thriller and not a whodunit.

I haven't read many, but what I have read from this author has been pretty good. (Well except for one dud.) As with any prolific writer, not all of Gilbert's books are equally wonderful, some are more wonderful than others, but I'd say if you haven't read any, don't wait around. Begin with SMALLBONE (if you haven't already) and take if from there.

In BLOOD AND JUDGMENT, we meet one of Gilbert's series characters, Detective Sergeant Patrick Petrella of the London Police, a dogged intuitive policeman devoted to his work. There aren't that many Petrella books, but based on this one, I definitely want to read the rest.

Though the title is kind of blah, I liked the synopsis and the cover and I was quickly caught up in the developing whodunit. This is a police procedural (of which I am very fond) with the usual police minutiae of which I am also very fond but written in a way that you won't get bogged down if that has been your only objection to procedurals in the past. Gilbert's writing is so fluid that it's almost as if you're gliding through the tale as one unexpected turn after another shifts the plot from here to there and back again all without the kind of heavy lifting that plagues less talented writers.

The plot moves very swiftly and once you begin reading, BLOOD AND JUDGMENT will prove to be a prime example of that wonderful cliche: a book almost impossible to put down.

Detective Sergeant Petrella (he's half Spanish) happens to be the cop who is called to the scene when the decomposing body of a woman is discovered by two boys in a tangled wood near a reservoir. As the tale develops we learn who the woman was and little by little how she came to be the victim of murder in a sordid and ever widening case involving an escaped felon, a vicious London gang, a jewel robbery and a sinister shadow of a man capable of changing his identity at the drop of a hat.

Amid the mixed cacophony of bird calls and the occasional hissing swan, a dark unwelcoming mood lingers at the scene of the crime and in the damp and lonely caretaker's cottage. A mood that reaches out to envelope the rainy streets of London as the investigation, a bit short-handed, must adjust to a publicity seeking Scotland Yard man. "For the head of one of the London districts to call in a detective superintendent from the Central pool at Scotland Yard is quite rare enough to be remarkable, and remarked upon."

Not completely satisfied by the results of the investigation, Petrella continues to dig deeper defying the higher ups even when a suspect is arrested, tried and convicted. Though threatened with disciplinary action, Petrella pursues his own clandestine inquiries. I especially liked the atmospheric night scenes of underwater diving at the reservoir as Petrella and an experienced police diver break the rules in the name of justice.

Here's a tiny sample of the author's often vivid style which I found especially memorable;
"The successful working out of his hunch depended entirely on the co-operation of this fiery little man with the ginger-colored mustache adhering like a blob of bitter marmalade to his aggressive upper lip." I like that.

A well crafted, entertaining book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading and recommend highly.


Now I remember why I stopped reading John Dickson Carr (Carter Dickson) ages ago. Although on the whole I'm a fan - I have recently written two blog posts on a couple of Carr books I liked very much upon re-reading, one I even loved - there comes a point in reading (or re-reading) Carr when your exhausted mind says, ' puh-leeze, take a break.'

Somewhere along the line the locked room or impossible crime nonsense just becomes tedious, (sacrilege to some, I know). But for goodness' sake, the constant rehashing of the crime scene and the ridiculous and detailed suspicions centering on EVERY person in the murder room, not to mention the recounting of the various and sundry ways to imaginatively poison a bunch of people without being seen, eventually made me sleepy.

 I know John over at PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS doesn't share my views on this particular book, so head on over there and read his much more appreciative review. Look, I didn't hate the book, I just stopped caring and - gasp - found myself skimming. And if I have to hear Henry Merrivale address another male character as 'son' one more time I will spit. A little bit of Merrivale goes a very long way especially if you make the mistake of reading a couple of the books too close together.

Here is the difference as defined by myself to myself: I like whodunits. John Dickson Carr wasn't really writing whodunits, he was writing complicated and often very eccentric puzzles. Yes, I've enjoyed a few so far, but I made the mistake of reading one right after another - you can't do that with John Dickson Carr aka Carter Dickson.

DEATH IN FIVE BOXES begins cunningly enough with a dead man found in a room full of poisoned people who all survive but the victim. The dead guy wasn't poisoned (at least I can't remember if he was or not), instead he was stabbed in the back with a sword blade from one of those tricky umbrellas. So why all the song and dance? Why were the others poisoned? Who poisoned them? And HOW?? What was the point of poisoning the group then turning around and stabbing one guy? Who knows? I still haven't quite come up with the raison d'etre.

At any rate, a doctor who works with the police is almost immediately on the scene (he's the nominal hero) as is the daughter of one of the poisoning victims (the love interest) who, handily enough, was waiting outside the building where the murder takes place AND of course, knows more than she's willing to tell. And that's another thing, the constant lies from everyone involved is SO wearisome after awhile. But maybe that's just me.

Where do the five boxes come in? Well, that's later, first there's the odd contents of the victims' pockets (i.e. four watches in one and the rusted parts of an alarm clock in another) and the speculation about what it all means while Merrivale comes on the scene and smugly deciphers everything almost at once, but won't say a thing. Or in moments when it looks as if he's going to say something, he is ALWAYS interrupted by a door opening or a person entering or a phone ringing or God knows what. Not to mention that the same exact thing happens when one of the suspects exclaims, I KNOW WHO DID IT!  Frustrating? Yeah, I'd say so, and underhanded.

I got tired of this very early, that's why I say, I should probably postpone reading more Carr for a while. I recently ordered another of his titles which I will probably just put at the bottom of my unread pile.

Two Carr books I definitely do recommend: THE EMPEROR'S SNUFF BOX and SHE DIED A LADY. 

And since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MURDER ON SAFARI (1938) by Elspeth Huxley


Well, I mean, how can you NOT read a book titled MURDER ON SAFARI? It's almost automatic even if you know going in that there will dead animals. Three of my blogging friends have already written their reviews of Huxley's book though seemingly I was unaware of it until recently. I know, where have I been?

Elspeth Huxley wrote the non-fiction classic, THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA and assorted other books set in the land of her youth (she grew up on a coffee farm in British Kenya) so was very familiar with the African veldt and assorted wildlife. Her knowledge of inhospitable regions is unquestioned and comes through in her vivid descriptions of the land and safari day-to-day.

Of course these sorts of stories usually feature a dead body (it helps if it's a gorgeous female though in this case the female is a little long in the tooth) and a great 'white' hunter and an assortment of witless rich folk 'roughing' it in the wilds of Africa. This group's idea of 'roughing it' is laughable but eccentric enough that you don't hate them for their absurdity - you just sneer, nicely.

Lady Barradale has hired the stalwart Superintendent Vachell to find out who stole her stash of fabulous jewels which she, inadvisedly, insisted on bringing with her on safari. Who brings jewels on safari? Well you might ask - obviously only a very foolish woman. Despite the halfhearted protestations of her hubby, Lady Barradale flaunts her jewels every night at dinner in the jungle then of course has the temerity to be surprised when these jewels go missing.

Turns out that Lady Barradale was carrying on with the second white hunter (there are always two) a young Dutchman who is in love with the lady's step daughter Cara described as 'one of those hard-boiled, prickly girls' and she with him so it did get kind of awkward especially since Cara's fiance is also part of the safari - an affected sort of fellow named Sir Gordon Catchpole. (I know, but THAT'S his name.) He's an interior decorator and seems an odd choice for an heiress, but apparently still waters run deep. 'He was fair and slender and looked delicate.'  Vaguely gay characters were written a certain way back in the day and I can't fault Huxley since most everyone else was writing these fellows in the same fashion. (See Christianna Brand among others.) It was a kind of accepted mindset - I suppose if any sympathy were shown to them, the publishers or even the reading public might have caviled. I don't like the stereotyping but if I continue to read vintage, which I plan to, I will run across this sort of thing now and again.

The short-tempered Lord Barradale appears oblivious not only to his wife's bad behavior but to everything else that goes on around him and spends most of his time fiddling with his cameras. There are nine Europeans in the bunch, four to hunt and five - including a pilot who uses her plane to spot the game and report back to the group - smoothing the way for the others. The animals who die are not exactly given a sporting chance which, by the way, is the subject of a later conversation where Lord Barradale's enlightened view refreshes.

There are also assorted natives and personal valets and such who do the grunt work. And since it is 1938, these Africans are occasionally referred to as 'boys' even among themselves. But none, far as I can see, are treated egregiously. This is just the way it was. In addition there is also a group of renegade natives, members of an especially ferocious tribe, lurking about in the bush. So, lots of atmosphere and lots of danger.

Yes, I know, Yvette actually read a book where animals die. Well, I prepared myself for it - knowing it must happen because at that time people hunting in Africa were not just shooting with cameras. (Though Lord Barradale does spend an inordinate amount of time taking pictures of flora and fauna.) But I gritted my teeth and kept reading - there's not really that much wildlife blood shed. The real blood shed is reserved for the corpse of Lady Barradale which is only found after a wake of vultures has finished dining on her flesh. Nasty.

Later, there's a second murder by wild buffalo. Yes, you read it here first (unless it was mentioned in the previous three reviews). Unique in my experience.

There are also assorted attacks upon the person of Superintendent Vachell who joins the safari masquerading as a hunter though he has no experience being such and his 'disguise' is soon seen through by the lady pilot who apparently knows more than she's letting on. And if you have a plane in a story, it follows that there must, at some point, be a crash. And there is - vividly so.

A very enjoyable book in which the killer remains masked until the very end, at least to me. Superintendent Vachell is not an especially clever chap or for that matter, an engaging one. But he is, as I said, stalwart and bound to do his duty. He is described as tall, bony and sun bronzed and that's good enough for me.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MR. PINKERTON GOES TO SCOTLAND YARD (1934) by David Frome


This is my first Mr. Pinkerton book and I was taken, more than anything else, by the title which is the kind of simplistic thing I love. I read a bit on the series and decided to jump right in though I'm not familiar with the author. David Frome is the pseudonym for a prolific writer named Leslie Ford who was really Zenith Brown (1898 - 1983) whose work I have heard of but am not familiar with - Leslie Ford, that is.

At any rate, I got my hands on an old paperback and lo and behold, I've discovered another enjoyable series to wade through when availability and budget permit. And based on the writing talent displayed in this particular whodunit, I will eagerly be looking to read the rest of Zenith Brown's output under the names of both David Frome and Leslie Ford.

In this series, Mr. Pinkerton is a rabbity middle-aged widower whose wife, when she was alive, made life a living hell. Money-wise he is comfortable, thanks to his late wife's parsimony. Upon her death (minus any will), Mr. Pinkerton inherited the boarding house they lived in and quite a bit more money than anyone thought Mrs. Pinkerton possessed. But despite his wife's death, Mr. Pinkerton has not been set free from a life-time of conditioning. He is still inclined to filter his day to day through the prism of his late wife's disapprobation. Old habits are hard to break.

However, the timid Mr. Pinkerton has managed to become involved in ten mysteries (at least that's the number of books in the series) through his friendship with Inspector Bull of Scotland Yard who previously lived in the Pinkerton boarding house. Through this connection, Mr. Pinkerton has been allowed to add the vigor of an occasional murder to an otherwise monotonous life enlivened only by trips to the movies twice a week,

Since so far I've only read this one book in the series, I can't compare it with any others. Here, Inspector Bull does most of the actual detecting and Mr. Pinkerton is pretty much on the sidelines adding his two cents now and then. We are privy to some of his thoughts but it's Bull who's front and center. I'm wondering if this will be true of the other Pinkerton books - at some point I'll find out. Not that I mind it, for surely it makes more sense to have the Scotland Yard man do most of the grunt work. Though sometimes it's Pinkerton who steers him in the right direction.

On the other hand it is a bit odd that Pinkerton is allowed the freedom to accompany Inspector Bull hither and yon as he tracks down nasty killers who often-times wind up trying to kill Mr. Pinkerton as well. In MR. PINKERTON GOES TO SCOTLAND YARD, we come up against a murderer whose weapon of choice is poison, but as usual suspension of disbelief is needed as Bull allows Pinkerton the unusual freedom of hanging around a murder investigation though he has no legal standing.

A month or so after being prompted by a newspaper article to make a bet with Inspector Bull over the probability that there are murders which go undetected by the police as murders, Mr. Pinkerton overhears some unpleasant gossip. An old woman by the name of Mrs. Ripley is likely being poisoned by members of her household. Curiosity gets the better of Mr. Pinkerton and he is moved to discuss what he's heard with the actual doctor on the case. The doctor of course poo-poos this odd little man who pops up out of nowhere to accost him in the street. In truth, Mrs. Ripley is actually better than she's been in days.

But then things abruptly take a turn for the worst.

The wealthy Mrs. Ripley despised her family and they, in turn, despised her. So when she is poisoned there are several ready suspects at hand. Was the killer Evelyn Ripley, the daughter who was at her mother's constant beck and call? Was it her sister Mrs. Cornish, a widow who had previously been banished when she married a man her mother couldn't abide? Was it the younger brother Hugh Ripley who is also inappropriately in love and lacks the funds to do anything about it? Was it Portus Ladysmith, curate of St. Barnabas in the Field, who was in desperate need of funds for his poverty stricken dock-side church? All benefit in some way from the old lady's will.

A second murder upends the police's investigation which had centered on one person being the most likely culprit. Later we get the usual verbalized denouement in a roomful of suspects as all is revealed by Inspector Bull. But not before the long overdo discovery of a third murder heretofore undetected. It takes Bull and Pinkerton most of the book to finally realize that the killer is 'hiding' in plain sight. The motivation for all this killing is weak but workable. I enjoy whodunits and this is a pretty good one even if the reasoning in the end is a bit faulty.

Since this is Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.  

Friday, July 21, 2017

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: ARROW POINTING NOWHERE (1944) by Elizabeth Daly



I'd read a Henry Gamadge book quite a while back but it was not nearly as intriguing or as engaging a mystery as this one. ARROW POINTING NOWHERE (aka MURDER LISTENS IN) despite one of its titles, has nothing to do with archery and all to do with a cunning mystery, murder and family obfuscation - what could be better?

Henry Gamadge is an author/dealer/sleuth currently doing secret work for the War Department and so you'd think he's be fascinating in and of himself, but unfortunately as created by Elizabeth Daly, he has little personality and almost nothing memorable about him (though there are some who find him charming). But this particular book still makes for an excellent mystery and fascinating puzzle highlighting human behavior at its most bizarre. I read it in large gulps of anticipation. My favorite way to read a mystery.

It occurs to me to interrupt myself at this moment and mention that memorable sleuth protagonists are quite difficult to create without giving way to satire or copycat embellishment.  Lately I've read several mysteries where that the main guy or gal remained a kind of cardboard dud for the entire book. It's quite obvious that Agatha Christie and  Ngaio Marsh and John Dickson Carr and even Ellery Queen and all the other Golden Agers who were capable of fashioning vivid detectives, amateur or otherwise, must have had a quite separate ability for creating interesting sleuths who immediately spring to life. It's funny how some authors can bring most of their characters to life, but leave their main protagonist completely draped in blandness.

But back to the current book:

When Henry Gamadge gets a secret (and very nebulous) message handed him by a rather intelligent and observant mail man, he must find a way to get invited to the house of people he doesn't know. Time seems to be of the essence.  So thinking quickly and with the aid of a book dealing connection, he is able to affect an entrance to the Manhattan mansion of Blake Fenway, head of a reclusive family of wealthy New Yorkers.

To Gamadge, the secret 'message' means someone in that very private house needs help of some sort and has chosen a rather odd way of requesting it. (I might have had a bit of trouble making the initial connection, but Gamadge tumbles to it almost instantly.)

Having cleverly gained entrance to the Fenway mansion, home of a family that reviles publicity and shuns the limelight, Gamadge meets several of the Fenways (after first scoping out the land while lurking in the shadows the night before) and soon he believes he knows who sent the message and why that person could not have contacted him in the normal way.

While at tea, Gamadge observes the residents of Fenway House with a keen eye. They are:

Head of the family Blake Fenway, a book collector and a very likable chap. Unmarried, the Fenway name will come to an end with him.

Caroline Fenway, unsettled but pragmatic daughter of the house.

Belle Fenway a widow and Blake's sister-in-law - an invalid in a wheelchair since an injury aboard ship while fleeing from the war in Europe.

Belle's son, Alden, a grown man with the mind of a five year old boy.

Craddock, Alden's 'keeper' whose job it is to watch out for the unfortunate man/boy and keep him out of trouble.

Miss Grove, Belle Fenway's grim-faced companion.

Mott Fenway, a penniless older cousin beloved by most.

And of course, the servants.

Not living at the mansion at the moment but very involved in the story-line is Hilda Grove, Miss Grove's niece, a wide-eyed innocent who has been sent up to Fenbrook, the Fenway country house to do some research among family records. Craddock, who is himself penniless, has a tenderness for young Hilda thought Blake Fenway is uneasy about it.

How all these disparate characters figure in the ever-expanding investigation is a mystery which little by little, Gamadge manages to piece together despite two giant red herrings placed in our path almost from the getgo. Much of Gamade's deductive reasoning is arrived at without much explanation, so you have might have to stop for a moment now and then and say, "Wait - what?" I did.

After Gamadge's first introduction to the family, he is taken aside by cousin Mott who attempts to explain the root of the obvious family tensions. He sets up a second meeing but the very next day someone pushes poor Mott out an upper window. And through some rather fanciful putting together of two and two making four, Gamadge realizes that Hilda Grove may be in danger.

But when the second murder occurs, it is not Hilda who is found dead.

From strange beginning to even stranger end, this is a fine mystery worth looking for. I found it by accident when someone recommended Elizabeth Daly and I was reminded that I'd meant to read another. Even though I hadn't much liked the first one I'd read - I occasionally like to give these things a second or even a third chance. I do enjoy mysteries set among upper crust families, dead bodies turning up in a large mansions - the incongruity of it all. Additionally I will say that this story despite some familiar devices, features an unique twist which I don't remember having ever encountered before. I'd say even if you've been disappointed by a previous Elizabeth Daly book, forget about it and pick up this one.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: CUE FOR MURDER (1942) by Helen McCloy


Considering that this book was published in 1942, it's a bit disconcerting to note that there are young men in the cast of characters who are not in uniform. But perhaps the manuscript was written before Pearl Harbor (the story is set in New York's theater community). Or maybe it was mentioned and I missed it, at any rate:

This is an excellent whodunit by a writer I'd never heard of much less read until now. (If I'm not mistaken, McCloy was recently recommended by a blogging friend whose name (as usual) escapes me at the moment. My paperback copy has an introduction by Anthony Boucher, the brilliant and influential mystery maven author and editor for whom the annual Bouchercon convention of mystery buffs and writers is named. He prized McCloy's talents and champions the fair-minded set of clues the author lays before the reader.

As some of you know, I am less interested in fair-minded clues laid before me than I am in being stumped and intrigued by a clever plot and wonderful writing. And oh yes, I must like (and/or find interesting) the main detective, amateur or otherwise. In this particular case, I wasn't bowled over by Basil Willing, psychologist/sleuth and police help-mate, but I love his name so much that I am willing to overlook the fact that he isn't a very vivid presence in this particular book (the only McCloy book I've read so far). He's okay in the role, but I'll have to read more before I make a final decision.

"BURGLER FREES BIRD
New York, April 28 - Police are puzzled by the odd behavior of a burglar who broke into Marcus Lazarus' knife-grinding shop near West 44th Street shortly before dawn yesterday. Nothing was stolen but the intruder opened the cage of Lazarus' pet canary and set the bird free. The shop is hardly more than a shack in an alley leading to the stage door of the Royalty Theater."

A new production of an old chestnut ('Fedora' by Victorien Sardou) starring vivid with a vengeance actress Wanda Morley gets more publicity than the leading lady (or anyone else) bargained for when one of the actors is murdered on stage at the Royalty theater on opening night. Don't you love when that happens?

Only one of the few characters in a particular scene could have bumped off the actor who (coincidentally) had the part of someone pretending to be dead. Oh. the irony.

Basil Willing, psychologist and medical assistant to the District Attorney's office, shows up on the case, brought in by the entreaties of the young costume designer and her friend (and ex-fiance) the male lead in the show who was apparently panting after the leading lady, a known home-wrecker. Turns out the dead guy was Wanda Morley's latest married fling and Pauline the costume designer believes the police are ready to arrest Rodney Tait, said lead in the show. Motive: jealousy. But Rod says he was most definitely NOT in love with Wanda and that it was she who was chasing him and making his life miserable.

Oh by the way, Basil Willing had been at that opening night and so was already familiar with the case and with the suspicious circumstance of the black caped person climbing up the theater's dark and shadowy fire escape.

There are tons of clues in this fair play mystery and if the reader is as finely attuned to the quirks of human psychology as is Basil Willing, then the murderer will be evident to the reader shortly after a certain fact becomes known about midway through the book.

The two main clues are the freed canary and the odd behavior of a house fly. Though head scratchingly esoteric, it is all explained in the end, remembering that psychologists don't think like the rest of us.

There are, of course, red herrings and the clue of the underlined paragraph in a script which I suppose makes some sort of sense - yet on the whole, it all works together. THOUGH, I must say that the motivation is as old as time but for all the distracting murder mystery finessing and the remarkable luck of the killer who gets away (at least for awhile) with murder twice over on the same character if not the same actor.

Nothing is memorable here except for the canary clue and maybe the fun of the backstage comings and goings, but still I thought this was quite a good example of a tricky whodunit from a lesser known Golden Age author. I will be reading more of her work.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom - Todd is doing hosting duties this week for author Patricia Abbott - to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE EMPEROR'S SNUFF BOX(1942) by John Dickson Carr


 My apologies, I can't remember which of my blogging friends recommended this book - so sad when you're old and decrepit and your memory fails to function. But whoever it was, THANK YOU!!  This is another terrific Carr book. (I recently began re-reading Carr having totally forgotten the books from the first time around.) THE EMPEROR'S SNUFF BOX is so well set up and so smartly written even if the heroine is a bit of a drip whose behavior on an important night defies logic. But so what, we go along because Carr wants us to and because he's a man and what do men know about women anyway. Right? Besides, in those days of long ago, women were expected to be a bit malleable.

You know, there's something about Carr's writing that almost, ALMOST smacks of soap opera, but he does always manage to steer clear and deliver the goods.

THE EMPEROR'S SNUFF BOX is not part of Carr's regular series stuff and does not feature Dr. Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale. The detecting genius this time out is calm, cool and collected Dr. Dermot Kinross, a psychologist and expert in the criminal mind. The heroine is Eve Neil, she who behaves in very silly fashion, abandoning her common sense when it's needed most. But that is who she is. She also happens to be exceptionally beautiful and rich and will become the main suspect in the murder of her fiancee's father.

The settings are intimate enough, two French villas across from each other - this is the sort of book that would make for a good play since there are few locations and events take place in a short period of time.

At any rate, Ned Atwood is Eve's ex-husband, a man whom she should never have married. He is a handsome and charismatic n'er do well who treated Eve badly yet claims to still love her. We learn early on that he was capable of more than just verbal abuse during the marriage - a thoroughly bad lot as they used to say, but the sort to which certain women gravitate. Hey, he has curly blond hair.

Meanwhile, the Lawes family lives in a corresponding villa across the street from Eve and she has recently become engaged to Toby Lawes, the upright, uptight son of the family. He appears to be everything that Ned is not - he works for a stodgy bank who will brook no scandal in their employees' lives and he worships Eve.

When Ned reads about the engagement, he uses his old key and shows up one fateful night in Eve's bedroom determined to convince her not to marry the stiff shirt across the way.

What Ned fails to recognize is that after being married to him, Eve is desperate for a 'normal' seeming man who will treat her well and give her a the quiet sort of life she yearns for. What Eve fails to recognize is that Toby Lawes might have a secret or two of his own.

Anyway, while trying to convince the persistent Ned to leave her bedroom before scandal ensues - they eventually discover that all is not as it should be across the street. Looking directly into the third floor study, they can see that Maurice Lawes, Toby's elderly father, is slumped at his desk with his head smashed in.

That's the basic set-up.

What follows is one of those stories where things just get worse and worse. Of course, everybody's lying and things better left unsaid get said and secrets are exposed and everything that happens looks suspicious and for sure the police zero in on Eve because of what happens shortly after she forcefully ushers Ned out of her house and into the darkened garden. Oh, and there's a sinister maid named Yvette which I found very funny. Lately I seem to be running into characters named Yvette all over the place. This Yvette is not above lying and  making things very difficult for her employer.

I admit that I figured out who the killer probably was early on, but that's only because I've read a million mysteries (or just about) in my life and I've learned to recognize certain tip-offs - this is a fair play sort of thing so the clues are there. I figured out the 'trick' and felt pretty good about it. But even then, I wasn't sure until nearly the end. I also didn't like that the motive is kind of forced and out of left field, but that's a minor quibble since everything else works beautifully.

If you are new to mysteries (or just new to Carr) this would be a terrific book to begin with because it contains the dazzling sleight of hand Golden Agers Carr and Agatha Christie were famous for and it provides as good a surprise ending as those uninitiated among you could wish for.

Lots of fun to read. So far I'm doing very well with Carr.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to head on over to author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

This is the cover on the paperback I have.  But I much prefer the older hardcover edition.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MYSTERY IN THE CHANNEL (1931) by Freeman Wills Crofts


Thank you British Library Crime Classics and here in this country Poisoned Pen Press, for making lesser known writers of the Golden Age of Crime readily available. Not all the books are of equal quality of course, but the main idea gets an A+ for effort - especially for the trade paperback format featuring such gorgeous cover art and design.

Years ago I read many Freeman Wills Crofts books and then promptly forgot them. (Hey, I also forgot all my John Dickson Carr reading as well, so it's not a selective thing at all.) The only thing I do remember was loving Croft's railroad mysteries - especially all the arcane minutiae. I had more tolerance for written detail then than I do now. Though if the detail is intriguing in some quirky way or other, I can still be brought to attention.

This enjoyable book is strictly a police procedural (as are most of Croft's books involving the always dogged and reliable Inspector French) which many of us are fond of though some of us are not. When done well, I believe they are wonderful, I love 'em. There's just something soothing about reading this sort of thing while your mind takes a break from grappling with Big Ideas.

In MYSTERY IN THE CHANNEL, it's the English channel (as you might have guessed) and the details of boating/shipping/sea-faring take the place of railway minutiae. In fact the actual murders take place aboard a luxury yacht.

While crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe, an apparently dead body is spotted on the deck of a yacht by the captain of the Chichester, a passing steamer. When crew go aboard the yacht they discover a second dead man in the cabin below and no one else on board. Both victims have been shot. The weapon too is missing.

So begins this carefully detailed murder yarn by the acknowledged master of this sort of thing. If two murders on board an otherwise empty boat in the English channel don't intrigue you from the getgo, then go read another book. I was caught up instantly.

We soon learn that the two dead men are the chairman and vice-Chairman of Moxon General Securities, one of the largest and more important financial firms in Great Britain. Uh-oh. It is 1931 and the country is already reeling from economic woes - Moxon itself, unknown to its investors, has been in serious trouble for weeks. The once thriving firm will crash almost as the two bodies are being discovered in the channel. What's more, the chief accountant of Moxon's is missing as is another member of the firm. The financial ruin of thousands of investors (many of them small and dependent) is guaranteed as the firm has losses amounting to 8 million pounds and to make matters even worse, one and a half million pounds in cash is missing.

Scotland Yard, in the form of Inspector French, is almost immediately on the job.

Here the seemingly indefatigable Inspector travels back and forth between France and England - a bloodhound on the trail of the smallest lead, unwilling to rest until the culprit or culprits are caught. The author's talent for description is here finely tuned as he makes written images that plant us firmly in place. He's not much for character finesse and description but he makes sure we know where we are.

An aside: Mrs. French is mentioned once in passing, though French seemingly lives alone in an apartment in London and the missus is nowhere to be seen. (She shows up as background in some of the other books.) I took it as a slight mistake on Croft's part. If he'd had the missus hidden away in a house in the country don't you think French might have mentioned it?

At any rate, over at the foundering Moxon General Securities, the account books are being minutely looked over by what we would today call a forensic accountant, hoping to grasp how the current disaster came about. Turns out that the firm really was in grave cash flow difficulty and the defection of the key management team was apparently a desperate last ditch effort to save their own skins while leaving behind investors to face utter ruin.

With the help of the very accommodating French police, the Inspector runs himself ragged following several trails which eventually peter out. An arrest is made, but soon turns to nothing. After much keen-eyed concentration on time schedules and how many knots a boat can do in so many given minutes, French will eventually get to the bottom of things and catch (at great risk to himself) a cold-blooded and extremely clever killer hidden in plain sight.

This is a particularly engaging Croft book, possibly because of the various settings. It's made me want to read more tales with French in charge. Croft is too often overlooked when it comes to the Golden Agers and it's really a shame. He was an expert practitioner at a fairly specific sort of exercise, the likes of which I find rewarding and enjoyable.

Todd Mason is doing hosting duties this week at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten (or overlooked) book other bloggers are talking about today.