Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Locked Doors by Mary Roberts Rinehart

by Mary

After less than a week Nurse Bosworth, employed to care for the two young sons of Mr and Mrs Francis M. Reed, becomes so nervous she leaves their employ. She believes a crime has been committed in the Reed's house in Beauregard Square. It's certainly an odd household -- she and the children are locked in at night, all the servants have been dismissed, the phone wires are cut, and the boys' parents are extremely jumpy and look positively ghastly.

Enter Nurse Hilda Adams, who occasionally assists the police with information discovered via her professional role. Sent by Detective Patton to replace her colleague, she finds the house to be just as described and so starts her investigation on what is going on. This comes to cover such conundrums as the "basement ghost" seen in houses in the square, where and why the boys' dog disappeared, and explanations for various strange events at night.

Eventually she solves these and associated matters such as the reason the boys' mother sleeps in a cot at the head of the stairs, why all the carpets and most of the furniture has been removed, and what forces the Reeds to keep their lights blazing all night.

My verdict: The clever unexpected solution to this multitude of mysteries explains all the strange events, yet it would likely not occur to most readers. There is a sort-of clue early on that might put them on the track to guessing what is taking place in the house, but I should have liked one or two more obvious pointers. The closing revelations certainly surprised me! More I shall not say about this tightly written and genuinely suspenseful novella for fear of revealing too much.

Etext: Locked Doors by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review: Scarweather by Anthony Rolls

by Mary

Narrator John Farringdale kicks off his account by explaining he has been persuaded by old friend Frederick Ellingham to relate the details of a tragedy that occurred at Scarweather, a tragedy in which both men were heavily involved.

Farringdale then introduces his two great friends at university: his cousin Eric Tallard Foster and reader in chemistry Ellingham, an older Rennaissance man with a wide and astonishing variety of acquaintances. Foster, although studying medicine, is also keen on archaeology, and it is this interest that leads him to make the acquaintance of Professor Tolgen Reisby via their memberships in the London Archaeological Union. In due course Foster is invited to visit Scarweather, Reisby's home near the northern England fishing hamlet of Aberleven, and a friendship develops, as a result of which Farringdale and Ellingham also meet the Reisby family.

The first hint of unusual undercurrents swirl by when Ellingham reveals to Farringdale he had seen the professor in a sailors' eating house in Poplar. Ellingham takes Farringdale there to lunch, despite the place not being as he puts it "a proper scene for a young gentleman". By chance they observe the professor playing chess there and given Poplar is not the most salubrious area of London, it seems Reisby is one of those eccentric academics so often found in mystery fiction and doubtless also in real life. In any event, the friendship between the three young men and the professor and his wife flourishes and the trio soon become visitors to Scarweather. Before long the aforementioned tragedy occurs. World War I intervenes and so it is only years later that the characters return to Scarweather and unravel the nature of the tragedy.

My verdict: Once past the first couple of chapters the pace, while still unspooling slowly, picks up and the reader is treated to one or two nicely done pen portraits of characters as well as interesting details on how an archeological dig is conducted. At one point Farringdale asks the rhetorical question "who could have suspected...the gathering elements of a dark and appalling tragedy?" Astute readers will be already be suspecting ahead of him, but part of the twisty ending may well catch them by surprise despite pointers earlier towards at least part of the revelations. A matter that intrigued me, and one no doubt rooted in the social conventions of the time, is that nothing is done when the solution to the tragedy is uncovered, the reason for lack of action being concern about ramifications for relatives. While this gives readers an ethical point to ponder, it will also disappoint some. Thus I reluctantly award this novel a B, with the hope of better liking the next I read by this author.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review: The Winter Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

by Mary

A house party is under way at Rexton Manor in the Berkshires to celebrate the return of Carrington Rexon's son and heir Richard from his studies in Europe. However, Rexon Senior is nervous about his fabled emerald collection, given the mixed bag of café society guests. Philo Vance will easily blend in and so agrees to keep an eye on the situation.

The story gets off to a mysterious start, for the first person Vance and his personal advisor and friend Van Dine see on arrival at the extensive Rexon estate is Ella Gunthar, companion to Richard's invalid sister Joan. Ella is figure-skating alone on a pond in the woods to the music of a portable gramaphone. The large house is full of Bright Young Things, including singer Sally Alexander, treasure hunter Stanley Sydes, and gentleman jockey Chuck Throme. In addition, the Rexon family physician Dr Loomis Quayne pops in regularly to visit Joan.

It is not long before dark events take place. The guard of the wing in which Carrington Rexon's gem collection is kept is found dead at the foot of a cliff in suspicious circumstances. There are plenty of suspects, not just the guests but also Eric Gunthar, Ella's father and overseer of the estate workers, and Old Jed, a hermit who lives in the woods. Then Carrington Rexon is knocked out, the key to the gem room stolen, and his collection rifled of its choicest items. Much more will happen before Vance is able to aid the local constabulary in unmasking the murderer and thief.

My verdict: This is a particularly interesting novel in that while it has plenty of dialogue its style is telegraphic, and there are no footnotes or learned ramblings by Vance. The introduction explains when Van Dine died suddenly the work had reached his usual second stage of writing, meaning it lacked "the final elaboration of character, dialogue, and atmosphere". Van Dine fans therefore have the extra treat of in effect looking over his shoulder as he works.

Shorn of its usual elegant encrustations, then, the plot of The Winter Murder Case is revealed naked to its bare bones but it is still intricate enough to give the reader a chance to deduce the solution before it is revealed. A vital clue in plain sight and misdirection aplenty makes this Philo Vance adventure a valiant last hurrah.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: Death of a Viewer by Herbert Adams

by Mary

Since it was published in the 1950s, Death of a Viewer hangs its toes over the precipice marking the end of the Golden Age of mysteries, but what the hay says I, let's agree this entry is grandfathered into that general area of interest.

Captain Oswald Henshaw tells his lovely young wife Sandra their financial resources are gone but suggests if he sees her in compromising circumstances with Ewen Jones, Member of Parliament for an East London constituency, there could well be financial benefits. Ewen's father is Lord Bethesda and his stepmother is worth half a million, so naturally they'd want to keep scandal -- such as Hensaw bringing an action for alienation of affection against Ewen -- from breathing nastily on the family name, not to mention the effect of such a proceeding on Ewen's political career.

Amateur sleuth Major Roger Bennion becomes involved in the case because Ewen lives in one of a number of houses built by Bennion Senior. Located near the London docks, these homes with their little gardens are let to the aged and infirm at the affordable rent of six shillings a week, repairs and rates being paid for by their landlord. Bennion occasionally inspects the houses to see all is well but on this occasion he arrives to visit Ewen, who as an MP is much better off than the other tenants, in order to ask him to move out of the house he is occupying so Lord Bethesda's elderly gardener Daniel Floss could retire and he and his wife live there.

Having obtained his tenancy in a sly and roundabout way, Ewen refuses to leave but suggests Bennion visit Welton Priory, the family home, to discuss the matter with his father and (a nice touch, I thought) the gardener. It seems several Labour MPs are shortly to meet at the priory to secretly discuss plans to ginger up the party. Bennion's presence will suggest the gathering is the usual type of house party — and while he's there perhaps he'll be able to persuade Ewen's father to buy him, Ewen, a house or give him a generous allowance! The Henshaws will also be attending, and thus the wheels of the plot begin to turn.

The viewer's death occurs in a room full of people watching TV and with very little to initially go on except a scrap of paper and a house full of suspects. Other deaths follow and Bennion and Scotland Yard's Superintendent Yeo and Inspector Allenby cooperate to solve the crime.

My verdict: This novel will remind readers of the unrest in the air in the 1950s as Lord Bethesda's guests discuss the abolition of hereditary titles and the monarchy, financial reforms to reduce or even pay off the National Debt, and changes in trade unions connected to their right to strike, while also expressing disgust at looming possibilities for easier divorces and the legalisation of what is quaintly described as the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Some of these matters might well make the legendary retired Cheltenham colonels who so often write to the editor of The Times weep with joy, but alas they tend to swamp parts of the earlier part of the novel and do not add very much to the plot.

However, once we get to the actual detecting the story runs along nicely. More than one guest has what they might see as good reason to act against the deceased, so most of them are suspected at one time or another and the solution roars up after an unexpected twist that caught me by surprise. I regret to say however that on the whole this novel is not one of the best I have read.

Death of a Viewer by Herbert Adams

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Review: And Then There Were None

by Mary

And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie's justly famous impossible crime tour de force: how could it be that on otherwise uninhabited Indian Island an entire house party, not to mention the servants, have been murdered when, between foul weather and lack of a boat, there is no way for the culprit to escape?

A disparate collection of people has been invited to visit the island by its owner Mr Owen. For various reasons -- such as accepting the offer of a free holiday, arriving to take up the post of temporary secretary to Mrs Owen, a medical man responding to a request for a professional consultation -- they all accept. On arrival they find Mr and Mrs Owen have been detained on the mainland and will not arrive until next day, but two servants are on hand to see to the guests' comfort.

But they are not comfortable for long. Suddenly a recording accusing each of them -- including the servants -- of murder is played in the room next to the one in which they gathered for dinner. In due course we learn details of these accusations and they are a sordid collection indeed: murders for financial gain or brought about by marital jealousy, for example.

Even the presence of an ex-C.I.D. man asked there to keep an eye on Mrs Owen's jewels is not enough to stop the ensuing inexorable procession of deaths. Despite all precautions, someone is picking off one guest after another, using methods mirroring the nursery rhyme after which the book is named. After the dwindling number of guests conduct several searches of both the house and the tiny island on which it stands no stranger can be found outside or in, adding to the terror of the situation. Where could the responsible person be hiding? What could be the reason for the mounting number of deaths?

My verdict: This is one of Agatha Christie's most famous novels and to call the unwindings of its plot clever would be to make an understatement. When readers finally know the truth, some will doubtless debate whether the culprit was mad, malevolent, or mistaken -- a couple of deaths mentioned in that shocking recording could have been accidents, after all. All in all, however, And Then There Were None is a mystery classic and rightly so. s

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review: The Lake District Murder by John Bude

by Mary

The Lake District Murder is by John Bude, author of The Cornish Coast Murder (reviewed by Eric on our blog last August at http://ericreedmysteries.blogspot.com/search/label/John%20Bude) and like it another Poisoned Pen Press reprint of a title from the British Library's Crime Classic series.

Set in a less touristy, indeed lonely, part of the beautiful titular mountainous area in northwestern England, it begins with the discovery of the body of Jack Clayton at the isolated Derwent petrol station on the Buttermere road. Found dead in his car, he is an apparent suicide by exhaust fume asphyxiation.

Inspector Meredith of the Keswick police arrives on the scene to begin work on the first murder investigation he has directed. Clayton and his co-partner in the garage, Mark Higgins, share a cottage next to the business, and Meredith finds it strange Clayton had got his tea ready, including putting the kettle on to boil and spooning tea into the teapot, before killing himself.

But was it suicide? Clayton had every reason to look forward to the future, given he was financially secure and his forthcoming marriage was to be followed by a new life in Canada with his wife.

When interviewed by the inspector, Clayton's fiancee Lily Reade tells him there had been trouble between the two men. Perhaps this had turned nasty, providing a motive for murder. Another nugget of information Lily imparts is the couple's plan to emigrate to Canada had not yet been revealed to Higgins. Clayton's departure would have certain financial implications for Higgins, who may have somehow found out about it. But if it was murder, Higgins as obvious suspect has an unbreakable alibi for the night of his partner's death.

Thus Inspector Meredith finds himself looking not only into Clayton's murder but also what looks like a case of widespread fraud the astute will doubtless have noticed off their own bat. But how is it being perpetrated? Were either of the men involved? Could there be some connection to the suicide of a garage co-partner in another area not far off a few years earlier, and if so what? In the process of investigation Meredith himself observes "this detection business was full of annoying cul-de-sacs" and he finds himself ending up in a a few before bringing, after much wending to and fro, his investigation to a successful close.

My verdict: In his introduction, Martin Edwards describes this novel as having an emphasis "not on whodunit, but on how to prove it." Thus The Lake District Murder would be a good read for fans of the police procedural / timetable dependent novel. It is Inspector Meredith's persistence, hard work, and a dash of luck that finally pins down the culprits. As a bonus, readers will also learn a fair bit about petrol distribution!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review: The Scarab Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

by Mary

Philanthropist Benjamin H. Kyle is found murdered in a private museum run by Egyptologist Dr Mindrum Bliss. Philo Vance becomes involved when Donald Scarlett, a British college friend now working for Dr Bliss, arrives in terrible haste. Scarlett had gone to the museum, discovered Kyle’s body, and then left rapidly because he did not want to get involved. He has come to Vance for help.

DA John Markham and his police department cohorts are soon on the job, assisted by Vance. It transpires Kyle was funding Bliss’s Egyptian expeditions and when found is clutching a financial document drawn up by Bliss, whose scarab cravat pin is on the floor nearby.

It looks bad, especially given the only fingerprints on the statuette that crushed Kyle’s head belong to Bliss, and so does a shoe with a bloody sole. Is it an all too obvious attempt to pin the murder on him? If so, why?

Suspects include half-Egyptian Mrs Meryt-Amen Bliss, who is a lot younger than her husband, and her Egyptian servant Anupu Hani, who insists Dr Bliss’s excavations are sacrilegious tomb plunderings.

Assistant curator Robert Salveter (Kyle's nephew) is not only seems overly interested in Mrs Bliss but will receive a large inheritance under Kyle’s will. The servants seem a shifty pair as well — Dingle, the cook, who hints she may know more than she lets on, and butler Brush, who goes about looking terrified.

My verdict: The Scarab Murder Case is a book or three into the Vance series and his verbal embroidery has toned down considerably although still retaining his distinctive voice, while footnotes proliferate as usual. Markham is now a personal friend of Vance’s, remaining rather a Doubting Thomas when it comes to the psychology of criminals, Vance’s preferred method of solving crimes. Fortunately Vance is extremely knowledgeable in matters ancient Egyptian, which comes in very handy in this instance. Those keen on Egyptology will enjoy certain nuggets of interest strewn here and there, although overall the pace of the novel is slow.

I suspect many readers will geuss whodunnit, but as for proving it, ah, that is a task only Philo Vance could accomplish, and accomplish it he does despite clouds of ever-present cigarette smoke and various devilish machinations.