Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review: The Case of the Blonde Bonanza by Erle Stanley Gardener

by Eric

One of the problems in trying to review a mystery is that you can't give away the solution and whether the solution makes sense, is fairly clued, is surprising and clever goes a long way to determining how the reader reacts to the book. The solution to Erle Stanley Gardner's 1940 Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Blonde Bonanza, meets the criteria, as far as I'm concerned, and that's all I can say!

Another problem in reviewing mysteries is that the victim may not be revealed for several chapters. I hate reviewers giving away the identity of the victim since guessing who will be killed and how is part of the interest of many mysteries. I've given up reading the back covers of mysteries because very often the blurb will leap right into the middle of the story to spill the beans about the murder. As for The Case of the Blonde Bombshell....well, if I admitted I would feel uneasy about saying anything about the murder you might guess that it doesn't take lace on the first age.

So, forget I said that!

What can I say that might entice you to try this novel out?

Consider the initial set-up? Perry Mason's secretary Della Street, while dining every day at an open-air lunchroom on the beach, observes a young woman who has a puzzling routine. After drinking a glass of half milk and half cream she downs a steak, French fried potatoes and a salad, followed by apple pie a la mode and two candy bars. On her way out she checks her weight on the scales by the doorway. Della reckons the girl has gained five pounds in eight day.

When she calls Perry's attention to the mystery it seems simply frivolous. But as Mason observes:

"Apple pie a la mode . . . chocolate malted milk . . . there simply has to be a catch in it somewhere, Della--and there's an irresistible body meeting an immovable bathing suit. Something is bound to happen."

Of course he's right. The naive girl is in trouble and it's Perry Mason to the rescue. (Shades of Travis McGee) The solution to the girl's behavior is weird and interesting and the solution to the murder that follows depends on an intricate dance of suspects coming and going.

It amazes me how Erle Stanley Gardner handles everything from narrative to description in dialogue, but it works, especially in the court room show down. It's been a long time since I graduated from law school, and I never practiced law, but the sparring between the two lawyers and the judge at the preliminary hearing sure sounded authentic to me. Not surprisingly since Gardner did litigation work for a dozen years.

I was never much impressed by the Perry Mason television show. That was one of my parents' shows. Apparently I like Gardener's books better.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Review: Death On The Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

by Mary

It is four on a January afternoon as we are introduced to a quartet of first year undergraduates attending the all female Persephone College, Oxford: Sally Watson, Daphne Loveridge, Gwyneth Pane, and Nina Harson. They are perched on the roof of the college boathouse, having assembled there for the purpose of inaugurating a secret society to be named the Lode League, the Lode being that part of the River Cherwell on the side of the island on which the college is situated.

The young women have hardly begun to organise the League when a canoe floats downriver, its sole occupant the body of the college Bursar, Miss Myra Denning, who was not popular with the students. Inspector Wythe, later joined by Detective-Inspector Braydon from Scotland Yard, are soon on the job, questioning the quartet and others, including Draga Czernak, an excitable Yugoslavian student who is convinced Miss Denning insulted her, talks about blood feuds, and was the only person to see Miss Denning leave to go on the river. Possible suspects are presented very quickly, but are their motives sufficiently strong to do away with Miss Denning?

Next to appear are Sally's sister and brother-in-law Betty and Basil Pongleton (what a wonderful surname!) as well as the bursar's only relative, her orphaned niece Pamela Exe, an undergraduate at Girton College, Cambridge.

The quartet sitting on the boathouse roof feel called upon to look into the bursar's death, feeling guilty about the fact that, as Sally tells Simon,"The four of us were forming a league to—well, to curse the bursar, and before we’d quite curse the bursar, and before we’d quite finished forming it, she came floating down the river. So now the league is going to try to solve the mystery...." Thus parallel investigations get under way: the police working through official channels and the ladies on the q.t., aided by male student friends at St Simeon's College, located a bit higher up the river.

My verdict: The alert reader may well begin to suspect a certain party once a few chapters have unspooled, but half the fun of getting there is the journey, which in this case involves watching the various investigators at work digging up the necessary information and making deductions from it. The solution to this novel depends on geography and timetables, making it a complicated tale that will need to be approached with attention to details, especially in its later stages. You have been warned!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Review: The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

by Eric

It is a dark and stormy night on the Cornish Coast when Reverend Dodd and Doctor Pendrill meet at the vicarage as they do each week for dinner, conversation and to share a selection of books from the local library. As always the books are mysteries: Edgar Wallace, J. S. Fletcher, A Farjeon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman and Agatha Christie. All Golden Age authors, not surprisingly since this novel appeared in 1935 at the height of that era. Little does the vicar suspect that he will soon have the chance to test the deductive methods he has acquired through his reading..

Even as the two friends discuss mysteries of the literary kind, while lightning flashes and thunder peels, a murder is committed. At Greylings Manor, overlooking the sea and barely a hundred yards from the vicarage, old Julius Tregarthan is shot dead.

There are plenty of suspects. For a start, old Tregarthan was not particularly well liked by the villagers of Boscawen. Then there are the servants at Greylings, and Tregarthan's niece, and her boyfriend who the old man hated.

Investigations reveal unexplained, or suspiciously explained, comings and goings. the night of the murder. Footprints in the mud and absence thereof, on the paths around the manor, add to the confusion, as do the three oddly spaced shots which were fired, without anyone hearing.

The case is handled by the amiable Inspector Bigswell, from nearby Greystoke, who is determined to keep Scotland Yard out of it, and open minded -- and eventually desperate -- enough to accept assistance from the Reverend Dodd. Happily, this isn't the stereotypical situation where the utterly incompetent law officer shuns the efforts of the brilliant amateur. In fact, Bigswell uncovers most of the evidence but is assisted at key points by the reverend who is thrilled to be involved in a real life murder but a bit ashamed that he should feel thrilled.

I enjoyed this novel thoroughly. But, be forewarned, it is the type of thing that, as Mary says, you'll like if you like that type of thing. Which is to say a classic puzzle oriented mystery. The book's basic structure is this: evidence is discovered and the inspector or the vicar forms a reasonable theory of the murder. Then more evidence is discovered which shoots that theory out of the water. So a new theory fitting the known facts is formulated and more evidence turns up which invalidates the new theory. This is repeated chapter after chapter. A delight for anyone who loves trying to make sense of the evidence, but perhaps not a thriller lover's cup of tea, if thriller lovers drink tea.

NOTE: In his informative introduction to this British Library Crime Classic (Poisoned Pen Press edition), mystery writer Martin Edwards, notes that the novel was originally issued by Skeffington, a small publisher which sold mainly to libraries. Copies of the first edition are hard to find and possibly quite valuable. And in fact, as I write this, a seller listed at AbeBooks has a first edition with dust jacket for $1,250!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: When Rogues Fall Out by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

Didbury Toke collects and deals in antiques and works of art. Alas, he's also a fence and not always scrupulous in his dealings with non experts. It is this latter trait that leads him to rook Thomas Hobson and his wife, buying a beautiful 1692 walnut and marquetry long case clock for £2. After restoration the clock sells for about ten ten times that, but not before Toke discovers diamond jewelry hidden in its base, a treasure trove he keeps before putting the clock on the market.

Hobson's attempt to get the clock back ultimately leads to a flourishing criminal partnership between his representative, Arthur Hughes, and Toke. The former supplies stolen jewelry and other goods, the latter disposes of them. Inevitably cracks appear in the relationship, and then Toke disappears while on the continent.

The second part opens with the murder in Kent of a certain police officer known to readers of the Thorndyke stories. The deceased had gone there to dentify one Frederick Smith, and the body, robbed of official documents, is found in the Greenhithe railway tunnel. Naturally the police, Thorndyke, and Jervis are keen to catch the perpetrator.

In passing we learn Dr Jervis is married to a lady he met during one of Thorndyke's previous cases, and once this is known, the alert reader will begin to put two and two together as to how a swizz was worked, but no matter, it's still interesting to follow Thorndyke's careful investigation of a case that ultimately involves strange noises in the sealed wing of a country house and links back to the disappearance of the owner, the two-faced Toke.

My verdict: Readers who have read the previous case mentioned, particularly if they are also familiar with a certain novel by John Meade Falkner, will be a few steps ahead of Thorndyke as he unravels the inter-connected crimes, but even so it's a pretty good outing. The usual explanations of scientific doings -- and the way in which two of Thorndyke assistant Mr Polton's particularly useful inventions work -- hold interest to the end, where justice is finally done.

Etext: When Rogues Fall Out by R. Austin Freeman

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon

by Mary

Published in 1940 and set in London during the blackout, A Scream in Soho opens with the introduction of protagonist Inspector Patrick Aloysius McCarthy of Scotland Yard. Of Italian-Irish extraction, he was born and raised in Soho and still lives there in Dean Street.

Late one evening, then, McCarthy is sitting in a Soho eatery known as Café Milano -- the story of how it opened for business reveals a great deal about his temperament and methods -- waiting to have supper with Assistant Commissioner of Police Sir William Haynes. They talk of spies, local residents, and malefactors in general and on parting McCarthy tells Haynes he is off to bed and will not get out of it again for anybody.

But in fact he does, after the titular scream rings out from Soho Square an hour or so later. Hastily donning slippers and throwing an overcoat over his night wear, he rushes in that direction forgetting his torch but remembering his gun. By an amazing bit of luck for the authorities, a fire in a nearby house breaks out, lighting up the square and allowing a search. The lintels and pillars of the porch of an old house in the square are "painted in a deep green, but the door itself was spotless white—except where both lintel and lower panels were liberally bedaubed with blood, some of which still slowly trickled down..." Left behind: a bloodstained three-edged stiletto and a woman's lace-edged handkerchief. But the victim has been spirited away despite the fact McCarthy and the bobby on the local beat arrived on the scene within two minutes of hearing the scream. However, they do later discover a body -- a constable placed on guard behind the house with the bloodstained door.

So begins a mystery-thriller that rollicks along, featuring more deaths, a West End pickpocket, an Austrian baroness who regularly consults a crystal gazer, a gang boss/police informant with an extremely nasty manner and a beautiful girlfriend, a lady with a striking secret, the seemingly impossible theft of important papers, colourful personalities on the wrong side of the law, and much more.

My verdict: A Scream In Soho features an almost amiable narration despite occasional lively scenes of fisticuffs. In a tangled case set in a colourful millieu, the novel surprises readers with a striking twist or two and its dialogue is often imbued with humour despite its grim topic. Having enjoyed my introduction to Brandon I shall keep an eye open for further of his works.

A Scream in Soho is one of the British Library Crime Classics reprinted by Poisoned Pen Press

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Review: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop by Erle Stanley Gardner

by Eric

My grandmother was an avid reader. She particularly liked mysteries and her favorite author was Erle Stanley Gardner (or his alter-ego A.A.Fair) She had stacks of his slim paperbacks on her shelves. I was a science fiction reader as a kid. Mysteries didn't strike me as intellectual enough. How could my grandmother move so easily between Dickens and books about a television lawyer? Yes, I was familiar with the Perry Mason series starring Raymond Burr and didn't much like it either. When I did pick up one of the paperbacks and leafed through it appeared to be nothing but dialogue. Pretty thin gruel.

So it was a half century later that I finally read one of Gardner's Perry Mason novels, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, and discovered that my grandmother was onto something. Published in 1936, the 9th Perry Mason novel begins when Perry is consulted about a twenty-two year old manslaughter case by Bishop William Mallory, who not only stutters (an odd thing for a bishop) but is keeping a secret. The ensuing investigation uncovers a possibly counterfeit heiress and perhaps an orphan girl who may or may not an heiress. A cast of high-born and hirelings maneuvre for the fortune that's at stake. People go missing and inevitably someone dies.

Perry is in his element. "How I love a mystery, " he tells his secretary, Della Street. "I hate routine. I hate details. I like the thrill of matching my wits with crooks. I like to have people lie to me and catch them in their lies. I love to listen to people talk and wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is false. I want life, action, shifting conditions. I like to fit facts together, bit by bit, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle."

Fortunately, for a reader who prefers detective whodunits to legal thrillers, Perry acts a lot like a private eye of the era, and isn't always as above board as one might expect. As District Attorney Hamilton Burger tells him, "You know, I've always had a horror of prosecuting innocent men. I want to be certain a person's guilty before I bring him into court. You've got a wonderful mind. There are times when you've unscrambled some mighty tough cases which would otherwise have resulted in the escape of the guilty and the conviction of the innocent, but you simply won't keep within ethical limits. You won't sit in your office and practice law. You insist on going out to try and get hold of evidence, and whenever you do, you start matching wits with witnesses and pulling some pretty fast plays, altogether too damn fast."

You might gather from the foregoing that Perry's sidekicks Della Street, investigator Paul Drake, and nemesis Hamilton Burger are more nuanced characters than they appeared on the small screen.

It should be pointed out that this is, from what I've read, not a typical Perry Mason novel. Perry does need to clear a suspect who all the evidence seems to point too, however there is no climactic courtroom scene. Those scenes, as depicted on the TV show struck me as preposterous, but the brief courtroom action here feels authentic, not surprisingly since Gardner practiced law for twenty year.

I'll need to read another Mason that sticks closer to the usual forumla but this book at least was a pleasant surprise.

By the way. I have read over the years that Gardner never bothered to describe his famous lawyer (who we all know looks like Raymond Burr) but this isn't strictly true for at one point in The Case of the Stuttering Bishop Gardner writes: "Standing with his shoulders squared, feet spread slightly apart, the soft shaded lights of the library illuminating his granite-hard profile and steady, patient eyes, he said, "Yes, I'm Mason." That is a description, of sorts.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: The Three Hostages by John Buchan

by Mary

While some will certainly disagree, I view The Three Hostages as a mystery-thriller because there is a mystery to be solved: where are the three missing people and who is behind their abductions?

The book opens a couple of years after WWI. Sir Richard Hannay and Mary Lamington are now married with a young son. They reside in Fosse Manor, a nice touch given they first met when she was staying with her aunts at the Manor while engaged in a bit of undercover work herself, as related in Mr Standfast.

One evening the Hannays' friend Dr Greenslade visits and their conversation turns to how to write what he calls a "shocker". Dr Greenslade's theory is the author should take three apparently unconnected things, invent a connection, and dream up a problem to solve involving the connection. His example is: "an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard."

In the real world ugly international doings are afoot and eventually they intrude into Hannay's household. Members of the families of three great men -- "the daughter of the richest man in the world, the heir of our greatest dukedom, the only child of a national hero" -- have been kidnapped and are being held as hostages by a combine whose members are outwardly respectable but which is using the disaffected across Europe and elsewhere to further their own concerns, including fraud, profiteering, and even murder. Though known to the authorities, if members of this combine are captured too soon the hostages will doubtless be executed and certain delicate political matters in the balance upset.

By a twist of fate Dr Greenslade's literary example serves to aid Hannay and his friends get on the track of the villains in a race against a deadline at which they can only guess.

My verdict: Was Buchan following Dr Greenslade's advice, I wonder? Hannay has quite a puzzle to solve and the first half of the book follows his attempts to make sense of the sole clue: six lines of doggerel sent to each of the three great men. There is more intelligence work and less physical action in this novel and the slow working-out of the mystery is convincing. Mary Hannay, while mostly off the page, plays a role near the end that is both gripping and believable and received a loud hurrah from here!

The Three Hostages by John Buchan Qu