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

Friday, July 29, 2016

Eating Maggots and Other Reasons I'm No Gourmet

by Eric

After one of our typical home heated up dinners I noticed that the ingredients listed on the bag included gorgonzola. Neither Mary nor I like to cook. To us, ingredients aren't things you measure, chop, or mix, but reading matter on the back of packages.

After one of our typical home heated up dinners I noticed that the ingredients listed on the bag included gorgonzola. Neither Mary nor I like to cook. To us, ingredients aren't things you measure, chop, or mix, but reading matter on the back of packages.

"Gorgonzola. That's cheese, isn't it?" I said, immediately activating the useful auxiliary brain called Google. Quicker than I can remember my Social Security number, I learned that gorgonzola is indeed a cheese, with bluish green veining.

"Whoa," I muttered. "Blue cheese. And look at this, the varicose veins are caused by -- you're not going to believe this -- mold spores growing into hyphae."

Mary frowned. "It doesn't really say "varicose viens" does it?"

"Gaaa," I replied sensibly. "I ate mold spore hyphae!"

In case I'm not being clear here, I don't care for blue cheese.

"Tasted all right to me. At least it's not the kind of cheese where you have to scrape the cheese mites off before you eat it."

"Cheese mites! Don't say that when I've got coffee in my mouth," I choked, frantically wiping off my keyboard. "You're kidding?"

"Look it up."

Unfortunately I did. According to Wikipedia, mites clinging to the rind of Milbenkäse are consumed along with the cheese, which has a "distinctive zesty aftertaste."

"Well, I can believe it has a distinctive taste!"

Mites are also help age Mimolette, the grayish crust being the result of cheese mites intentionally introduced to add flavor by their action on the surface of the cheese.

"I guess we can be sure that frozen pizza is never topped with Milbenkäse or Mimolette," I observed hopefully.

"If it were, the mites would have frozen to death."

"Maybe, but a mouthful of crunchy hard-frozen mites doesn't appeal to me."

I really should have stopped researching, but you know how it is with Google and the Internet and Wikipedia. You start out looking for information on the most innocent subject and a half hour later you are deep in the realms of things man was not meant to know.

Such as casu marzu, otherwise known as "rotten cheese".

Found mainly in Sardinia casu marzu contains live insect larvae. To be exact -- although "insect larvae" seems all you really need to know -- the larvae of the cheese fly. These larvae resemble translucent white worms about one third of an inch long. (So they say, and I'm willing to take their word for it and leave it at that.) A typical cheese contains thousands of these larvae -- known to the non-cheese lovers amongst us as maggots.

Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I've never been into eating maggots. In fact, I was always been pretty much against eating anything while it was still alive. When my family went out to eat, the "very rare" (i.e. bleeding) steaks my mom ordered looked to me as if they were going to moo when you stuck them with a fork so I always demanded my steak be well done and then burned to a crisp, twice, just to be on the safe side.

Once, I admit, I ate a raw oyster at a street fair in Brooklyn. What can I say? I was young and stupid, the sun was hot, I'd had too much sangria. Sometimes when I remember it I can still feel the slimy mollusc sliding down, desperately fighting for life all the way.

Okay, so when it comes to food I've always had delicate sensibilities. I had to avert my gaze every time I passed the restaurant with the big sign announcing Tripe Pizza. Mary told me she liked tripe but I couldn't force myself to go there, not even when we were first married. I did however try to please her once by preparing another of her favorites, liver and onions. (Yes, we did try to cook once in a while until we both decided that the only thing worse than cooking was trying to eat each other's cooking.)

As a child liver had revolted me and I had revolted when it was served for dinner. But, I told myself, now I am an adult. Surely I am mature enough to consume a few token bits of a cow's internal organ?

So I forked up a chunk and chewed, and chewed, and chewed. It was like trying to chew a sponge. I couldn't grind it up, nor could I swallow it down. Every time I tried to gulp my throat balked with an instant gag reflex.

Yes, as an omnivore I am a dreadful failure.

But not even tripe or liver can match the aforementioned rotten cheese.

Apparently connoisseurs of the finer things in life enjoy spreading the stuff on bread. But then they have to hold their hands over the bread to eat it because those living maggots can jump as much as six inches! Holy leaping larvae, Batman! You wouldn't want a maggot up your snout when you were trying to get your tasty treat down your gullet, would you?

Now I think I'll go and have some tasty Pepto-Bismol. Now I think I'll go and have some tasty Pepto-Bismol.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review: Mystery In White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon

by Mary

When a deep fall of snow brings the 11.37 from London's Euston Station to a halt in a rural area on Christmas Eve, the scene shifts to a country house cut off from the world by bad weather (a favourite scenario of mine!) as the continuing storm sets in motion a tale of the strange events related in Mystery In White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon.

Four occupants of the third-class carriage have abandoned the snowbound train in an attempt to walk to a station about six miles away in hopes of continuing their journey from there. The quartet consists of milquetoast clerk Robert Thomson, on his way to visit an aunt, platinum blonde chorus girl Jessie Noyes, who absolutely must get to Manchester that day for professional reasons, and siblings David and Lydia Carrington, who are going to spend Christmas at their uncle's town house.

The two other travellers in their compartment do not accompany them: there's an elderly bore name of Hopkins, who thinks the idea is madness, and Edward Maltby, an older man and member of the Royal Psychical Society. The latter has plans to visit an old house at Naseby in connection with the ghost of Charles I but has suddenly bolted from the train, much to the others' surprise.

Circumstances thwart the attempt to reach the station and the quartet are forced to take shelter in the house mentioned, which they are able to enter through the unlocked front door. Yet although the place is deserted, there's a kettle boiling, tea is laid out in the drawing room, fires have been lit -- and a bread-knife lies on the kitchen floor. A suggestive situation to say the least.

There's a sense of menace about the place and when the decamped Maltby and a Cockney giving his name as Smith show up the atmosphere becomes even more ominous. Particularly when Smith subsequently runs or rather flounders off and the bore Hopkins is rescued from the storm by Carrington and Thomson. Hopkins claims he is on his way to locate a constable because a dead man has been found in the compartment next to the one occupied by those now in the house. But is what he says true?

And that's just the start of this complex and engrossing mystery.

My verdict: The solution to the mystery gives one pause at first and yet, after consideration, the reader must admit it fits with all that went before. I read this novel at one sitting. Can there be any higher recommendation than that?

Mystery In White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon is available from Poisoned Pen Press as part of their reprints of the British Library Crime Classics.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review: Mr Polton Explains by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

Dr Thorndyke and company investigate the case of Cecil Moxdale, deceased, in a double-part novel. In the first section, Mr Polton narrates his life up to his momentous meeting with Thorndyke. I always think of Mr Polton as the older of the pair, but lawks a mercy, going by internal evidence Thorndyke is probably l5 years his senior, if not more. I found this section very interesting, as we learn much about Nathaniel Polton, beginning with his recollections as a three year old orphan with a sister called Maggie living with another family in the country, and then the various stages of his somewhat Dickensian life up to his making Thorndyke's acquaintance, the circumstances of which explain his devotion to Dr T and also some of his more unusual skills.

Much detail is given about Mr Polton's interest in a particular profession and a specific bit of invention which, years later, provides a vital clue to unravelling a mysterious death, the circumstances of which form the second part of the book, narrated by Dr Jervis. To my surprise Mr Polton actually states which of his particular skills contributed to the solution of the crime, though this revelation was not really needed because between the autobiographical details and the description of the scene of the crime it is obvious how the murder was accomplished, if not the person responsible.

Most of my school reports stated I should concentrate more and it seems this flaw still applies to a certain extent, for I soon found myself trying to calculate Mr Polton's age, given he mentions his childhood was a time when Finchley was still outside London and the omnibus to Finchley where his sister lived was horse-drawn, perhaps not the effect the author intended but there it is. Then I began to wonder about Dr Jervis' life and how he and Thorndyke met. Not having read all the Thorndyke yarns, it may be this is explained in one of them.

But pressing on regardless, onward I trundled to part the second. In brief, a fire completely guts a house where Mr Haire has taken rooms. Fortunately for him, he was in Ireland at the time, but unfortunately his cousin, Cecil Moxdale, was staying in the flat. The building is completely burnt out and the body is found more or less charred out of recognition though certain items found in the debris of the fire establish its identity.

And yet...certain aspects of the death suggest it was not accidental or even suicide and so Thorndyke and Jervis become involved. A pointer to the solution is provided by Polton from knowledge mentioned in the first section and although the resolution hinges on a honking great coincidence, rereading Polton's section I found circumstances described there in a more subtle manner than that mentioned above do provide a fair clue or two.

My verdict: Alas, this is the most disappointing of this author's works read so far. In fact, it gives the distinct impression Mr Polton's autobiography was grafted onto a short story to form a novel. Mr Polton's necessary information could, I believe, have been provided within the second section easily enough and in a far less obvious manner. Shocking to relate, I found Mr Polton's biography more interesting than the mystery and its resolution though the latter did have an unexpected twist.

E-text: Mr Polton Explains by R. Austin Freeman