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.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards

by Mary

A British Library Crime Classic reprint from Poisoned Pen Press, Crimson Snow presents a collection of mysteries set during winter, most of them during the Christmas season. Editor Martin Edwards provides notes for each as well as an introduction in which he describes the collection as "the contents of a luxurious box of assorted chocolates", the quality and variety of whose contents he hopes will give readers enjoyment.

Short story collections are always difficult to review without giving away too much, but hopefully these brief descriptions will suffice to indicate the content of these vintage stories in a discreet fashion!

Dr Lascelles accepts Percy Ringan's invitation to spend Christmas at Ringshaw Grange, country seat of the family. It is said to possess a haunted room wherein THE GHOST'S TOUCH warns of incipient death. Naturally a guest insists on sleeping in that very room. By Fergus Hume.

Alphonse Riebiera is a blackmailer who has victimised many women who foolishly wrote him passionate letters. He is also one of two men shot dead in THE CHOPHAM AFFAIR, while the other is a man successfully defended against a murder charge by brilliant lawyer Archibald Lenton. How could these dual deaths have come about? By Edgar Wallace.

Albert Campion is a guest at a house party at Pharoah's Court with the unofficial task of keeping an eye on a diamond necklace owned by a rather vulgar house guest. Thefts take place in THE CASE OF THE MAN WITH THE SACK, but it's not just personal adornments that disappear. By Margery Allingham.

CHRISTMAS EVE is an unusual contribution in a form of a Sherlock Holmes playlette in which the great detective solves the loss of Lady Barton's pearls and kind-hearted Dr Watson does a good deed on the titular night. By Sydney Castle Roberts.

Chief Inspector Bill Cromwell accompanies his junior officer Johnny Lister to a house party at Cloon Castle. Arriving during a storm, they briefly see a figure that on investigation left no tracks in the snow. A guest sees a body that disappears, leading to an investigation of a DEATH IN DECEMBER. By Victor Gunn.

Ludovic Travers is staying with Chief Constable Robert Valence for Christmas and is surprised to see recently released swindler John Brewse is living locally. But not for long, since Brewse is the victim of a MURDER AT CHRISTMAS. There are multiple suspects, given some of his victims live in the area. By Christopher Bush.

An older woman attempting to enter a house via a window on the roof falls to her death OFF THE TILES. Since there's a parapet in front of the window it seems impossible it could be an accident, so Inspector James Quy is inclined to think it was suicide. But was it? By Ianthe Jerrold.

Martin Edwards notes in his introduction that MR CORK'S SECRET formed part of a Christmas competition in which a magazine invited readers to guess the secret. Two cash prizes were awarded and the winning entries appear at the end of this collection.

Insurance wallah Montague Cork is dissatisfied with a policy issued by his company covering a famous collection of jewelry known as Alouette's Worms, recently purchased by Anton de Raun for his bride, film star Fanny Fairfield. An unknown man is murdered at the hotel where the de Rauns booked the bridal suite, the jewels are gone, and the newly married couple are nowhere to be found. By Macdonald Hastings.

Francis Quarles attends THE SANTA CLAUS CLUB dinner to keep an eye on Lord Acrise, who's been receiving threatening letters. The latest informed Lord Acrise he would not survive the club's annual dinner, at which rich men dressed as Santa participate in a raffle for a expensive prize, the proceeds of raffle ticket sales going to a Christmas charity. Despite Quarles' vigilance the predicted death takes place. By Julian Symons.

Suffering from incipient flu and with snow lying DEEP AND CRISP AND EVEN, Detective Sergeant Petrella joins a carol-singing party organised by a minister friend. Petrella feels uneasy about a man at one house even though he treats the carollers kindly. Subsequently consulting the Notified Away List Petrella learns the householder is away so what is the stranger up to? By Michael Gilbert.

Detective-Inspector Brooks investigates a burglary resulting in the death of an elderly lady. The thieves had overlooked the most valuable items, which disappear afterwards as the result of a kind deed but return to the family via a roundabout route while THE CAROL SINGERS provide an important lead to the burglars. By Josephine Bell.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Review: The Angel of Terror by Edgar Wallace

by Mary

We know early on in The Angel of Terror who is out to cause mayhem and why, so the question is can the responsible parties be brought to justice? For the main villian is cold-blooded, exceedingly cunning, and possessed of an inventively evil mind.

The Angel of Terror is not a very satisfactory title but it gets off to a rousing start when James Meredith's death sentence is commuted to commuted to one of penal servitude for life. The crime is the murder of Ferdinand Bulford, the motive jealousy of Bulford's behaviour toward Jean Briggerland, Meredith's cousin and fiancee -- it's remarkable how many couples in novels of this era are engaged to or marry their cousins. But I digress.

Scarce has Meredith's friend Jack Glover, junior partner at Rennett, Glover and Simpson, vowed to prove Meredith's innocence when an attempt is made to kidnap orphaned Lydia Beale, who works as a fashion illustrator for a newspaper. Miss Beale is in dire financial straits, having voluntarily taken on the task of clearing her deceased father's enormous debts and as a consequence has been tormented by a constant procession of judgement summonses against her -- seventy-five in the previous two years.

As she is carried off in a taxi from which she cannot escape, Glover and Rennett suddenly appear, rescue her, and take her to Dulwich Grange, senior partner Charles Rennett's home. There she is asked an astonishing question: would she be willing to marry Meredith, who is at large with the connivance of Glover and Bennett and is in the house? If she agrees, she will not be bothered by her husband -- who'll be turned in and return to prison -- but will receive 20,000 pounds when the nuptials have been performed and 5,000 pounds a year thereafter for the rest of her life. Meredith's reasons for wishing to go through such a marriage are sound, but it must be performed by the following Monday. Despite her financial difficulties we have already learnt Miss Beale is not a gold-digger but rather a decent young woman so the reader is not put off by her eventual agreement to the bizarre proposal.

And so Meredith and Miss Beale are married next morning at Rennett's residence. Moments later Jean Briggerland shows up out of the blue and then Meredith is found in the garden, an apparent suicide.

Having made his will while in the house overnight, Miss Beale or rather Mrs Meredith inherits his wealth, but as a consequence is in great danger. Now it's tally ho as the villains make one attempt after another to despatch her.

My verdict: For all its dark subject matter, The Angel of Terror includes comical interludes, particularly in the bungling of various murderous machinations, which include a particularly nasty attempt on the Riviera and a comically noir twist in another. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and at first glance unsatisfying although thinking about it later I realised it could be interpreted at least two ways. I enjoyed the book and think many will find it a rollicking good yarn.

E-text: The Angel of Terror by Edgar Wallace