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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review: The Albert Gate Mystery by Louis Tracy

by Mary

The Albert Gate Mystery: Being Further Adventures of Reginald Brett, Barrister Detective begins with a locked, heavily guarded London mansion where more than one crime is committed in a single night, and then moves back and forth over the English Channel and around the Mediterranean.

Barrister Reginald Brett takes note of two items in the morning paper. The first reports an "affair of some magnitude" at a mansion in Albert Gate, London. Details are scanty so speculation is rife but what is known is that a party of high-ranking Turkish gentlemen, servants, and guards are living in the house under strict security. What's more, fourteen expert diamond-cutters have shown up from Amsterdam and are working there daily.

The previous night the Dutch visitors and the various Turkish attendants were detained at Scotland Yard, and Dr. Tennyson Coke, "the greatest living authority on toxicology", is among medical wallahs being consulted by the authorities.

What does it all mean?

Brett thinks it may well be connected to a brief note in the same paper reporting a close relative of the Turkish Sultan has it off to France in suspicious circumstances.

Brett has hardly started to connect the dots when the Earl of Fairholme shows up in an awful bate. It seems his fiancee, Edith Talbot, refuses to marry him until her brother Jack is located and cleared of wrongdoing. The Foreign Office put Jack in charge of arrangements for the Turkish visitors and their priceless gems and not only has Jack disappeared, so have the diamonds -- and four men have been murdered at the mansion, including the Turkish envoy, His Excellency Mehemet Ali Pasha.

And all this takes place before the end of the first chapter!

Brett agrees to take the case and goes to visit Edith Talbot, who tells him that due to the various precautions taken and certain structural alterations made before the Turkish gents arrived it was absolutely impossible for anyone to get into the house except through the front door and an entrance hall where a dozen policemen and an inspector stood guard.

Thus begins a merry chase that ultimately leads Brett and his companions across France and beyond.

My verdict: Fans of the impossible crime will find the explanation disappointing but Brett is an interesting character. He is an analytical detective of the Holmesian type but deduces information and future actions based upon observation and rumination rather than extensive knowledge of bicycle tracks or cigar ash. Because these feats occur only occasionally in the narrative readers will find them convincing. The Scotland Yard detective turns out not to be so dim-witted as usually thought, and Golden Age of Detection fans will not be surprised at the thorough thrashing administered to a man instrumental in casting mud on the reputation of Edith's brother. One piece of justice meted out towards the close is so fitting that despite possible moral outrage on the part of some readers, bearing in mind the character's attitude (valiantly trying to avoid spoilers) I suspect most of them will laugh out loud....

Etext: The Albert Gate Mystery by Louis Tracy

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: The Abandoned Room by Wadsworth Camp

by Mary

How was the murder accomplished in a room with both doors locked on the inside and the windows too high for someone to climb in without warning the occupant? Were what one character firmly believed were psychic forces at work in The Abandoned Room?

The Abandoned Room begins with an account of the discovery of the body of Silas Blackburn in that very bedroom, long shunned because of its history of family members dying there from various types of injury to the head. And this death was after Silas had been going around terrified out of his wits, but refusing to say why he was afraid or indeed who or what it was he feared.

Silas is the grandfather of cousins Katherine (who lives with him) and Bobby, who has been having what Camp politely calls a “lively life” in New York and is thus about to be cut out of his grandfather’s will, which otherwise would have left him a million or so with which to be even livelier.

As the story backtracks about 24 hours, Bobby and his good friend, the lawyer Hartley Graham, are talking at their club. Hartley is trying to persuade Bobby to give up his fast ways and go and see his grandfather at The Cedars, a lonely and eerie tumble-down country house.

Bobby agrees to do so but is prevented from catching the vital 12.15 train by a dinner appointment with Carlos Paredes, who brings along theatrical dancer Maria. Lawyer Graham strongly disapproves of Carlos, that “damned Panamanian”, and after reminding Bobby he has to catch his train leaves in disgust.

Next morning Bobby wakes up with his shoes off in a decrepit old house near The Cedars with no recollection of how he got there or indeed anything that happened after his dinner with Carlos and Maria the night before. Ashamed to be seen by his grandfather and cousin in crumpled evening dress and somewhat dazed condition he hoofs it for the railway station to return to New York.

On his way to the station he is met by county detective Howells, who more or less accuses Bobby of doing away with his grandfather in order to prevent the threatened changing of the will. Told to go to The Cedars to await events, Bobby finds his friend Graham already there and not long after Carlos shows up and invites himself to stay. It is a testament to their good breeding they do not tell him to be off although at times the reader will do the job for them.

What follows is a rich stew of events, including strange happenings in the candle-lit dwelling, haunting cries in the surrounding woods and outside the house, suggestions of ghostly presences infesting the decaying mansion, a woman in black glimpsed in the woods, and Bobby’s growing fear he somehow entered the locked room and murdered his grandfather in a drugged haze.

A tightening net of suspicion seems sure to bring him to trial for the crime. When one of his monogrammed hankies is found under the bed in which his grandfather died and his evening shoes fit a footprint under the window, it looks really bad for him — and he cannot summon any memories of the missing hours to his own defence.

My verdict: I really enjoyed this novel and thought the descriptions of the unhappy house and its run down grounds were excellent. The suggested supernatural element is conveyed beautifully, making this a work that would have made a wonderful Hitchcock film, in particular because of a terrific shock near the end when the explanation begins to be revealed.

If nothing else this old dark mansion mystery demonstrates that on the whole monogrammed hankies are probably best avoided. And how was the crime accomplished? The method is prosaic enough, but with a little twist from numerous similar explanations.

E-text: The Abandoned Room by Wadsworth Camp

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review:The Mystery of June 13th by Melvin L. Severy

by Mary

The fateful date occurs more than once over more than a quarter century, in a saga involving Maoris on a mission of vengeance, an eloping couple whose ship passes that captained by the scorned fiance, the naive and about to be swindled inventor of a method of wireless telephony somewhat reminiscent of cell phones, a villainous businessman who out-Jaspers Sir Jasper, an actress taking the town by storm, assorted love affairs, and a number of other matters, all wrapped in a densely woven plot featuring among other things a cypher solved in a scientific manner, impossible locked room type disappearances, the struggle of rival groups of stockholders to gain control of a company following an event the author calls a “cool display of commercial depravity,” and more than one twist along the way.

George Maitland is called in to investigate a series of threatening letters, communications bearing the same device as that on the blade of the dagger used to murder the recipient’s father 25 years before, as well as on the hand of the assailant of a major character, and seen in various other places. And so murderous doings are set afoot and even Maptland admits “the method employed [for a murder] was unparalleled, fantastic, outre and bizarre in the extreme.”

My verdict: I found this novel difficult to get into because of the lengthy opening sequence in a Maori village describing the events that set the plot in motion. It might, I venture to suggest, have worked better if shortened and presented as a prologue, but don’t skip it! The story may unfold too slowly for some readers, but patience is advised as once into the thick of the plot, it rattles along like all get out.

I liked the idea of recurring fateful events on June 13th, and the explanations of how various matters were accomplished are fascinating. Some readers will guess the who and why since they are privy to information Maitland has not, but the how is what will almost certainly puzzle to the end, so it’s worth persisting with the novel even if you read the rather spotty copy on archive.org as I did! < Etext: The Mystery of June 13th by Melvin L. Severy

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review: The Stoneware Monkey, R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

Although Dr Jervis narrates the second part of The Stoneware Monkey, the first is written by Dr James Oldfield, and it opens with his description of an incident during his stint as a locum-tenems in the small country town of Newingstead. Biking back to the surgery after a professional call, he stops on a country road to smoke a pipe and enjoy the pleasant evening air. He is thus near enough to hear a cry for help from nearby Clay Wood. There he discovers Constable Alfred Murray, who has been dealt a fatal blow with his own truncheon.

It transpires he was chasing whoever stole a packet of fifteen diamonds worth some l0,000 pounds, newly brought from Amsterdam by Arthur Kempster. A dealer with a business in Hatton Garden, London, Kempster had carelessly left the gems unattended for a short time and the miscreant had popped in via a window, taken them, and scarpered. Kempster's absence from the room was so brief he was able to see and run after the thief, engaging the aid of Constable Murray in the pursuit. Thief and constable outpace Kempster so the latter did not see the murderous assault, and the criminal escapes by stealing Dr Oldfield's bike, subsequently found in a cart shed on the London side of town.

The scene then shifts to Marylebone in London, where Dr Oldfield has purchased a practice. One of his patients is Peter Gannet, who lives at l2 Jacob Street -- a thoroughfare with more of its ration of crime! Gannet shares the studio behind his house with his wife's second cousin, Frederick Boles, a maker of jewelry. Gannet is a potter, and among creations displayed on his bedroom mantelpiece is the titular statuette. This monkey and other works do not impress Dr Oldfield much to say the least, for he describes them as "singularly uncouth and barbaric" and exhibiting "childish crudity of execution". Be that as it may, Gannet's illness defies all the treatments prescribed, and so Dr Oldfield, a former pupil of Thorndyke's, decides to consult his old teacher about the case.

They make a startling discovery, pointing to an attempt to murder Gannet, who is admitted to hospital.

Is the culprit Mrs Letitia Gannet, who does not appear to get along with her husband? Or is it Boles, suspected of being over familiar with Mrs Gannet?

Might it be the Gannets' servant, or perhaps even an unknown outside party?

Whoever it is, with their attempt having been rumbled Gannet is certain there will be no further action in that line and returns home. He and Dr Oldfield become friends and the doctor learns a fair bit about making pottery and even tries a hand at it himself, forming a pot which turns up in unexpected fashion later in the book. Despite disagreements between Gannet and Boles, things jog along more or less as normal until Mrs Gannet returns from a week's holiday to find her husband missing and Boles has disappeared. Then a startling discovery is made and Thorndyke is called in to solve the mystery.

My verdict: Although I guessed whodunnit and why before reaching the closing stages of the book, it was more by intuitive leap rather than Thorndyke's careful step by step building up of a case, so I missed some of the more subtle clues planted along the way. There was perhaps one too many coincidences for my taste, although I got a kick from RAF's nod his The Jacob Street Mystery. There's a fair bit of interest in the explanation of the procedure to be followed in bringing a capital case, while the portion devoted to pottery technique may make readers' eyes glaze, no pun intended, but also forms an important part of the narrative.

All in all, however, I found this one of RAF's less interesting works, and so give it a mark of B-. Other readers will probably enjoy it more.

Etext: The Stoneware Monkey, R. Austin Freeman

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review: From Whose Bourne by Robert Barr

by Mary

With Halloween looming a review of this novel seems appropriate, given the investigation is materially assisted by a dead man. How so?

Well, William Brenton comes back from death's undiscover'd country, the bourne or destination from which no traveller returns -- at least according to Hamlet -- in this relatively short novel.

The story opens on Christmas Eve in Cincinnati. During a festive dinner given for two dozen friends Brenton feels unwell and goes to lie down. He awakes to find himself invisible to others in the house and unable to communicate with them. A stranger named Ferris is at his elbow; his role is to advise Brenton about the new (after)life he has entered.

Ferris introduces him to former newspaper man John Speed, and it is to Speed Brenton turns when he realises he must take a hand to ensure justice is done for his widow Alice, now facing trial for poisoning him. Together they think *really* hard at Chicago reporter George Stratton, urging him to interest himself in the case. As indeed he becomes, going to Ohio to take it up. For good measure a certain Monsieur Lecocq is also called in to investigate, though in an unusual way.

My verdict: A quick read featuring a couple of red herrings, at least three suspects with good motives for Brenton's removal, and a nice twist at the end.

Etext: From Whose Bourne by Robert Barr

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review: The Safety Pin by J. S. Fletcher

by Mary

Solicitor Francis Shelmore deals only in conveyancing and lives a calm and ordered life in Southernstowe, "within sixty miles" of London.

One afternoon Miss Cynthia Pretty, youthful half-owner of a Cornish tin mine, appears in his office to ask for help in locating the mine's co-owner James Deane, her guardian and trustee, who has disappeared from the hotel where they had arranged to meet before leaving for a trip to the continent.

Mr Deane is found murdered not far from a mansion occupied by Mrs Sophia Champernowne and her shiftless brother Alfred. She is a rich woman, mayoress of Southernstowe and owner of its biggest drapery store. Deane's body is discovered by special constable John Hackdale, under-manager of Mrs Champernowne's emporium and older brother of Shelmore's shifty clerk Simmons Hackdale. John removes The Safety Pin from Deane's jacket and conceals its existence from those investigating the crime, not exactly the sort of behaviour most readers would expect from a special constable.

What significance can be attached to the fact that of 400 scenic postcards found in Deane's hotel room only one has a particular house marked? Did his murderer act alone or with accomplices? Was it a random crime for profit, planned for a particular motive, or one that became inevitable when old secrets began rising from the dark waters of the past to gibber hideously on its slimy surface?

My verdict: The Safety Pin features a convoluted plot featuring blackmail, another disappearance, bribery, and sibling rivalry gone bonkers for a start, as well as more than one shady character with good motives for their behaviour -- from their points of view at least. Miss Pretty gains sympathy at the beginning but ultimately, as my mother would say, lets herself down. Fletcher plays very cleverly on readers' assumptions about characters' motives and then briskly turns them on their heads towards the end of the novel. The denouement will annoy some readers and yet even they will have to admit it's just the sort of thing that *would* happen in real life. My only quibble: I'd like to know what finally happened to that safety pin...

Etext: The Safety Pin by J. S. Fletcher