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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

It Wasn't the Cat

by Eric

At Halloween I always recall my childhood brush with the supernatural. My parents had taken my grandmother to visit relatives and so my grandfather had been left in charge of my brother Todd and me, not to mention my grandmother's very fat black cat.

My brother and I were fed easily enough. My grandfather carted us down cellar, opened the furnace door and we roasted hot dogs over the coals while conjecturing cheerfully about what might be lurking in the dark coal bin, behind the boxes of earth where the dahlia roots were buried for winter.

The cat was another matter. After futilely calling, my grandfather shoved an opened tin of Puss N' Boots under a kitchen chair.

"The cat must have got out. If he shows up he can eat." He preferred looking after his tomato plants. He always knew where to find them.

"Maybe something eat kitty," piped up Todd.

The expression on my grandfather's face became, as my grandmother would've said, "sour as pig swill."

"What would do that, here?"

"Don't know...something," said my brother, giving the final word a certain alarming twist

My grandfather did not lack imagination. In later years, after he'd cleared the pigs and rabbits out of the barn and had some spare time in the evening, he'd often don his spectacles and launch himself into a book of flying instructions which, while not as current as they had been during the bi-plane era, were every bit as adventuresome.

No, what he was against was the febrile wool gathering that during his boyhood had been a prime cause of tuberculosis in obscure romantic poets. When he saw Todd threatened he nipped it quick as he'd pick a cut worm off a cabbage.

"My razor strap will something you," is how he put it.

Todd chose not to pursue his theory. The razor strap wasn't as mind bendingly awful as what might be lurking in the coal bin, but it stung worse.

"Kitty just out," he agreed.

I suppose I was somewhat responsible for my brother's flights of imagination. Being five years older I felt I should take some part in his education. I decided to teach him useful words. A selection of everyday items would be laid out on the table in front of us.

"Scissors," I'd explain, pointing. "Apple ... orange ... banana ... bandanna (I was a tough taskmaster) ... amorphous horror."

Todd cast a bewildered look at the empty air I pointed toward.

"Can't see."

"Exactly," I said, giving the word a certain alarming twist.

My grandfather marched us upstairs early. The unfamiliar bed was high. More than high enough for something to have slithered underneath. But before we could check, the light was switched off and the room plunged into darkness.

As with all children, we spent our last moments of wakefulness waiting for sudden shrieks, eerie glows, disembodied voices and things that dropped off the ceiling smack into the middle of your bed. I generally slept with the covers pulled up over my head, snorkeling air through one partially exposed nostril, fingers clutched at the bed sheet in case something tried to pull it off.

In the strange dark of my grandparent's spare room our sensations were heightened. For awhile we listened for telltale scratching from beneath the bed. It struck me that this was a good time for a favorite diversion - recounting recent nightmares.

It's been a long time since I've had a nightmare worth remembering. My dreams have grown gray and mundane. But when I was younger my nights were filled with killer robots, werewolves and skull littered plains stretching endlessly into the distance beyond my closet door. This evening I plunged into the "barn dream."

"It was dark," I began. "When I climbed the stairs I suddenly felt another presence. Something waiting. Something indescribably horrible. Waiting for me...behind the boxes piled in the corner."

Todd's face floated in the dark before me like a gibbous moon. His eyes were round with fear. It took few words to call forth that consciousness of inexplicable horror shared by the young and submerged later in life beneath the paltry annoyances of reality.

When I paused the room filled with a terrible quiet. There was a sudden rush of breath from my brother's side and then, from somewhere all too near, there came a distinct, hideously loud THUMP.

When he spoke, Todd's voice was heavy with resignation. "There it is."

"And it isn't the cat."

For a few seconds we both contemplated this mind numbing truth in mute terror. Then my brother regained his voice.

"A morpus horror!" he cried. We both started shrieking.

My grandfather came upstairs and cleared the air with his razor strap. Next morning the cat was nowhere to be seen, but the cat food had been eaten.

I'm glad I didn't see what ate it.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

by Mary

Retired Metropolitan Police sergeant Samuel Whitehead is landlord of the Rose and Crown public house in the East Anglian village of High Eldersham. Hitherto the pub has not been a paying concern but since Whitehead took over as mine host it has done well, despite the fact the locals are not the friendliest of folk and outsiders who take up residence in the village tend not to prosper.

Then late one evening village bobby Constable Viney finds Whitehead murdered in the pub. Given the till has not been rifled, it seems robbery was not involved. What then could the motive have been? Chief Constable Bateman has hardly been on the scene five minutes, much less interviewed any of the villagers except Constable Viney, when he decides to call in Scotland Yard.

Enter Detective-Inspector Robert Young of the Yard. Taking up residence at the Rose and Crown next day, he soon senses there is something, well, odd about the village and writes to his friend Desmond Merrion asking him to come to High Eldersham to discuss the case.

My verdict: Alas, I found this entry in the Merrion series less entertaining than some of his other adventures. One secret of High Eldersham will leap out at the alert reader a few chapters before it is revealed by the author and the other telegraphs itself in similar fashion. In all fairness it is possible these matters were considered much more shocking at the time the book was published than nowadays. Questions such as the identity of the lady who shows up in the village in a Rolls Royce and why the publican was murdered and by whom are solved in a satisfactory manner, and there's even romantic interest for Merrion. While generally slow-paced there are several gripping episodes, but to avoid spoilers their nature had best remain shrouded in thick fog rather than trumpeted forth in this short review. On balance, then, if I had to assign a grade, I'd mark it as a B.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

by Eric

When Sir Eustace Pennefather arrives at the Rainbow Club he finds in his mail a parcel containing a box of chocolates. The choleric baronet is outraged at being made the target of an advertising promotion, as indicated by the accompanying note. He passes the box on to a fellow club member who has arrived at that moment by chance. Graham Bendix, only vaguely acquainted with Sir Eustace, takes the chocolates home to his wife who, after eating several, dies of nitrobenzene poisoning.

Sir Eustace is, we are told, a thoroughly "bad baronet." For one thing, while most country squires are content to pursue foxes, Sir Eustace pursues women. No doubt he's made enemies, but who sent him the poisoned chocolates?

Scotland Yard is stumped. So stumped that Chief Inspector Moresby gives the Crime Club a crack at the case.

Detective novelist Roger Sheringham's Crime Club consists of six members who have passed a stringent test proving their crime solving expertise: "There was a famous lawyer, a scarcely less famous woman dramatist, a brilliant novelist who ought to have been more famous than she was, the most intelligent (if not the most amiable) of living detective-story writers, Roger Sheringham himself, and Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, who was not famous at all, a mild little man of no particular appearance..."

Inspector Moresby briefs the club on what little Scotland Yard has learned. The members agree that each will attempt to solve the crime and report their conclusions the following week.

The book's plot is simple. Inspector Moresby makes his presentation and then each member details his or her solution and the methods and reasoning employed.

That's right. The book consists almost entirely of speeches!

If you're looking for a thriller or non-stop action, this novel isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy savoring an intellectual mystery puzzle The Poisoned Chocolates Case is a classic. (I admit that puzzle solving, for me, is a spectator sport. I'm no good at solutions but I enjoy the cleverness of them when they are revealed.)

The mystery lover will find here six different investigations and solutions, each one entirely convincing until the next presenter adds new facts or casts a different light on what is already known.

Each club member makes his or her presentation in a distinctive voice, from the bombastic lawyer to the timid Mr Chitterwick and each approaches the case in a unique manner. Methods of proof include inductive investigation, deduction from facts given or a combination. One member depends on psychology another on science. One looks for a motive of financial gain another jealousy. As an added fillip, each member also alludes to a parallel real life case. Mr Chitterwick, the final presenter, helpfully offers a chart summing up the approaches taken by those who came before.

The book is a treatise on the tricks of mystery writing filled with observations like that of detective novelist Bradley who says, "Artistic proof is, like artistic anything else, simply a matter of selection. If you know what to put in and what to leave out you can prove anything you like, quite conclusively. I do it in every book I write."

At the end of book, after five false alarms, Mr Chitterwick finally reveals the true murderer.

Or does he?

Surely if Anthony Berkeley, as author of the Poisoned Chocolates Case, had not included Mr Chitterwick in the club then the fifth speaker would have had the final say and the woman dramatist's solution would have been conclusive.

Or if Berkeley had decided a seventh member should speak, then poor Mr Chitterwick would have turned out not so smart after all.

The solution to a mystery novel really depends on where the author decides to stop doesn't it?

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!