Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review: Wax by Ethel Lina White

by Mary

Young journalist Sonia Thompson arrives at the dreary little town of Riverpool on a raw November day to work on the local paper. The first sight she visits is the Riverpool Waxwork Gallery, inhabited by shabby figures of Victorian celebrities and historical persons. It's not a top notch attraction. In fact, it's gone downhill to the point where, as the author puts it, it has sunk to be a place of assignation—of stolen meetings and illicit love. And this despite its sinister reputation after more than one death on the premises, starting with the suicide of the speculative builder who erected it. He hanged himself in the Hall of Horrors.

Sonia has hardly been in town five minutes before she receives a call at ten past three in the morning from an woman unknown to her who claims to be doomed. As time passes suggestive cross-currents and hints begin to surface, reinforcing Sonia's conviction that more than one resident harbours a secret. Then another body is found in the waxworks...

Has Lilith, Doctor Nile's much younger wife, been as immoral as she is painted? Is flirtatious alderman and future mayor William Cuttle, openly philandering with more than one woman, truthful when he insists he has always been faithful to his wife? Could Dame Rumour be correct in declaring Regina Yates, the alderman's secretary, intends to be the second Mrs. Cuttle one way or another? Is snobbishness the reason why local history teacher Mary Munro, so obviously desperately lonely, rejects all friendly overtures? Why is timid Edith Miller so devoted to the wax figure of Mary of Scotland?

In an ever tensely wound plot the waxworks plays a central role, a spider looming ever larger at the centre of a web whose threads reach far and wide in surprising ways.

My verdict: A short but terrific novel. The wonderfully written chapter in which Sonia spends a night in the Riverpool Waxwork Gallery to gather material for her series on the waxworks will give many readers the creeping heeby-jeebies. I particularly liked the way the Gallery is revealed to be connected to a matter ultimately tying in an unexpected yet logical way to an outbreak of seemingly unconnected crimes, while the denouement sports a terrific and yet fairly clued sting in its tale.

Etext: Wax by Ethel Lina White

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas

Eddi's Service

(A.D. 687)

by Rudyard Kipling

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid In his chapel at Manhood End, Ordered a midnight service For such as cared to attend. But the Saxons were keeping Christmas, And the night was stormy as well. Nobody came to service, Though Eddi rang the bell. "'Wicked weather for walking," Said Eddi of Manhood End. "But I must go on with the service For such as care to attend." The altar-lamps were lighted, -- An old marsh-donkey came, Bold as a guest invited, And stared at the guttering flame. The storm beat on at the windows, The water splashed on the floor, And a wet, yoke-weary bullock Pushed in through the open door. "How do I know what is greatest, How do I know what is least? That is My Father's business," Said Eddi, Wilfrid's priest. "But -- three are gathered together -- Listen to me and attend. I bring good news, my brethren!" Said Eddi of Manhood End. And he told the Ox of a Manger And a Stall in Bethlehem, And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider, That rode to Jerusalem. They steamed and dripped in the chancel, They listened and never stirred, While, just as though they were Bishops, Eddi preached them The World, Till the gale blew off on the marshes And the windows showed the day, And the Ox and the Ass together Wheeled and clattered away. And when the Saxons mocked him, Said Eddi of Manhood End, "I dare not shut His chapel On such as care to attend."

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Christopher Quarles: College Professor and Master Detective by Percy James Brebner

by Mary

Detective Murray Wigan narrates various cases he solved with the assistance of philosophy professor Christopher Quarles.

If a case interests Quarles he tries to solve it for his own satisfaction but never gives his opinion unless asked, nor does he interfere except to prevent a miscarriage of justice. As he explains to Wigan, his method is the reverse of that used by detectives, for they "...argue from facts; I am more inclined to form a theory, and then look for facts to fit..." A rather dangerous way to solve a crime in my opinion, but Quarles is a keen observer of small details and knows his psychology, pointing to the right person every time.

In the opening story of this 1914 collection, Wigan meets Quarles for the first time when the owner of 12 Blenheim Square is found dead. There are no marks of violence on the deceased and a large blue stone and the components of a set of Chinese nesting boxes are arranged in a semicircle on a blotting-pad in front of him. Thus begins The Affair of the Ivory Boxes.

Quarles' theory relating to a particularly gruesome crime is supported by an architectural clue, but why would The Identity of the Final Victim never be known, given Wigan believes it is possible to discover it?

A string of medical men are burgled but in each case nothing is stolen by the burglar. Once The Riddle of the Circular Counters is solved the crime spree makes a certain amount of sense.

A touch of woo-woo and psychological reasoning help Wigan and Quarles solve a bibliophile's murder in The Strange Case of Michael Hall, the latter being not the victim but the man sentenced to death for the crime.

The next case begins with a woman's telephone call for help, cut off in mid sentence. When the authorities arrive at her home, she has disappeared. The Evidence of the Cigarette-end points towards the solution.

The companion of the murdered titular character in The Mystery of Old Mrs. Jardine has disappeared, making her the prime suspect. But there are indications Mrs J's nephew might be the culprit...

The murder method is explained by The Death-trap in the Tudor Room, but what could be the motive? Perhaps the least rewarding of the stories in this collection, not least because the title is my favourite.

It takes five years but justice is served in an unexpected way on the perpetrator of a murder, finally clearing up The Mystery of Cross Roads Farm.

There's more than just a game of golf being played at an east coast resort. A bit of burglary and inspired code-breaking solves The Conundrum of the Golf Links.

The Diamond Necklace Scandal breaks out when a valuable piece of jewelry is stolen and then returned -- or rather a paste imitation is sent back. Who has the real necklace and how did they steal it from the neck of the wearer without her realising it was gone?

After The Disappearance of Dr Smith the wreckage of his boat is cast ashore, followed two days later by his body. Dr Smith was insured for a large sum so the question to be solved is was his death an accident, suicide, or worse?

Following a series of safe robberies in London, Quarles and Wigan investigate The Affair of the Stolen Gold. Was the same gang responsible for the theft or was it carried out by a recently dismissed employee, now gone missing -- and if it was, how did he manage to transfer all that weighty gold out overnight?

The Will of the Eccentric Mr. Frisby is that of a man who made a fortune in Australia and then came home to Boston, Lincolnshire. He dies leaving an adopted son and a nephew he has given ten thousand pounds and informed he should have no expectations. But no will can be found...

Some nice misdirection obfuscates investigation of The Case of the Murdered Financier. A veiled woman is known to have visited him on the night of his death. Who was she and why was she there?

A moneylender goes out the day he expects a dinner guest of some importance. The host does not return and the guest does not turn up, leading to an investigation of The Strange Affair of the Florentine Chest.

An old man leaves puzzling statements in his will as clues to aid his disliked heirs find their inheritance. As the result of a faithful servant being accused of theft, Quarles and Wigan become involved in The Search for the Missing Fortune.

My verdict: I'd mark this collection with an A. Each story closes with an explanation of how Quarles deduced information instrumental in solving the case and some clues in these narratives are so subtle readers will kick themselves for missing them as I did. There is one entry where a significant matter connecting to a later clue is not mentioned before the explanation, perhaps an oversight on the part of the author. In any event, I enjoyed this collection so much I now intend to read The Master Detective: Being Some Further Investigations of Christopher Quarles. Stay tuned!

Etext: Christopher Quarles: College Professor and Master Detective by Percy James Brebner

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Read an Excerpt from Murder in Megara

by Eric

Our eleventh Byzantine mystery, Murder in Megara, came out in October.

As described by our publisher, Poisoned Pen Press:

John, former Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, has been exiled from Constantinople to a rustic estate John has long-owned in Greece, not far from where he grew up. But exile proves no escape from mystery and mayhem. The residents of nearby Megara make it plain John and his family are unwelcome intruders. His overseer proves corrupt. What of the other staff-and his neighbors?

Before long, John finds himself accused of blasphemy and murder. Now a powerless outsider, he’s on his own, investigating and annoyingly hampered by the ruthless and antagonistic City Defender who serves Megara as both law enforcer and judge. Plus there’s that corrupt estate overseer, a shady pig farmer, a servant’s unwelcome suitor, a wealthy merchant who spends part of his time as a cave-dwelling hermit, and the criminals and cutthroats populating such a seedy port as Megara.

Complicating matters further are two childhood friends whose lives have taken very different paths, plus the stepfather John hated. John realizes that in Megara, the solution to murder does not lie in the dark alleys where previous investigations have taken him, but in a far more dangerous place-his own past. Can he find his way out of the labyrinth of lies and danger into which he has been thrust before disaster strikes and exile turns into execution?

Which is a nice description. However, we like to think of our Byzantine mysteries as a bit quirky and eccentric and not without humor. If you want to see what we mean there's an excerpt at Historical Fiction Excerpts in which a defendant advances a demons did it defense:

Murder in Megara excerpt

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review: The Brigand by Edgar Wallace

by Mary

Some readers may well claim that this work is not what most would call a mystery. However, others will agree with me its stories do feature mysteries, in that what is concealed until their ends is how protagonist Anthony Newton is going to turn the tables on a collection of largely criminal sorts and thus pull off another coup advantageous to himself. For while Anthony thinks of himself as an "honest adventurer", he's really a con-man -- but with certain ethics.

The problem with this collection is since individual stories are not too long, describing their content without giving away vital plot points is somewhat difficult, but faint heart n'er wrote a fair review, so I shall do my best.

We are introduced to ex-army officer Tony Newton in A Matter of Nerve. It is after the war, he's down on his luck, and being thrown out of his lodgings for non-payment of rent to boot. Those who admire a rogue will take to him right away when they discover how he persuades a perfect stranger to pay for his dinner and then goes on to thwart a man trying to pull a fast one.

Tony plans On Getting An Introduction to elusive millionaire Gerald Mansar and accomplishes it via Mansar's daughter Jane. However, papa has the last laugh...or does he?

In Buried Treasure our protagonist, aided by his friend Bill Farrell, manipulates butter and margarine magnate Montague Flake by appealing to the latter's all too evident greed, aided by a clever bit of literal manipulation on Tony's part.

A Contribution to Charity takes Anthony to Newcastle, which grabbed my attention as it's my home city. However, Theodore Match, known as the Shipping King, lives in a mansion and refuses to give a penny to good works. Match is quite aware of Tony's exploits and more or less challenges him to force him contribute twelve thousand pounds to charity. But Match has met his match.....

Sybil Martin is the titular gal in A Lady In Grey, the widow of Tony's colonel during the war. Sleazy Mr Jepburn, who owns seven gambling hells given respectability by operating under the auspices of well-born hostesses in the West End of London, is also involved. One of the more predictable stories in this collection, perhaps.

Tony next takes up a temporary new career by investing in a betting business run by The Bookmaker. Proprietor Mr Yarrow is not a straight dealer and has the tables turned on him in a satisfying fashion.

The Plum Pudding Girl involves Tony taking up a job writing love letters to a titled lady in order to overcome her attraction to her chauffeur, which naturally has horrified her family. Obviously there's a catch...and a twist ending involving a matter which on consideration the reader will have to agree is fairly clued.

The Guest of the Minnows is Mr Antonio Anquilina, a sought-after fellow in the theatrical world as he not only wants to fund productions but also goes about buying up theatres. He's keen on playing cards, so naturally the Minnows Club is of interest to him.

Next, Tony goes into the newspaper business after buying a small newspaper not long before The Bursted Election. Josias Longwirt, an old school friend who had not only refused to give Tony the price of a meal when he badly needed it but then had also suggested he apply for National Assistance, the cur, is now running as Conservative candidate to represent Burted in Parliament...

The Hon Lammer Green is The Joker, and while some japes were relatively harmless, such as engaging labourers to tear up Piccadilly Circus and holding up traffic for twelve hours, he is not above carrying out unkind pranks. This time he proposes to propose to Mathilda, the rather homely daughter of Oxton Manor's St Joshua Gaggle, late of 'oxton (that's to say Hoxton in London). Anthony is reluctant to go along with Lammer but in the end decides to do so.

Kato is the title of a much darker tale, involving Anthony and his friend Bill stepping out of character to engage in a spot of burglary in order to nab the unsavoury Mr Poltue's emerald. They are aided in their venture by Poltue's equally odious servant Kato, but needless to say there's more to it than appears on the surface.

In The Graft cardsharp Jay Gaddit is sent to Dartmoor and asks Tony to see if he can do something for Mrs Gaddit. Quite capable of getting along without her imprisoned husband, she is the innocent source of vital information that ultimately brings Tony happiness and, it seems safe to assume, abandonment of his old life.

My verdict: An engaging collection about a protagonist who has something of Raffles in his blood even though Newton's path is down a different part of the grey area of the street. Fans of the twist-ending will enjoy these short stories, particularly those with some neatly blatant pieces of misdirection.

Etext: The Brigand by Edgar Wallace

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Ol' Blue Eyes and Me

by Eric

Today is Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday. That places him in the generation of singers my parents loved. Which is to say, those my generation, kids who followed the Beatles and rock n'roll, did not love. Still, Sinatra being the icon he is, I haven't avoided his music altogether.

I associate Frank Sinatra with three songs: My Way, thanks to the rendition by Sex Pistol Sid Vicious (whose way turned out less successful than Frank's), Strangers in the Night, because of the jaw dropping tastelessness of a father- daughter duet about a pick up, and High Hopes.

The latter is the only Sinatra recording I actually liked. During my early years I didn't enjoy anything except novelty songs or The Colonel Bogey March as played on my grandparents' old Victrola. High Hopes with its doughty ant hauling its rubber tree plant worked for me. As far as Sinatra's performance went, I would have preferred Sheb Wooley.

Ol' Blue Eyes was always hanging around the house in the fifties, in the record cabinet, on the turntable. I recall seeing the album covers, although I don't specifically recollect hearing the music. My inexplicable familiarity with certain standards might be due my parents playing Sinatra's versions. He did not interest me. Judging by the album covers he was just some old guy. Older than my parents even because he wore a hat. My grandfather wore a grey felt hat, my father didn't.

My dad liked the fifties Sinatra well enough to play his albums but he preferred Ella Fitzgerald. The Sinatra whose music he loved was the skinny Big Band singer from the forties.

When I developed an interest in rock music during the sixties I occasionally sampled earlier artists and found singers I liked -- Fred Astaire and Hank Williams for example. I never tried Sinatra. He was too much "my parents' music."

So I was shocked one day in the late seventies when my Manhattan "hairdresser to the punk bands" was playing a new Sinatra album. I went to his probably illegal, private apartment hair salon -- i.e. barber chair and mirror in what was obviously a dining room -- to get my hair snipped into spikes. Rather than Johnny Thunders or the Dead Boys or any of the customers he mentioned in his Punk Magazine ad, he had Sinatra crooning through his sound system.

The explanation was simple. His dad was a session musician who'd played on the album. His dad had also played on Jobriath's albums, which accounted for the gigantic Jobriath poster on the wall. Luckily he did not play Jobriath while I was in the chair.

For a short time my ex wife and I lived in the tiny New Jersey town of Weehawken, across the Hudson from Manhattan and just north of Hoboken, best known for being the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. There are a lot of Sinatra fans in that part of New Jersey.

One blistering hot summer Sunday we decided to go into the city. As we waited outside our apartment building for the bus, growing ever more uncomfortable an enormous Cadillac pulled up and middle-aged, business suited driver asked us where we were going and offered a ride. Being young and foolish we leapt into the refreshingly air conditioned interior. The seats had more padding in them than all the thrift store furniture in our place put together. Sinatra was blasting over the stereo speakers.

Along with the music we got an enthusiastic lecture on Frank, the hometown boy made good and his proper place in music history. I have often wondered whether this Sinatra fan made a point of picking up young people and trying to convert them to his hero.

I wasn't converted. And years later, by the time I might have been prepared to give him a chance he'd become an elderly, obnoxious celebrity.

But there was always High Hopes. Unlike Sinatra's usual schmaltz, that song really spoke to me in the same way Purple People Eater or Little Space Girl or the Mighty Mouse theme did. (Ants were so much more interesting than girls.)

One day my dad's friend Mr. Petrillo (in the fifties kids didn't address adults by their first names) drove my brother and me and all his kids -- seven or eight, or maybe nine...I lost count -- to a Yankees game. Mr Petrillo was an artist and the most imperturbable man I ever met. He and his wife lived with that incalculable gang of kids, assorted mutts and two ancient mothers-in-law engaged in a never ending Sicilian blood feud. He'd sit calmly smoking his pipe, reading an art magazine, in his own world of sublime aesthetics, totally oblivious to the bedlam surrounding him.

During the long drive to New York he puffed his pipe serenely while we kids spotted cows, argued, wrestled, and finally sang, and sang, and sang. We got to the chorus of High Hopes:

But he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes
He's got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

Then there was a big cut in the vinyl and the needle kept jumping backwards.

He's got high-i-i hopes! He's got high-i-i hopes!!

It was the perfect refrain for a backseat choir nine, or ten, or eleven (or so it seemed) massed sub-teen screechers.

How loud could we sing? This loud? No, we can do better than that.

High-i-i...hopes!!....HIGH-I-I HOPES!!!!

Mile after mile we increased the volume. Finally, incredibly, Mr Petrillo slowly removed his pipe from his mouth, looked back over his shoulder, and without raising his voice said, "Will you damn kids please shut the hell up."

We shut up.

For him that amounted to a towering rage.

Definitely not his way.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Review: The Paternoster Ruby by Charles E. Walk

by Mary

The Paternoster Ruby may not be bang in the middle of the generally accepted dates for the Golden Age but don't let that stop you from reading this novel. For those who like them -- and I do, very much -- it features a floor plan and a cipher of several numbers, oh frabjous day! Not to mention colour illustrations. Can't beat such riches with a big stick!

But what of the plot? Well, the narrator, Inspector Knowles Smith, remarks at one point he believes "the reader will unhesitatingly admit, by this time, that the Page affair presented many remarkable aspects".

And so it does.

As the book opens on a January day in 1892, Inspector Smith is investigating the murder of wheat king Felix Page, who had recently made a killing on that grain and in the process trounced hated rival Alfred Fluette. There are two immediate suspects: the murdered man's two overnight guests, these being his private secretary and a young man sporting a fresh black eye who initially refuses to say what business brought him to Page's mansion the night before. However, the secretary reveals the latter's visit has to do with the titular ruby. Naturally, the ruby was involved in two deaths, three if you count the man hanged for murdering its owner Paternostro, who gave his name to the gem.

And so begins a convoluted tale in which the narrator, then in his 20s, tells of the twists and turns of his investigation. There is more to the situation than murder and the theft of the fabulous ruby, and much of the action takes place in the dead man's mansion which at one time or another has a number of unexpected visitors while Smith and a colleague are in residence seeking clues and the missing ruby.

My verdict: The novel is written in a surprisingly modern style and moves along like all get out. There's a twist at the end completely demolishing my theory about the gem, who pinched it, and Page's murderer. I suspected just about every possible culprit except the person who confesses and even then...but no spoilers here. I'll be looking out for more of Walk's works.

Etext: The Paternoster Ruby by Charles E. Walk