Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review: The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White

by Mary

It is a dark and very stormy night as the novel opens, for a terrible gale howls around Professor Sebastian's rambling but solidly built house, l2 miles from the nearest village. The entire countryside is gripped in terror after local girls have been murdered, and once darkness falls few people venture abroad.

Protagonist Helen Capel works as "lady-help" to the scholarly professor, his chilly sister Blanche, who is firmly under the thumb of their invalid mother Lady Warren, who may or may have killed her husband "by accident" years before, and sinister, mannish Nurse Barker. There also the professor's son Newton, married to and insanely jealous of his flirtatious wife Simone, who has her eye on a fling with the professor's resident pupil Stephen Rice. Mr and Mrs Oates, faithful servants, round out the residents of the house, one of those rambling edifices with a warren of cellars, many rooms, and two staircases -- and not all of it fitted with electric light.

After learning of another murder committed not far from the house, Professor Warren announces that as a matter of safety everyone must stay inside and nobody is to be admitted under any circumstances that night. But just as he gives this order, there is a thunderous knocking at the front door....

My verdict: The Spiral Staircase was originally published as Some Must Watch, a much better title given the plot hinges on efforts by the people locked in the house to protect themselves and each other during a long and extremely stressful night. The manner in which one by one they fail in the task is extremely clever, for the reader cannot be certain if events come about naturally or if someone is pulling strings to arrange matters. I cannot say more for fear of spoiling an excellent work in which tension increases every chapter, characters are not always what they seem, and expectations based on behaviour turn out to be completely false. I read this book in a few hours and regret I'm not just beginning it again! In fact, I name it without hesitation as my top read this month.

Etext: The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: Final Proof or The Value of Evidence by Rodrigues Ottolengui

by Mary

A few thoughts on this collection recording the friendly rivalry between detective Jack Barnes and Robert Leroy Mitchel, "the gentleman who imagines himself to be able to outdo detectives in their own line of work". According to the preface, the pair had previously worked together in An Artist In Crime and The Crime of the Century, neither of which I have read. The chronologically arranged stories in this book begin after the close of An Artist In Crime.

It's always difficult to review short stories without giving too much away, but ever ready to have a stab at it, I plunge into the melee forthwith.

The Phœnix of Crime A drowned man is identified by certain indications of an illness so rare that only a couple of other cases have been reported in the country -- but how can this be, when he was recently cremated?

The Missing Link The corpse of a woman sans head, hands, and feet is found In the bathtub of a house open for inspection by prospective purchasers. The mystery is solved with the aid of the titular item, although I confess I feel the solution will require readers to suspend their disbelief so much it'll do it a mischief.

The Nameless Man A man asks for help in establishing who he is, for he has lost his memory. A bicycle is an important clue to his identity -- though all is not what it seems.

The Montezuma Emerald. The emerald's last owner was murdered. Mitchel, a gem collector, purchases it and is subsequently found in the river, a dagger in his back.

A Singular Abduction A wealthy man's daughter is kidnapped but brought safely home with the aid of personal ads and a cyclometer.

The Aztec Opal Who stole the titular opal -- it once formed an idol's eye -- when the lights went out?

The Duplicate Harlequin Continuing the previous story, the man with the other eye (that would be a good title for something or other!) attempts to obtain the matching opal by trickery.

The Pearls of Isis Each pearl is said to represent the price of a maiden's honour because its gift permitted her to avoid temple service. A society woman obtains the pearl necklace by blackmail and then it is stolen during a masquerade ball...

A Promissory Note A man elopes with a rancher's wife, leaving an IOU for her. The husband forces the man to sign a thirty-day note to be paid with his life. Just when he thinks he's safe, the specified time having expired....a nice twist ending to a locked room story. Perhaps the best in the collection

A Novel Forgery Forged cheques are being drawn on a businessman's account. I was intrigued to learn at one time the amount of a cheque was also punched into it, and even then it was sometimes possible to alter it!

A Frosty Morning A 1,000 pound note vanishes in a room occupied only by a solicitor and a couple of other people, none of whom have it on their persons. A midnight vigil and frost ferns on a window help solve the case.

A Shadow of Proof A society woman is convinced one of two visitors, both of whom she dislikes, stole her diamond stud. The solution is not entirely fair to the reader although it's certainly ingenious.

My verdict: The solutions to most of these stories will be easy for mystery fans to deduce but they're interesting in their own right given their publication date. I liked Mitchel's theory that by purchasing great jewels such as those mentioned "hundreds of crimes would be prevented, even before they had been conceived", while also affording him "abundant opportunity for studying the crimes which are perpetrated in order to gain possession of them". In any event, the duelling characters caught my interest enough to look forward to reading A Modern Wizard courtesy of Gutenberg. As for this collection? Difficult to grade, so I shall settle on B- Please do not throw cabbages.

Etext: Final Proof or The Value of Evidence by Rodrigues Ottolengui

NOTE: A pioneering dentist, Rodriques Ottolengui was also an early proponent of the detective story.Final Proof, first published in 1898 was lauded by Ellery Queen as one of Queen's Quorum -- the most important collections of detective short stories.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Guardian Stones in the UK News.

by Eric

Our WWII era mystery The Guardian Stones just received a mention in The Shopshire Star! Our thanks to Kate Charles for drawing it to our attention.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Writers Who Kill

by Eric

No, Mary and I are not writers who kill. Nor am I going to say anything about writers who actually have killed, although I understand that there have been some. Okay. Yeah, I'm thinking of Benvenuto Cellini who brags in his autobiography about how many people he killed. Not to mention being escorted to Heaven to meet God personally. No, I'm referring to the interview at the blog "Writers Who Kill." We (on behalf of Eric Reed!) answer questions about The Guardian Stones, such as why we chose to set a book in WWII Shropshire of all places in the first place. And we also talk a little about how we got started with our writing.

An Interview With Eric Reed.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Review: The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths

by Mary

I must admit, so please put away the big clubs, I was not too thrilled with The Rome Express. It started off in such cracking good style too, with an overnight murder on a cross continental train and six passengers and a train porter under suspicion of stabbing the victim while the express was flying along the rails.

Ahah, you cry, what an excellent set-up! And so it is.

The train arrives in Paris and the seven persons mentioned are sequestered for questioning. And who are these suspects comes the question from the back row.

Well, there's General Sir Charles Collingham and his clerical brother the Revd Silas Collingham and a couple of Frenchmen -- Anatole Lafolay, who works in the precious gem line, and commission agent Jules Devaux. Italian policeman Natale Ripaldi, the English-born Contessa di Castagneto, and Dutch porter Ludwig Groote make up the international bunch being grilled like kippers by the French authorities.

The victim is an absconding Italian banker by the name of Francis A. Quadling, and certain evidence in his compartment suggests a woman visitor. This and other clues point to the countess as the culprit, but is she the guilty party?

Alas, once the circumstances of the murder are described, they provide the reader with the necessary hint that All Is Not What It Seems -- although there is still a bit of sleuthing to do to find out what happened and who was involved.

My objection is that so little is made of the characters involved. To think of the motives that could be introduced to muddy the international waters! The two Frenchmen could have been defrauded by the dead man, the countess might have been blackmailed by him, perhaps he was bribing the Italian policemen and threatened to tell his superiors when he tried to arrest him on the train. The Dutch porter presents problems but then the one who appears most innocent often turns out to be the person responsible. Perhaps the absconding cad ruined the Dutchman's daughter!

I thought it a pity so much suspicion is focused on the countess that other excellent possibilities are overlooked, particularly as this is a relatively short piece of fiction and there would have been room for a subplot or two. Even so, I liked the intriguing set-up -- I wonder what Christie fans would make of it! -- so I shall probably try another Griffiths and see if I am happier with the next novel.

Etext: The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review: The Silent House by Fergus Hume

by Mary

Lucian Denzil is a young barrister who lives in Geneva Square, a cul-de-sac situated in Pimilico, an area of London devotees of older British comedies will recognise as the post-war setting of Passport to Pimilico.

In The Silent House Denzil's passport to mysterious happenings begins when he becomes interested in the titular dwelling at l3 Geneva Square. Empty for 20 years, it has a bad reputation because strange lights and noises have been seen there, plus it is in a neglected, run-down condition in contrast to the other houses in Geneva Square.

Naturally it causes a great deal of local gossip when number l3 is rented to Mark Berwin, a man usually seen in an intoxicated condition. Indeed, Denzil makes Berwin's acquaintanceship one extremely foggy November night by way of escorting him home, having found him the worse for drink and reeling disoriented about the square. Berwin goes out very little, has no visitors or servants in residence, and lives in a couple of rooms tastefully furnished with beautiful furniture.

Blinders, the bobby stationed at the entrance to the square, has seen shadows on Berwin's living room blind before observing Berwin coming home alone as usual. This adds to local talk of ghosts and hauntings at number l3. Then one evening Denzil meets Berwin coming into Geneva Square by its only entrance a few minutes after observing similar shadows. Berwin tells him he is mistaken and insists Denzil go all over the house to show there is no possibility of anyone being there.

Well, someone is there eventually because not long afterwards Berwin is found stabbed to death in his room on Christmas Day morning. Constable Blinders saw nobody (no jokes please) and having tried number l3's doors and windows as is the habit of British bobbies on the beat knows they were all locked the night before. Enter Gordon Link, the detective in charge of the case. Berwin is identified by Mrs Vrain as her husband, Mark Vrain, who left her some ten months before and whose whereabouts were hitherto unknown. Diana, Vrain's daughter by his first wife, is in Australia, but four months after her father's death returns to London to enlist Denzil's aid in convicting those responsible for her father's murder, for she believes her stepmother and the latter's former lover, the Italian Count Ferruci, are the culprits. But how to prove it? And how did they, or agents acting for them, get into and out of the locked house without being detected?

The reader is led down false trails with Denzil and Link as they repeatedly wind up in investigative cul de sacs, despite a number of convincing theories and promising clues pointing to one person or another. The cast list increases to include sharp-tongued servant Rhoda Stanley, venomous gossip Bella Tyler, Dr Jorce, who owns of a private asylum, and a mysterious lodger named Wrent who lives in the house behind number l3, among others.

My verdict: The Silent House features a complicated although slow paced plot, which rattles along well enough to maintain interest until what appears to be a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion, for the crime is ultimately solved by confession -- but with a final twist I think will be unforeseen by most! The solution to the locked house puzzle, while pedestrian, fits the circumstances and characters to a T.

Etext: The Silent House by Fergus Hume.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Problem with Self Promotion

The Guardian Stones is an exciting departure for us. Set in the UK during WWII, a much different period than our Byzantine mysteries, it is also different in tone, darker perhaps, owing as much to the modern thriller as the Golden Age Detectives.

Naturally we want people to read the novel and so, already we have been dutifully attempting to bring it to people's attention. Unfortunately, although promotion is necessary, neither Mary nor I are very comfortable with it. If only Eric Reed were a real person who loved being a salesman.

In his memoir Self Consciousness John Updike described well the plight of diffident writers:

"...the price that we pay, we Americans who shyly wish to live by our eyes and wits, at our desks, away from the frightening tussle of human strength and appetite and intimidation and persuasiveness, is marginality: we live chancily, on society's crumbs in a sense, as an exchange for our exemption from the broad brawl of, to give it a name, salesmanship."

Ain't it the truth!

For most of us, although not, perhaps, for John Updike.

You're not exactly marginalized when you're on the cover of Time magazine, twice. But Updike's fame arrived in the early sixties and I would prefer to believe that back then success sought authors out because of their writing, that Updike had only sell stories and novels, and not himself. Or not to the extent that he would have had to sell himself were he beginning his career today.

How will literature change when an author cannot attain publication without without becoming a salesman? Surely our personalities are reflected in our books. A hard driving, competitive self promoter (the sort of person help wanted ads seek) perfectly at home in Updikes's "frightening tussle of human strength and appetite" is going to write a different kind of book than a person who is retiring and meditative.

Not that retiring and meditative writers have ever fared very well against the literary self-promoters but at least they were not entirely cut off from publication, which might soon be the case.

From a business point of view it isn't surprising. The financial returns from even a bestselling author like Updike amount to crumbs compared to the obscene mountains of money available from the more profitable businesses owned by the corporate conglomerates who control big publishing. Those who read books regularly have become a shrinking minority on the margins of society. Certainly not a market important enough to cultivate.

Nevertheless, some lesser-promoters will doubtless continue to write because for us there is almost no price too high for an exemption from salesmanship. Some of us still aspire to be Arthur Miller rather than Willy Loman.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer

by Eric

If only Sir Charles Abingdon had confided in Paul Harley right away instead of deciding to reveal the full extent of his fears over dinner the following evening...but he didn't, and is just about to tell all when he dies at the dinner table. Sir Charles' last words are "Fire- Tongue...Nicol Brinn...."

Nicol Brinn is easy enough to find, being a world-famous daredevil hunter and explorer who's been courting death for years in all parts of the globe, but when Harvey mentions Fire-Tongue he is obviously shaken to his core. Yet he too refuses, for the moment at least, to reveal what he knows of Fire-Tongue. Meantime, Harvey meets and falls for Sir Charles' daughter Phyllis and is not thrilled to hear the Persian Ormuz Khan is paying her too much attention, or at least according to views held by British gentlemen on what constitutes proper conduct. It's up to Harvey and Brinn, working with Inspector Wessex and his colleagues, to deduce the mysterious Fire-Tongue's identity and thwart whatever devilish plans he or she is doubtless hatching.

My verdict: Fire-Tongue is curiously subdued for Rohmer. Its solution depends more on deduction and investigation than on fisticuffs, although a chilling chase along a deserted country road and the usual derring-do in an isolated mansion do feature. Part of the back story strays into classic Rohmer territory, which is to say it is more than somewhat far fetched, but here it explains a great deal about a pivotal character. Not a bad read for an idle evening.

E-text: Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer

Friday, January 1, 2016

Be Careful What You Wish For

by Eric

Poisoned Pen Press published our first mystery novel, One for Sorrow, in December 1999. When The Guardian Stones appears in January, a few months after our eleventh Byzantine mystery, Murder in Megara, the press will have released twelve of our books in a little more than fifteen years. We've been fortunate that a respected indie publisher has stuck with us for so long.

When Mary and I were sending our fifty page sample around, back in the days when publishers would consider unagented books, an editor at a big New York publisher evinced keen interest. Unfortunately we had made the rookie mistake of submitting a partial before we completed the book. A few months later, when we sent the entire MS, we were surprised and disappointed to receive a curt rejection.

Oddly, the pages the editor enthused over were by far the weakest part of the book. Eventually we rewrote the initial chapter about five times to make it acceptable and years later, when we refreshed the novel for the e-edition we trashed the original beginning entirely. Why had the editor's mind changed? The short, dismissive rejection gave no clue so we'll never know.

So what if our work had been published initially by one of the the big publishers?

It might seem obvious that it would have boosted our writing career immensely, but in hindsight I doubt it would have been a good thing. Probably we would have had two or three Byzantine mysteries published before getting the boot for failure to hit the bestseller lists immediately. That is the fate of most first time, unknown authors. We heard personally from one author whose "three book deal" was cancelled before the second book hit the shelves. Big publishers have no patience. Being part of corporate conglomerates they are about the bottom line rather than books.

Poisoned Pen Press, on the other hand, has given us the chance to continue writing novels and see them published..

Not to say I still don't wish we could, even just for a single book, make "The Show" as baseball players call the major leagues. But sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for.

One for Sorrow (Revised edition)