Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: The Three Hostages by John Buchan

by Mary

While some will certainly disagree, I view The Three Hostages as a mystery-thriller because there is a mystery to be solved: where are the three missing people and who is behind their abductions?

The book opens a couple of years after WWI. Sir Richard Hannay and Mary Lamington are now married with a young son. They reside in Fosse Manor, a nice touch given they first met when she was staying with her aunts at the Manor while engaged in a bit of undercover work herself, as related in Mr Standfast.

One evening the Hannays' friend Dr Greenslade visits and their conversation turns to how to write what he calls a "shocker". Dr Greenslade's theory is the author should take three apparently unconnected things, invent a connection, and dream up a problem to solve involving the connection. His example is: "an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard."

In the real world ugly international doings are afoot and eventually they intrude into Hannay's household. Members of the families of three great men -- "the daughter of the richest man in the world, the heir of our greatest dukedom, the only child of a national hero" -- have been kidnapped and are being held as hostages by a combine whose members are outwardly respectable but which is using the disaffected across Europe and elsewhere to further their own concerns, including fraud, profiteering, and even murder. Though known to the authorities, if members of this combine are captured too soon the hostages will doubtless be executed and certain delicate political matters in the balance upset.

By a twist of fate Dr Greenslade's literary example serves to aid Hannay and his friends get on the track of the villains in a race against a deadline at which they can only guess.

My verdict: Was Buchan following Dr Greenslade's advice, I wonder? Hannay has quite a puzzle to solve and the first half of the book follows his attempts to make sense of the sole clue: six lines of doggerel sent to each of the three great men. There is more intelligence work and less physical action in this novel and the slow working-out of the mystery is convincing. Mary Hannay, while mostly off the page, plays a role near the end that is both gripping and believable and received a loud hurrah from here!

The Three Hostages by John Buchan Qu

Friday, July 29, 2016

Eating Maggots and Other Reasons I'm No Gourmet

by Eric

After one of our typical home heated up dinners I noticed that the ingredients listed on the bag included gorgonzola. Neither Mary nor I like to cook. To us, ingredients aren't things you measure, chop, or mix, but reading matter on the back of packages.

After one of our typical home heated up dinners I noticed that the ingredients listed on the bag included gorgonzola. Neither Mary nor I like to cook. To us, ingredients aren't things you measure, chop, or mix, but reading matter on the back of packages.

"Gorgonzola. That's cheese, isn't it?" I said, immediately activating the useful auxiliary brain called Google. Quicker than I can remember my Social Security number, I learned that gorgonzola is indeed a cheese, with bluish green veining.

"Whoa," I muttered. "Blue cheese. And look at this, the varicose veins are caused by -- you're not going to believe this -- mold spores growing into hyphae."

Mary frowned. "It doesn't really say "varicose viens" does it?"

"Gaaa," I replied sensibly. "I ate mold spore hyphae!"

In case I'm not being clear here, I don't care for blue cheese.

"Tasted all right to me. At least it's not the kind of cheese where you have to scrape the cheese mites off before you eat it."

"Cheese mites! Don't say that when I've got coffee in my mouth," I choked, frantically wiping off my keyboard. "You're kidding?"

"Look it up."

Unfortunately I did. According to Wikipedia, mites clinging to the rind of Milbenkäse are consumed along with the cheese, which has a "distinctive zesty aftertaste."

"Well, I can believe it has a distinctive taste!"

Mites are also help age Mimolette, the grayish crust being the result of cheese mites intentionally introduced to add flavor by their action on the surface of the cheese.

"I guess we can be sure that frozen pizza is never topped with Milbenkäse or Mimolette," I observed hopefully.

"If it were, the mites would have frozen to death."

"Maybe, but a mouthful of crunchy hard-frozen mites doesn't appeal to me."

I really should have stopped researching, but you know how it is with Google and the Internet and Wikipedia. You start out looking for information on the most innocent subject and a half hour later you are deep in the realms of things man was not meant to know.

Such as casu marzu, otherwise known as "rotten cheese".

Found mainly in Sardinia casu marzu contains live insect larvae. To be exact -- although "insect larvae" seems all you really need to know -- the larvae of the cheese fly. These larvae resemble translucent white worms about one third of an inch long. (So they say, and I'm willing to take their word for it and leave it at that.) A typical cheese contains thousands of these larvae -- known to the non-cheese lovers amongst us as maggots.

Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I've never been into eating maggots. In fact, I was always been pretty much against eating anything while it was still alive. When my family went out to eat, the "very rare" (i.e. bleeding) steaks my mom ordered looked to me as if they were going to moo when you stuck them with a fork so I always demanded my steak be well done and then burned to a crisp, twice, just to be on the safe side.

Once, I admit, I ate a raw oyster at a street fair in Brooklyn. What can I say? I was young and stupid, the sun was hot, I'd had too much sangria. Sometimes when I remember it I can still feel the slimy mollusc sliding down, desperately fighting for life all the way.

Okay, so when it comes to food I've always had delicate sensibilities. I had to avert my gaze every time I passed the restaurant with the big sign announcing Tripe Pizza. Mary told me she liked tripe but I couldn't force myself to go there, not even when we were first married. I did however try to please her once by preparing another of her favorites, liver and onions. (Yes, we did try to cook once in a while until we both decided that the only thing worse than cooking was trying to eat each other's cooking.)

As a child liver had revolted me and I had revolted when it was served for dinner. But, I told myself, now I am an adult. Surely I am mature enough to consume a few token bits of a cow's internal organ?

So I forked up a chunk and chewed, and chewed, and chewed. It was like trying to chew a sponge. I couldn't grind it up, nor could I swallow it down. Every time I tried to gulp my throat balked with an instant gag reflex.

Yes, as an omnivore I am a dreadful failure.

But not even tripe or liver can match the aforementioned rotten cheese.

Apparently connoisseurs of the finer things in life enjoy spreading the stuff on bread. But then they have to hold their hands over the bread to eat it because those living maggots can jump as much as six inches! Holy leaping larvae, Batman! You wouldn't want a maggot up your snout when you were trying to get your tasty treat down your gullet, would you?

Now I think I'll go and have some tasty Pepto-Bismol. Now I think I'll go and have some tasty Pepto-Bismol.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review: Mystery In White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon

by Mary

When a deep fall of snow brings the 11.37 from London's Euston Station to a halt in a rural area on Christmas Eve, the scene shifts to a country house cut off from the world by bad weather (a favourite scenario of mine!) as the continuing storm sets in motion a tale of the strange events related in Mystery In White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon.

Four occupants of the third-class carriage have abandoned the snowbound train in an attempt to walk to a station about six miles away in hopes of continuing their journey from there. The quartet consists of milquetoast clerk Robert Thomson, on his way to visit an aunt, platinum blonde chorus girl Jessie Noyes, who absolutely must get to Manchester that day for professional reasons, and siblings David and Lydia Carrington, who are going to spend Christmas at their uncle's town house.

The two other travellers in their compartment do not accompany them: there's an elderly bore name of Hopkins, who thinks the idea is madness, and Edward Maltby, an older man and member of the Royal Psychical Society. The latter has plans to visit an old house at Naseby in connection with the ghost of Charles I but has suddenly bolted from the train, much to the others' surprise.

Circumstances thwart the attempt to reach the station and the quartet are forced to take shelter in the house mentioned, which they are able to enter through the unlocked front door. Yet although the place is deserted, there's a kettle boiling, tea is laid out in the drawing room, fires have been lit -- and a bread-knife lies on the kitchen floor. A suggestive situation to say the least.

There's a sense of menace about the place and when the decamped Maltby and a Cockney giving his name as Smith show up the atmosphere becomes even more ominous. Particularly when Smith subsequently runs or rather flounders off and the bore Hopkins is rescued from the storm by Carrington and Thomson. Hopkins claims he is on his way to locate a constable because a dead man has been found in the compartment next to the one occupied by those now in the house. But is what he says true?

And that's just the start of this complex and engrossing mystery.

My verdict: The solution to the mystery gives one pause at first and yet, after consideration, the reader must admit it fits with all that went before. I read this novel at one sitting. Can there be any higher recommendation than that?

Mystery In White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon is available from Poisoned Pen Press as part of their reprints of the British Library Crime Classics.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review: Mr Polton Explains by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

Dr Thorndyke and company investigate the case of Cecil Moxdale, deceased, in a double-part novel. In the first section, Mr Polton narrates his life up to his momentous meeting with Thorndyke. I always think of Mr Polton as the older of the pair, but lawks a mercy, going by internal evidence Thorndyke is probably l5 years his senior, if not more. I found this section very interesting, as we learn much about Nathaniel Polton, beginning with his recollections as a three year old orphan with a sister called Maggie living with another family in the country, and then the various stages of his somewhat Dickensian life up to his making Thorndyke's acquaintance, the circumstances of which explain his devotion to Dr T and also some of his more unusual skills.

Much detail is given about Mr Polton's interest in a particular profession and a specific bit of invention which, years later, provides a vital clue to unravelling a mysterious death, the circumstances of which form the second part of the book, narrated by Dr Jervis. To my surprise Mr Polton actually states which of his particular skills contributed to the solution of the crime, though this revelation was not really needed because between the autobiographical details and the description of the scene of the crime it is obvious how the murder was accomplished, if not the person responsible.

Most of my school reports stated I should concentrate more and it seems this flaw still applies to a certain extent, for I soon found myself trying to calculate Mr Polton's age, given he mentions his childhood was a time when Finchley was still outside London and the omnibus to Finchley where his sister lived was horse-drawn, perhaps not the effect the author intended but there it is. Then I began to wonder about Dr Jervis' life and how he and Thorndyke met. Not having read all the Thorndyke yarns, it may be this is explained in one of them.

But pressing on regardless, onward I trundled to part the second. In brief, a fire completely guts a house where Mr Haire has taken rooms. Fortunately for him, he was in Ireland at the time, but unfortunately his cousin, Cecil Moxdale, was staying in the flat. The building is completely burnt out and the body is found more or less charred out of recognition though certain items found in the debris of the fire establish its identity.

And yet...certain aspects of the death suggest it was not accidental or even suicide and so Thorndyke and Jervis become involved. A pointer to the solution is provided by Polton from knowledge mentioned in the first section and although the resolution hinges on a honking great coincidence, rereading Polton's section I found circumstances described there in a more subtle manner than that mentioned above do provide a fair clue or two.

My verdict: Alas, this is the most disappointing of this author's works read so far. In fact, it gives the distinct impression Mr Polton's autobiography was grafted onto a short story to form a novel. Mr Polton's necessary information could, I believe, have been provided within the second section easily enough and in a far less obvious manner. Shocking to relate, I found Mr Polton's biography more interesting than the mystery and its resolution though the latter did have an unexpected twist.

E-text: Mr Polton Explains by R. Austin Freeman

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Review: Miss Marple's Final Cases and Two Other Stories

by Eric

So where's Mary today?

Since she reads faster than she writes reviews, I offered to ease the burden by contributing an occasional GAD review myself. Unfortunately, she took me up on it!

The first book I want to talk about was an antidote to a recent Best Mysteries of the Year collection which featured one or two actual mysteries among twenty noir crime stories. It was enjoyable enough but badly mislabeled. I'd wanted mysteries!

So I turned to Agatha Christie. Where else?

Miss Marple's Final Cases and Two Other Stories was published posthumously in 1979. Presumably the six cases are "final" in that they were the last ones left to be collected at the time. None of the stories suggest that the end of Miss Marple's career is at hand.

The six mysteries include a man dying of a bullet wound in a church who utters a mysterious last word, a woman found dead in a closed room, and a maid framed for theft. They all contain fairly clued puzzles.

Amazingly I fingered the killer in The Tape Measure Murder.

"It must have been a weak story," Mary observed, having long since taken the measure of my powers of ratiocination.

It's true, I rarely figure out whodunit. The only other time I can remember it was not because of the clues but the way the story was constructed: i.e. a character who appeared to have no function in the story whatsoever, unless he was the villain.

Being a sucker for treasure hunts, I particularly liked Strange Jest wherein an eccentric great uncle's legacy is hidden somewhere on his estate. Only a cryptic deathbed clue marks the spot. The two bright young things who are directed to Miss Marple for help are dubious about the seemingly dotty old lady's abilities, until she finds the treasure after recalling her own dear old Uncle Henry who had a similar sense of humor to the deceased.

I suppose if I knew as many odd people as Miss Marple my own ratiocinative abilities would be better.

The "Two Other Stories" are supernatural, The Dressmaker's Doll is perhaps the best in the book. A vaguely malevolent doll appears out of nowhere, although no one can recall when, and gradually takes over a dressmaker's establishment. Creepy!

I've yet to read an Agatha Christie book I didn't like. This is a enjoyable little collection for those who of us who still crave a bit of mystery in the classic style.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Review: The Bishop Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

by Mary

The Bishop Murder Case is a mystery that grabs the reader by the lapels and drags them into the story, for it's hard to resist the statement that the matter "seemed too incredible and too wicked for acceptance by the normal mind of man".

Once again, Philo Vance aids DA John Markham and his police colleagues after Joseph Cochrane Robin is found dead, an arrow in his chest, in the private archery range behind retired professor Bertrand Dillard's New York house. Also residing in Dillard's house are his niece Belle and his protégé and adopted son, mathematical genius Sigurd Arnesson. The Drukkers, an over protective mother and her crippled son Adolph, live in the house whose back yard adjoins the Dillard's. More than one person appears to know something useful even if they are not saying anything, and included among them are a neighbouring chess expert, John Pardee, and civil engineer Raymond Sperling, Robin's rival for Belle's hand.

The connection between the nursery rhyme relating how Cock Robin was killed and the murder is noticed even before messages signed by The Bishop, pointing this out, are sent to the press. Soon there is another death whose circumstances again echo a nursery rhyme, and that's only the start.

My verdict: An intriguing premise that will doubtless remind readers of Agatha Christie's A Pocket Full of Rye. Is Philo Vance right when he declares abnormal psychology is involved or is there some other reason for the crimes? The only way to find out is to read this serpentine entry in Van Dine's series, for more I cannot say without revealing too much.