Friday, May 26, 2017

A Ghost Story

by Eric

StoryADay.org proclaimed May International Short Story Month back in 2013. The Short Mystery Fiction Society is celebrating by highlighting members’ online stories.

Today, the featured story is one by SMFS member Mary and her co-writer: “Waiting: A Halloween Short Story” archived at Kings River Life Magazine.

When Umbrellas Attack

by Mary

A couple of years after the Second World War broke out, the Bishop of Fulham in London was kind enough to share with readers of The Times some advice he had then but lately received from an unnamed official. Apparently the bishop had asked what to do in the event of an enemy attack by poisonous gas. The recommendation he received: to put his hands in his pockets and (presumably not simultaneously) raise his umbrella.

On reading this, my thoughts turned to Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who defected and subsequently broadcast on the BBC World Service about life in his home country He was assassinated in London in 1978 by means of ricin, introduced either on the tip of an umbrella jabbed into his leg, or by way of a pellet shot from an umbrella-gun. The exact details of the affair will probably never be known, because the Bulgarian Secret Service file relating to his murder was among those reported to have been destroyed when their archives were opened to the public about five years ago.

But since on weekdays at least certain areas of London swarm with civil servants and business men dressed in an unofficial uniform of dark suits, bowler hats, and neatly-rolled umbrellas, who could possibly have suspected that among them was one with murderous intent?

On the other hand, it is my contention the person toting the gamp in Edward Gorey’s sinister title sequence for the Mystery series on PBS is up to no good, and until contrary evidence is produced, I shall remain convinced that there is Something Nasty concealed under that umbrella.

Fanciful, you may say? Perhaps so, but in the annals of the law cases are recorded where there is a direct link between crime and umbrellas.

Take, for example, an 1983 California case concerning a defendant apprehended going into a bank with a stickup note about his person and an umbrella handle disguised as a weapon by the ingenious device of draping it with a towel. The equally ingenious defence offered that his umbrella had been broken by high wind, and he was taking the handle home to attempt a repair of a handleless umbrella he had there. And the stickup note? He maintained that he had just been to a job interview and, while waiting to be seen, had read an article on bank robberies. This had inspired him to idly write a mock stickup note. As to the towel: he declared that he was carrying it because of excess perspiration. An appeals court decided that an umbrella disguised in the manner described would be frightening enough to support a conviction of attempted armed robbery.

Less than ten years later, in 1992, on the other side of the country a New York man was found guilty of being involved in the sale, by a third party, of a controlled substance to an undercover detective — in this case, cocaine vials, produced from an umbrella.

Sometimes the umbrella’s role is more marginal, for example in questions of liability. The worst case occurred in 1983 in Louisiana, where a passenger attempted to stop a woman leaving a bus. The woman’s husband struck him with an umbrella and was then fatally shot. The bus driver was not held liable because of his lack of knowledge as to the intent of the passenger, and the fact that he did not know he was armed. However, in 1916 in Arkansas, when a female passenger struck a fellow traveller on his head with her umbrella — he had apparently grabbed her arm — the railway company was held liable because the man had been allowed to board in an intoxicated state.

In Louisiana in 1930 a driver escaped liability for negligence when he struck a pedestrian in an intersection after the light turned green. It was found that because it was a dark, rainy night, and the injured party was not only dressed in dark clothes but also was holding a black umbrella over her head, the driver would have been unable to see, and thus avoid, her.

Another Louisiana case in 1969 involved a shopper hit by an automatic door when leaving a store. Having paused within range of its sensor to open her umbrella, she was considered to have contributed to the accident. As in a 1993 suit in North Carolina, where a customer fell over an umbrella protruding from a display into a store-aisle, the complaint was dismissed.

Courts have ruled that expert testimony is not required in cases where the general public would find cause and effect obvious. This was illustrated in 1981 case in Illinois, where the record noted the public generally understood that if someone is stabbed in the eye with the point of an umbrella, that eye will be severely damaged.

Lamentably, then, umbrellas have been occasionally been put to uncivil uses. Lovers of Ed Hoch’s short stories must forgive my closing by giving away part of the plot of his One Bag of Coconuts, published in the November 1997 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, but who could resist quoting this wonderful confession:

“I had to do it,” Adelaide said, holding the smoking umbrella.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Last Summer Holiday

by Mary

Occasionally I find myself wondering if those eternal motion machines that are the young ever pause long enough to contemplate the enjoyable sight of the lengthy vista of days -- nay, weeks -- stretching out before them when the summer holidays finally begin.

Why, the time rolling out ahead seemed endless to us when school was at last out, with those menacing back-to-school sales so far away at the other end of the summer as to be easily ignored -- and just as well since once they arrived we would have to get the number 4 bus into town to buy school supplies and new tennis shoes, which in turn meant that the new term was not far off and thus soon it would be time to drag ourselves off to the grey Victorian building in which we laboured, to again wrestle with French verbs, toil over geometry exercises and try to recall the names of all the Hanoverian rulers in the correct order -- all these tasks being carried in that strange chalk-and-old- books atmosphere that seemed to permeate every school in which I ever set foot.

Thinking on it now reminds me that my last school holiday was largely spent sprawled on my bed devouring cookers (cooking apples) so tart my teeth almost shrank from them as I chewed away while reading as many books as I could borrow from the library. It was a particularly hot summer that year and our fashionable frou-frou sponge-skirted petticoats ensured that those of us who considered ourselves trendy suffered mightily for the privilege. But the unaccustomed heat -- for when it's above 72 degrees in England, it's inevitably described in the media as A Scorcher -- made my shady room, the pile of green, shiny-skinned cookers and the even larger stack of books with covers of all colours even more attractive to one who was already a bookworm and fruit-lover. The noise of the neighbours' children playing all over the roadway -- despite living in houses with hanky-sized gardens that were nonetheless large enough to allow games of Traffic Lights or Statues or Tag without any risk of getting run over by the mobile fish and chip shop or a passing coal lorry -- was easily ignored, even though our windows were wide open to whatever breeze might meander in, bringing with it the scent of the two small lilac trees growing by the corner of the house.

Because even if those kids had spent their entire summer practicing playing euphoniums outside our front door, I should have taken no notice at all -- I had flown off on the magic carpet of books and would not be back until teatime. And so those long, golden afternoons unwound to the gentle rustle of pages turning and the piling up of apple gowks (cores) until it was time for tea. And when the washing up was done, the tea-towel hung up to dry and the plates and cups and cutlery put away again, there would still be time for a chapter or two or more to be read as shadows started to advance, shrouding the raspberry canes in the back garden and fingering the windows. Soon there would come that strange hush that creeps in between the time when workers arrive home for their evening meals and when they go out for the evening. Every night that quiet calm fell around the house like a kindly mantle and while it was true that, to the despair of my parents, I would probably be found in the kitchen at midnight frying up bacon and eggs, still I knew that tomorrow would proceed at the same slow pace, and the next day, and the day after that as well.

But it was recalling that this would be my last long summer holiday before I joined the work world that really added to its strange enchantment and, I think, to the sense that time was flying, bearing us all along willy-nilly faster and faster towards adulthood. It all seems dreamlike and far away now.

Retired and Retiring

Mary and I decided to change the title of our blog because we're retiring. We've both given up all of our freelance writing and editing except for the fiction. I guess if you only work at what seems like play, you're retired.

Then again we've always been retiring in the sense of being shy and diffident, at least when it comes to making a public spectacle of ourselves in order to sell books. Our retiring natures extend to Internet social media, like Facebook. Mary shies away from the invasion of privacy involved. I cringe at how you need to accumulate, "friends" or followers. To me. social networking sites feel too much like parties and the minute I walk into a party I'm immediately flung to the wall by the centrifugal force of the social whirl.

But both of us would love to receive -- and respond to -- comments here. Talking to people one at a time is different than addressing crowds. Unfortunately, crowded social networks are the preferred method of communication these days.

We hope to post to this blog more frequently than in the past. Mary has a strong interest in Golden Age detective novels and will continue with her reviews, but we have other interests as well and are also at an age where we can be forgiven -- hopefully -- for pausing to look back along the road we've traveled. And then there's our writing. We've learned quite a bit over the past decades and writing during retirement, which so many of us aim for, poses its own challenges.

We won't pretend to be writing teachers, however. Neither of us has ever taken a writing course, or attended a workshop. We both agree writing can't be taught. It's something you learn to do on your own. We all develop our own methods and write in our own styles. There are no tricks or magic formulas.

Too many years ago, while I was living in New York City, I was invited to a party by one of my former college professors. An accomplished painter, she was showing off her newest -- and very pricey -- canvases to potential buyers. As an impoverished student from the sticks I had less than nothing in common with the well heeled big city art crowd in attendance. Her enormous expressionist paintings wouldn't have fit on the wall of my apartment. I couldn't have afforded the paint to cover the canvases let alone buy the artwork. Luckily, my professor had invited another student from the small Pennsylvania college were she taught, a friend of mine. We retreated to a shadowy, far corner of the loft and talked and joked in the relative quiet as we observed the social melee from afar.

Mary and I are hoping this blog might serve a similar purpose as our own quiet little corner of the Internet.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Returning Writing's Magic

by Eric

Mary and I have begun work on our twelfth John the Lord Chamberlain mystery. We don't have a title yet, not even a working title. Well, except for "Twelvfer". Ever since "Onefer" Our Byzantine books have started with that sort of default title. We have completed an outline. We know that John is going to sixth century Rome. Besieged by the Goths, the former imperial capital is a ghost of its former self, half ruined and depopulated. We also have a vague idea of what transpires. Our preliminary outlines are subject to change and usually do. It's nice to start off with a destination in mind, but our itinerary changes as the trip progresses.

One thing I am sure of is that the journey is going to be arduous, more so for me, than the writing of Onefer, Twofer or even Elevenfer. I learn something new about writing with each new book. There's always another aspect I realize I should've been thinking about but never bothered with. Transitions? Don't they just kind of...happen?

The increasing difficulty of the job surprises me because I imagined writing would naturally get easier -- just another of many misconceptions I nurtured, along with my dream of being an author, practically since I could hold a crayon. That's plenty of time to grow a fine crop of misconceptions.

In particular I underestimated how much plain hard work is involved in writing for publication. An aspiring author might take half a lifetime to produce a publishable novel but then, in most cases, he or she (or they) have to do it all over again -- in the space of a year or two. Then repeat the process again and again. If they are fortunate enough to have the opportunity.

There are beginning authors who think writing a novel is like matching the winning numbers on a lottery ticket. Sure, we read in the newspaper about Joe Shmoe who wrote that gripping page-turner "Flaming Pizza of Desire" while scrubbing pans at the Greasy Spoon Diner and then, practically before he had bundled his handwritten manuscript off to a Major New York Literary Agency, was drying his sudsy fingers on a contract for more then the gross national product of Paraguay. But we also read on the same page about John Shmoe of Cat's Elbow Corners who just won $25,000,000 on the Lotto. Neither happens often enough to worry about.

First-time authors have been known to get mega-bucks deals and, hey, someone's got to win the lottery. But while few would argue that buying lottery tickets is a viable career path, one occasionally sees aspiring authors whose thought is that nothing will do but they will write an instant bestseller. Is a thriller about a lawyer embroiled with middle eastern terrorists while on an expedition to Mount Everest climbing the Bestseller Lists? Then it's time to bone up on crampons and falafel and get writing!

Fortunately, Mary and I never entertained the notion that writing is a lottery. We went about it like any other job, starting small -- or I should say short -- by writing stories for anthologies and magazines. After we had a better idea of what we were doing, we wrote a "practice" mystery novel, to prove we could write at that length, made an effort to sell it in line with our expectations of a sale (small), did not succeed and moved right on to writing our first John the Lord Chamberlain novel, One For Sorrow. When it was completed we queried here and there but quickly decided we'd have a better chance of being noticed by an independent publisher.

After Poisoned Pen Press bought the manuscript we reworked it as needed under the guidance of our editor Barbara Peters and in the process learned a lot that an editor at a Big Publisher could never have taken time to try to teach a pair of novice novelists. Then we applied the lessons when writing Two For Joy.

And the learning process continues.

Will we ever have a bestseller? With a Byzantine eunuch as a protagonist, only if the general population has the discerning taste of those of you reading this blog.

Will we continue to work at our craft and gain a larger audience? We certainly hope so.

Writing isn't really about hitting the jackpot. Rather it is about knowing that readers are enjoying your work. Mary occasionally visits library web pages so we know our books are on library shelves all over the country -- in Schenectady, NY; Stillwater, OK; LaGrange, IL; Osh Kosh, WI.

It amazes me, the idea of our book, sitting on the shelf of some distant library in a place I've never seen. When I was a kid, it was visiting the library that hooked me on books, on the magic of the bound pages that would transport me to other worlds and allow me to lead other lives.

It is still magical but now, with a lot of hard work, we add just a little bit to that magic.

Monday, May 8, 2017

How Accurate Must a Historical Mystery Be?

by Eric

Most readers and writers would probably agree that the history in a historical mystery should be accurate. If your mystery plot depends, say, upon Oliver Cromwell, Jack the Ripper and Gertrude Stein being contemporaries (heaven forbid!) then you're writing alternative history. Unfortunately the question of accuracy is rarely so simple. The historical record, not to mention common sense, would indicate that Queen Victoria didn't hunt Jack down in her spare time, let alone by posing as a member of a traveling circus, but then again maybe the historians missed that. The trick to writing imaginative historical mysteries is keeping just under the radar of the historians.

There is definitely some flying room there. A little research, especially reading the footnotes, quickly reveals that historians sometimes don't know quite as much as it appears. What looks like a detailed drawing often turns out, on examination, to be a few scattered dots of facts connected into a coherent pattern by the historian based on his general expertise and personal theories. Another historian might connect those same dots into an altogether different picture. In Two for Joy we mention the pagan philosophers who fled to foreign shores when Justinian shut down Plato's Academy. The story is often alluded to, but is actually mentioned only briefly in a handful of sources.

But sources also can be untrustworthy. Consider Procopius who, while in Justinian's service, wrote panegyrics to the emperor but in his posthumously discovered Secret History excoriated him as a rapacious demon without a face. As a writer, when faced with such inconsistency, I prefer to choose whatever suits my purpose! That might sound like cheating but, I suspect, historians do much the same thing in a somewhat more sophisticated way. (I don't know if a Byzantine mosaic depicting a demon, like the one above, would give a writer of historicals license to include demons!)

It must also be remembered that surviving records can be spotty. (Not surprising after 1500 years -- I have a hard enough time keeping track of the mailing list for our newsletter for two months). Much of what we know well, we know by chance and what survives is not always what we would expect. During the life of Justinian, Cassiodorus wrote a massive Gothic History. Strangely, those twelve volumes have vanished but a short abridgment, The Getica, by Jordanes, probably made during Cassiodorus' lifetime, survives.

I'm not arguing that historical mystery writers have a license to be inaccurate but rather that they should take advantage of the many available opportunities to be creative. To put the matter into legal terms, the fiction writer's burden of proof is the opposite of the historian's. Historians must prove what they say is true while historical writers are allowed to say just about anything that can't be proved false.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review: The Shadow of the Wolf by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

One of the Psalms speaks of those who go down to the sea in ships and do business in great waters, but such ventures usually do not involve murder. However, this very crime occurs In The Shadow of the Wolf. The reader knows whodunnit and why right away and so the novel relates how Dr Thorndyke reasons out the solution to the case.

Messrs Varney and Purcell, old school and college chums now engaged in forging banknotes, quarrel while sailing in the English Channel. Varney wants to end their joint venture but Purcell will not agree. To make matters worse, Purcell married Margaret Haygarth, the woman Varney loved, while the latter was engaged in the dangerous business of passing forged banknotes abroad. A thick fog descends and Varney takes advantage of its concealment to murder Purcell, weight the body, and toss it overboard near the Wolf Rock lighthouse. Once ashore, Varney cleverly lays a false trail giving the impression Purcell has absconded.

The Rodney brothers, barrister Jack and medical practitioner Philip (owner of the small yacht borrowed for the fatal voyage) now make their appearance. Friends of the couple, they are puzzled by Purcell's apparent abandonment of his wife, and Varney plays along by pretending to investigate possible sightings of the missing man. In due course Dr Thorndyke is engaged to find Purcell since Mrs Purcell wishes to obtain her freedom either by having her husband legally declared dead or obtaining a divorce, for she suspects he has left her for another woman. Then a mysterious tenant disappears from chambers in Clifford's Inn, almost on Thorndyke's doorstep, and this event provides Thorndyke with certain information that ultimately leads to the cracking of the case.

My verdict: A good book for a quiet evening's read, being slower paced than some Thorndyke novels. Nevertheless the reader's interest remains engaged while following Thorndyke's reasoning of the circumstances of the case and how he obtains and confirms the necessary evidence. As a bonus they'll also learn something about how banknotes are forged!

Etext: The Shadow of the Wolf by R. Austin Freeman

Sunday, April 30, 2017

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

by Mary

The Garden Murder Case runs on "passion, avarice, ambition and horse-racing" and the affair leaves the starting gate as DA John Markham is dining with Philo Vance and narrator Van Dine. A strangely cryptic 'phone message is received, leading the latter two to drop in on Floyd, son of chemistry Professor Ephraim Garden. On this occasion, there are several other visitors, there to follow their custom of a bet or two on horse races, placing them by means of a telephone hookup to a news-service giving odds and last minute scratches, wagers being placed with a bookie via another phone line.

Those having a flutter include the professor's wife Martha, Floyd's friends Cecil Kroon, bright young sportswoman Zalia Graem, and would-be thespian Madge Weatherby, not to mention Mrs Garden's medical attendant, Nurse Bernice Beeton. There's also Floyd's cousin Woode Swift, who has lost a great deal of money betting. Despite attempts to persuade him otherwise, he insists on wagering $10,000 on one horse and goes up to the roof garden to listen to the race on a head phone. The horse loses and the ruined Woode commits suicide with the professor's revolver. When this becomes known, more people than might be expected are seized with the desire to visit the roof garden despite explicit instructions they are to stay downstairs until the police arrive to take charge, and it's not long before accusations are flying about like all get out.

Of course it is not suicide but murder. But who was responsible, what was the motive, and how did they pull it off? Then another death occurs. Vance investigates and ultimately gathers the suspects in the professor's den to point the finger. But there is a startling and somewhat unlikely event before all is revealed.

My verdict: The Garden Murder Case involves an apparently impossible crime. How could any of the visitors have killed Swift without being missed from the gathering downstairs, even in the middle of all the gambling excitement? In this entry in the Vance series the culprit is more easily spotted than in other Van Dine novels, but against that handicap readers should bear in mind although the details are intricate they are clewed in fair fashion.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Writing Together

by Eric

It's been a while since Murder in Megara came out so Mary and I have started plotting the next of our John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries. Well, actually we've been plotting to write another book for months but we only now are trying to come up with a plot. Daydreaming about novels is so much easier than getting down to work.

People often ask how two writers can work together on the same project? The first step, as Mary likes to say, is to lock up all the kitchen knives.

Next we settle on a basic idea. In the case of Murder in Megara the idea was to force John to solve a mystery without recourse to his powers as a high official and in a place less familiar than Constantinople. This flowed naturally from the previous Ten For Dying in which he had been sent into exile at an estate near his boyhood home in Greece. In the past we've been inspired by history. Let's do a book taking place during the Justinianic Plague or the Nika Riots! We wrote a book to send John to Egypt and another to tell how he rose from being a slave to advising the emperor. Ideas for interesting mystery puzzles might also form the germ of a book. You'd need to ask Mary how these occur to her. She sees potential murder mysteries in everything. I'll be lying in bed, eyes closed, about to sleep and from the darkness a voice will suddenly say -- "Paperclips dipped in curare!"

I don't think you can chase ideas and catch one. They're like cats. They come to you if and when they want to. One often cited source that's useless to us is the newspaper. Our plots are never torn from the screaming headlines. (Or is that torn screaming from the headlines? ) When did you last see a headline: "Red and Green Factions Riot Outside Hippodrome"?

Which of us usually comes up with the intitial idea? I have no idea! But once it's there, purring and rubbing against our legs, we extrapolate. (My feline analogy will end here because if you try to extrapolate a cat you'd better have a first aid kit handy.)

It goes without saying (and isn't it strange how things that go without saying usually do not go unsaid?) that we sometimes ask ourselves what happens first and if that happens then what? But we also come up with things we would like to see happen during the book, places that would make good backdrops for scenes, characters to bring the book to life. For Murder in Megara we came up with a City Defender who serves Megara as both law enforcer and judge, a 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. Not to mention two childhood friends whose lives have taken very different paths, and the stepfather John hated.

Okay, I just quoted the publisher's description of the book. But the reason for all those people in the description is that characters are the most important part of most novels. And each character comes with his or her own possibilities, motivations and inclinations, which help form the plot. A story is in lage part the collisions and entanglements of the characters' desires.

Mary and I tend to take notes on our thoughts and trade them back and forth via email. I wonder how long of a detour those emails take to traverse the two feet between our desks? After a time we amalgamate the notes and start talking. We manage to construct a rough plot outline before entering into hand to hand combat (remember the knives are safely locked away.) This outline is divided into scenes -- no details to speak of, mainly just who does what and when and where. Enough to get started, but not so much as to take the fun out of "discovering" the story as we subsequently write it. We might know that John is going to visit a wealthy merchant in town and discover an important clue, but we don't necessarily know exactly what turns their conversation will take. That's the fun of the writing.

So far as individual methods go, Mary thinks and thinks and then whips through a scene before going back to rewrite. I tend to scribble notes and do my rewriting slowly as I go along a method made possible by word processors. When I typed I spent most of my time half covered in Wite-Out. Once we finish the scenes we've chosen to work on we turn them over to our co-writer for "editing" which can be light or heavy. We trade edited versions back and forth until we both like them.

The further we progress in the outline the more the projected story tends to change. We add, and subtract, scenes and characters, and we might even find out we've initially tabbed the wrong person for the murder! Yes, it has happened and no, I'm not going to reveal who did or didn't do it!

Our discussions are almost always about ideas, settings, characters, plot twists, clues. Those are what most readers, including myself, read for, not for individual words or niceties of grammar. I don't much care if a writer hangs an occasional participle so long as I give a hang about the characters. Which is not to say we don't pay any attention to using good grammar and effective words, but that is just the polish. Flaubert was perfectly entitled to his eternal quest for "le mot juste" but if you ask me he's caused aspiring writers a lot of grief! Luckily Mary and I both agree on not being carried carried away with style or we'd never get anything done.

Having said all that I'm not sure I've said much, or that there is much useful to be said about writing methods. Another thing Mary and I agree on is that writing can't be taught. Neither of us has ever taken a writing class or attended a workshop. (I admit to reading two books about writing in my life: Writing Pulp Fiction by Dean R. Koontz and Stephen King's On Writing.) The creative process is a mystery. Everyone will have a unique way of writing, developed only by writing, rather than thinking about it.

Now I will check my email to see if Mary has sent me any thoughts about the notes I just sent her on the new book.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

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

by Mary

Not to put too fine a point on it, Kaspar Kenting is a rotter. There are hints he has affairs, it is well known he gambles too much, and furthermore he is not very nice to his wife Madelaine. So it is not surprising that when he is kidnapped from his bedroom more than one member of the extended household mutters good riddance.

One of them is Madelaine's neurotic brother Fraim Falloway, who lives upstairs in the Kenting house with their mother, herself quite unwell. Kaspar's broker brother Kenton has charge of the Kenting finances and administers them jointly with Eldridge Fleel, lawyer and family friend. The pair recently refused Kaspar's demand for an outrageous amount of money and this, coupled with certain evidence on the scene, leads to an initial conclusion the kidnapping is bogus and Kaspar is using it as a way to get $50,000 to pay off his debts. However, after a quick stagger about the household Philo Vance begs to differ and as usual he is right. It is not a simple kidnapping case at all.

My verdict: Without, I hope, giving too much away the reader should remember there is no honour among criminals and this novel amply demonstrates it. As usual Van Dine offers a fair bit of misdirection (although one incident is virtually pointed out to be such via Vance's observations on it, a misstep on Van Dine's part IMHO) and DA Markham displays his usual impatient patience with Vance's refusal to even hint at his theories on whodunnit and why. To my surprise there is gun play, demonstrating Vance is not just an airy utterer of arcane knowledge and thus displaying a hitherto overlooked aspect of his character.

ebook The Kidnap Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review: Tales of Terror and Mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle

by Mary

Some time ago I noticed Conan Doyle published more than one collection of short stories involving protagonists other than his most famous creations. I am reading them as I find them and now here are a few comments about the mystery section of his anthology Tales of Terror and Mystery.

Monsieur Louis Caratal and his companion, newly arrived in Liverpool from central America, must get to Paris without delay. Thus Caratal charters a special train to London at a cost of some fifty pounds, a significant sum pointing to the urgency of their journey. However, the train becomes The Lost Special somewhere between St Helens and Manchester, the only trace of its passage being the body of its driver at the bottom of an embankment. It is not until some time later that the truth comes out and even then it's as the result of a confession rather than the investigation.

Narrator Doctor Hamilton recalls when, newly qualified, he was reluctant to go into medical practice (a strange confession after all those years of training!) and thus is attracted by an advertisement seeking the services of a strong and resolute medical man who must also be an entomologist, preferably a coleopterist. As it happens, beetles are a particular interest of his and he successfully applies for the post. The advertisement was posted by a titled family and its object is to avoid a family scandal involving the poster's brother-in-law, he who is The Beetle-Hunter.

In The Man With The Watches the titular corpse is found shot to death an hour into the London- Manchester rail journey. A couple who entered the compartment in which the body is found have disappeared and so has a man from the next compartment, yet no passengers were seen to leave or join the train at the one stop made before the grisly discovery. Where are the missing trio of travellers and why is the dead man in possession of no less than six gold timepieces?

Narrator Mr Colmore arrives at Thorpe Place, near Evesham, to take up the post of tutor to Sir John Bollamore's two sons, aged eight and ten. Sir John is a solitary, withdrawn widower and the household leads a quiet life. One day the younger boy, Master Percy, falls into the mill-race but is rescued by Colmore, who is then summoned to Sir John's study to describe the incident. He therefore enters a room in which nobody other than his employer and an aged servant who cleans it have set foot in three years. It is here Colmore sees The Japanned Box, which Sir John keeps by him at all times. Then one evening he hears a woman talking in the study. Who is she?

The village of Bishop's Crossing is home to much-loved Doctor Aloysius Lana, whose olive skin led to his nickname of The Black Doctor. Dr Lana receives a letter from Argentina and breaks off his engagement to Miss Morton, whose enraged brother Andrew declares the doctor deserves a good thrashing. One night Dr Lana's housekeeper meets Andrew -- who is carrying a hunting crop -- at the gate of the doctor's garden. Dr Lana is discovered dead next morning and the evidence points to Andrew being the guilty party. But was he?

Archeologist Ward Mortimer is appointed curator of the Belmore Street Museum following the unexpected resignation of Professor Andreas. The greatest treasure in the museum is The Jew's Breastplate, a gold artefact decorated with a number of valuable gems. Soon there are two burglaries, both of which focus on the breastplate. How is the miscreant getting into the well secured and guarded museum? And why doesn't the culprit just pinch the breastplate and be done with it?

My verdict: An uneven collection, but I spent an interesting hour or two reading it. Most readers will guess the solutions but one or two twists along the way may be more difficult to rumble and I found it a refreshing change from Holmes and company.

Etext: Tales of Terror and Mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Locked Doors by Mary Roberts Rinehart

by Mary

After less than a week Nurse Bosworth, employed to care for the two young sons of Mr and Mrs Francis M. Reed, becomes so nervous she leaves their employ. She believes a crime has been committed in the Reed's house in Beauregard Square. It's certainly an odd household -- she and the children are locked in at night, all the servants have been dismissed, the phone wires are cut, and the boys' parents are extremely jumpy and look positively ghastly.

Enter Nurse Hilda Adams, who occasionally assists the police with information discovered via her professional role. Sent by Detective Patton to replace her colleague, she finds the house to be just as described and so starts her investigation on what is going on. This comes to cover such conundrums as the "basement ghost" seen in houses in the square, where and why the boys' dog disappeared, and explanations for various strange events at night.

Eventually she solves these and associated matters such as the reason the boys' mother sleeps in a cot at the head of the stairs, why all the carpets and most of the furniture has been removed, and what forces the Reeds to keep their lights blazing all night.

My verdict: The clever unexpected solution to this multitude of mysteries explains all the strange events, yet it would likely not occur to most readers. There is a sort-of clue early on that might put them on the track to guessing what is taking place in the house, but I should have liked one or two more obvious pointers. The closing revelations certainly surprised me! More I shall not say about this tightly written and genuinely suspenseful novella for fear of revealing too much.

Etext: Locked Doors by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review: Scarweather by Anthony Rolls

by Mary

Narrator John Farringdale kicks off his account by explaining he has been persuaded by old friend Frederick Ellingham to relate the details of a tragedy that occurred at Scarweather, a tragedy in which both men were heavily involved.

Farringdale then introduces his two great friends at university: his cousin Eric Tallard Foster and reader in chemistry Ellingham, an older Rennaissance man with a wide and astonishing variety of acquaintances. Foster, although studying medicine, is also keen on archaeology, and it is this interest that leads him to make the acquaintance of Professor Tolgen Reisby via their memberships in the London Archaeological Union. In due course Foster is invited to visit Scarweather, Reisby's home near the northern England fishing hamlet of Aberleven, and a friendship develops, as a result of which Farringdale and Ellingham also meet the Reisby family.

The first hint of unusual undercurrents swirl by when Ellingham reveals to Farringdale he had seen the professor in a sailors' eating house in Poplar. Ellingham takes Farringdale there to lunch, despite the place not being as he puts it "a proper scene for a young gentleman". By chance they observe the professor playing chess there and given Poplar is not the most salubrious area of London, it seems Reisby is one of those eccentric academics so often found in mystery fiction and doubtless also in real life. In any event, the friendship between the three young men and the professor and his wife flourishes and the trio soon become visitors to Scarweather. Before long the aforementioned tragedy occurs. World War I intervenes and so it is only years later that the characters return to Scarweather and unravel the nature of the tragedy.

My verdict: Once past the first couple of chapters the pace, while still unspooling slowly, picks up and the reader is treated to one or two nicely done pen portraits of characters as well as interesting details on how an archeological dig is conducted. At one point Farringdale asks the rhetorical question "who could have suspected...the gathering elements of a dark and appalling tragedy?" Astute readers will be already be suspecting ahead of him, but part of the twisty ending may well catch them by surprise despite pointers earlier towards at least part of the revelations. A matter that intrigued me, and one no doubt rooted in the social conventions of the time, is that nothing is done when the solution to the tragedy is uncovered, the reason for lack of action being concern about ramifications for relatives. While this gives readers an ethical point to ponder, it will also disappoint some. Thus I reluctantly award this novel a B, with the hope of better liking the next I read by this author.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

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

by Mary

A house party is under way at Rexton Manor in the Berkshires to celebrate the return of Carrington Rexon's son and heir Richard from his studies in Europe. However, Rexon Senior is nervous about his fabled emerald collection, given the mixed bag of café society guests. Philo Vance will easily blend in and so agrees to keep an eye on the situation.

The story gets off to a mysterious start, for the first person Vance and his personal advisor and friend Van Dine see on arrival at the extensive Rexon estate is Ella Gunthar, companion to Richard's invalid sister Joan. Ella is figure-skating alone on a pond in the woods to the music of a portable gramaphone. The large house is full of Bright Young Things, including singer Sally Alexander, treasure hunter Stanley Sydes, and gentleman jockey Chuck Throme. In addition, the Rexon family physician Dr Loomis Quayne pops in regularly to visit Joan.

It is not long before dark events take place. The guard of the wing in which Carrington Rexon's gem collection is kept is found dead at the foot of a cliff in suspicious circumstances. There are plenty of suspects, not just the guests but also Eric Gunthar, Ella's father and overseer of the estate workers, and Old Jed, a hermit who lives in the woods. Then Carrington Rexon is knocked out, the key to the gem room stolen, and his collection rifled of its choicest items. Much more will happen before Vance is able to aid the local constabulary in unmasking the murderer and thief.

My verdict: This is a particularly interesting novel in that while it has plenty of dialogue its style is telegraphic, and there are no footnotes or learned ramblings by Vance. The introduction explains when Van Dine died suddenly the work had reached his usual second stage of writing, meaning it lacked "the final elaboration of character, dialogue, and atmosphere". Van Dine fans therefore have the extra treat of in effect looking over his shoulder as he works.

Shorn of its usual elegant encrustations, then, the plot of The Winter Murder Case is revealed naked to its bare bones but it is still intricate enough to give the reader a chance to deduce the solution before it is revealed. A vital clue in plain sight and misdirection aplenty makes this Philo Vance adventure a valiant last hurrah.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: Death of a Viewer by Herbert Adams

by Mary

Since it was published in the 1950s, Death of a Viewer hangs its toes over the precipice marking the end of the Golden Age of mysteries, but what the hay says I, let's agree this entry is grandfathered into that general area of interest.

Captain Oswald Henshaw tells his lovely young wife Sandra their financial resources are gone but suggests if he sees her in compromising circumstances with Ewen Jones, Member of Parliament for an East London constituency, there could well be financial benefits. Ewen's father is Lord Bethesda and his stepmother is worth half a million, so naturally they'd want to keep scandal -- such as Hensaw bringing an action for alienation of affection against Ewen -- from breathing nastily on the family name, not to mention the effect of such a proceeding on Ewen's political career.

Amateur sleuth Major Roger Bennion becomes involved in the case because Ewen lives in one of a number of houses built by Bennion Senior. Located near the London docks, these homes with their little gardens are let to the aged and infirm at the affordable rent of six shillings a week, repairs and rates being paid for by their landlord. Bennion occasionally inspects the houses to see all is well but on this occasion he arrives to visit Ewen, who as an MP is much better off than the other tenants, in order to ask him to move out of the house he is occupying so Lord Bethesda's elderly gardener Daniel Floss could retire and he and his wife live there.

Having obtained his tenancy in a sly and roundabout way, Ewen refuses to leave but suggests Bennion visit Welton Priory, the family home, to discuss the matter with his father and (a nice touch, I thought) the gardener. It seems several Labour MPs are shortly to meet at the priory to secretly discuss plans to ginger up the party. Bennion's presence will suggest the gathering is the usual type of house party — and while he's there perhaps he'll be able to persuade Ewen's father to buy him, Ewen, a house or give him a generous allowance! The Henshaws will also be attending, and thus the wheels of the plot begin to turn.

The viewer's death occurs in a room full of people watching TV and with very little to initially go on except a scrap of paper and a house full of suspects. Other deaths follow and Bennion and Scotland Yard's Superintendent Yeo and Inspector Allenby cooperate to solve the crime.

My verdict: This novel will remind readers of the unrest in the air in the 1950s as Lord Bethesda's guests discuss the abolition of hereditary titles and the monarchy, financial reforms to reduce or even pay off the National Debt, and changes in trade unions connected to their right to strike, while also expressing disgust at looming possibilities for easier divorces and the legalisation of what is quaintly described as the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Some of these matters might well make the legendary retired Cheltenham colonels who so often write to the editor of The Times weep with joy, but alas they tend to swamp parts of the earlier part of the novel and do not add very much to the plot.

However, once we get to the actual detecting the story runs along nicely. More than one guest has what they might see as good reason to act against the deceased, so most of them are suspected at one time or another and the solution roars up after an unexpected twist that caught me by surprise. I regret to say however that on the whole this novel is not one of the best I have read.

Death of a Viewer by Herbert Adams

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Review: And Then There Were None

by Mary

And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie's justly famous impossible crime tour de force: how could it be that on otherwise uninhabited Indian Island an entire house party, not to mention the servants, have been murdered when, between foul weather and lack of a boat, there is no way for the culprit to escape?

A disparate collection of people has been invited to visit the island by its owner Mr Owen. For various reasons -- such as accepting the offer of a free holiday, arriving to take up the post of temporary secretary to Mrs Owen, a medical man responding to a request for a professional consultation -- they all accept. On arrival they find Mr and Mrs Owen have been detained on the mainland and will not arrive until next day, but two servants are on hand to see to the guests' comfort.

But they are not comfortable for long. Suddenly a recording accusing each of them -- including the servants -- of murder is played in the room next to the one in which they gathered for dinner. In due course we learn details of these accusations and they are a sordid collection indeed: murders for financial gain or brought about by marital jealousy, for example.

Even the presence of an ex-C.I.D. man asked there to keep an eye on Mrs Owen's jewels is not enough to stop the ensuing inexorable procession of deaths. Despite all precautions, someone is picking off one guest after another, using methods mirroring the nursery rhyme after which the book is named. After the dwindling number of guests conduct several searches of both the house and the tiny island on which it stands no stranger can be found outside or in, adding to the terror of the situation. Where could the responsible person be hiding? What could be the reason for the mounting number of deaths?

My verdict: This is one of Agatha Christie's most famous novels and to call the unwindings of its plot clever would be to make an understatement. When readers finally know the truth, some will doubtless debate whether the culprit was mad, malevolent, or mistaken -- a couple of deaths mentioned in that shocking recording could have been accidents, after all. All in all, however, And Then There Were None is a mystery classic and rightly so. s

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review: The Lake District Murder by John Bude

by Mary

The Lake District Murder is by John Bude, author of The Cornish Coast Murder (reviewed by Eric on our blog last August at http://ericreedmysteries.blogspot.com/search/label/John%20Bude) and like it another Poisoned Pen Press reprint of a title from the British Library's Crime Classic series.

Set in a less touristy, indeed lonely, part of the beautiful titular mountainous area in northwestern England, it begins with the discovery of the body of Jack Clayton at the isolated Derwent petrol station on the Buttermere road. Found dead in his car, he is an apparent suicide by exhaust fume asphyxiation.

Inspector Meredith of the Keswick police arrives on the scene to begin work on the first murder investigation he has directed. Clayton and his co-partner in the garage, Mark Higgins, share a cottage next to the business, and Meredith finds it strange Clayton had got his tea ready, including putting the kettle on to boil and spooning tea into the teapot, before killing himself.

But was it suicide? Clayton had every reason to look forward to the future, given he was financially secure and his forthcoming marriage was to be followed by a new life in Canada with his wife.

When interviewed by the inspector, Clayton's fiancee Lily Reade tells him there had been trouble between the two men. Perhaps this had turned nasty, providing a motive for murder. Another nugget of information Lily imparts is the couple's plan to emigrate to Canada had not yet been revealed to Higgins. Clayton's departure would have certain financial implications for Higgins, who may have somehow found out about it. But if it was murder, Higgins as obvious suspect has an unbreakable alibi for the night of his partner's death.

Thus Inspector Meredith finds himself looking not only into Clayton's murder but also what looks like a case of widespread fraud the astute will doubtless have noticed off their own bat. But how is it being perpetrated? Were either of the men involved? Could there be some connection to the suicide of a garage co-partner in another area not far off a few years earlier, and if so what? In the process of investigation Meredith himself observes "this detection business was full of annoying cul-de-sacs" and he finds himself ending up in a a few before bringing, after much wending to and fro, his investigation to a successful close.

My verdict: In his introduction, Martin Edwards describes this novel as having an emphasis "not on whodunit, but on how to prove it." Thus The Lake District Murder would be a good read for fans of the police procedural / timetable dependent novel. It is Inspector Meredith's persistence, hard work, and a dash of luck that finally pins down the culprits. As a bonus, readers will also learn a fair bit about petrol distribution!