Sunday, August 30, 2015

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

by Mary

Narrator 'Van' Van Dine originally met Philo Vance at college and is now not only a close friend but also his full-time legal and financial advisor. He is thus on the spot to record cases in which Vance becomes involved.

Vance is rich and cultured, possessing many beautiful and rare examples of art and artefacts from various eras and continents. He easily out-Wimseys Wimsey, what with addressing people as 'Old dear' and constantly talkin' ragin' nonsense, often dropping French or German into conversations with an occasional bit of Latin for variety, not to mention quoting luminaries such as Milton, Longfellow, Cervantes, and Rousseau as well as Spinoza and Descartes. But it's all a front, of course.

John Markham, DA for NY County, arrives at Vance's flat while Van and Vance are discussing business and announces wealthy broker Alvin Benson has been murdered. Alvin's brother Major Anthony Benson has asked Markham to take charge, and Markham had promised Vance he would take him along on his next important investigation. It seems the authorities were casual about protocol as well as crime scenes, because not only do both Vance and Van tag along but they are also present at several interrogations.

At one point Vance produces a list of suspects based upon reasoning from available information and physical evidence. The only snag is they are innocent. It is a demonstration of his conviction that "The truth can be learned only by an analysis of the psychological factors of a crime and an application of them to the individual". Who then is the culprit? The actress Muriel St Clair, in whom the dead man had taken more than a passing interest? Her fiance Captain Philip Leacock, he of the hasty temper and jealous disposition? Major Benson, given the brothers did not get along? What about Mrs Anna Platz, Alvin's housekeeper, who seems to be hiding something, or the precious and impecunious Leander Pfyfe, a close friend of the deceased?

My verdict: Some will find Vance's insistence on keeping the identity of the murderer secret irritating but given he had it sussed out within an hour or two of visiting the crime scene, one can see why. To be fair, he all but takes Markham's hand and leads him to the culprit. There are clues aplenty, and to my delight the author provided those much-loved and now sadly missed tidbits -- a room plan, a character list, and footnotes from Van. Although readers may find Vance's lit'r'y meanderin's a bit tedious, his explanations of his psychological reasonings are interesting and convincing, although I am still not certain if the author was sending it up or using it as a genuine plot device. All in all, however, a good read with plenty of red herrings to confuse the issue.

Etext: The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Review: The Dream Doctor by Arthur B. Reeve

by Mary

The Dream Doctor is narrated by ace reporter Walter Jameson, Professor Craig Kennedy's flatmate. Jameson is instructed by his editor at The Star to write an article describing an average month for the scientific detective and this collection relates, in the form of a continual narrative, the cases Kennedy handles as Jameson undertakes the task.

Price Maitland, fatally stricken by cobra venom, has apparently committed suicide. His wife is being treated by Dr Ross for "nervous trouble" (apparently of a Freudian nature -- something to do with her broken engagement to Arnold Masterson perhaps?) so her claim to have dreamt of her husband's impending death is pretty well ignored. The wonderfully named Lovibond Tintometer contributes to the solving of the puzzle.

The next case involves the Novella Beauty Parlour, wherein actress Blanche Blaisdell is found dead. Her married boyfriend, top lawyer Burke Collins, wants his name kept out of the papers and parlour owners Professor and Madame Millefleur seem a wee bit shady too -- but what about the young girl found wandering in the street, babbling about a woman with shining lips? Suspects gather in Kennedy's lab, where they are hooked up to a long-distance lie detector....

Yvonne Brixton asks Kenndy to help her millionaire father, who's hiding out in his country house convinced he is constantly spied upon and that his telephone is tapped. Oh, and he hears voices in his country home's fortress-like office/study as well. What does Count Conrad Wachtmann, Miss Brixton's fiance, know about those threatening letters sent to Mr Brixton, signed The Red Brotherhood of the Balkans?

Hardly have Kennedy and Jameson returned home after solving that puzzle when wealthy J. Perry Spencer sweeps them off to his private museum and art gallery, where green objects have been vandalised and his collection of French emeralds stolen. Lucille White, caretaker of Spencer's library, relates a strange tale involving a greenish yellow Egyptian coffin. Kennedy's optophone assists the truth to emerge.

Next comes a call from steel millionaire Emery Pitts. His chef has been murdered in the kitchen, although by the look of its bloody shambles he appears to have managed to stab his assailant several times before being overcome. A torn-up note to Mrs Pitts and some remarkable theories about aging help round out the story.

The breakneck pace continues when Kennedy is retained by the Curtis family to investigate the death of Bertha Curtis, whose body has been found in the river. A phantom boat is seen visiting the dock of a deserted riverside house at night, and while 'Big Jack' Clendenin, who runs a dope joint frequented by Miss Curtis, will be well worth investigating, first a tong war in Chinatown must be put down.

The next consultation involves thefts from a high class emporium and a Fifth Avenue jeweller, where valuable jewelry has been stolen and replaced by imitations. Suspicion initially points to well-known shoplifter Annie Grayson but delicate sleuthing is required, given the last person looking at the diamonds pinched in one case is a Wall Street broker's wife, Mrs William Willoughby. Fortunately Kennedy's telegraphone and psychometer come to the rescue!

Next, a Mr Winslow and his daughter Ruth call on Kennedy. The Winslows live in Goodyear, a town famous for its rubber (Reeve's little joke perhaps?). Bradley Cushing, Ruth's fiance, has invented an improved type of synthetic rubber whose widespread use is inevitable and which will ruin many residents. Thus there are numerous suspects when Cushing is found murdered in his laboratory. There is a scent of oranges in the air...but this crime conceals one that in some ways is far worse.

The excitement continues when District Attorney Carton summons Kennedy to the Criminal Courts Building, where Kennedy nonchalantly dismantles a bomb sent by kingpins in the vice trade. Carton has hopes of getting a fellow called Haddon, one of the wretches involved in the filthy business, to sing like the proverbial canary. Unfortunately, Haddon disappears....

In Kennedy's world, it's often dangerous for men to get engaged, for yet another fiance is suspected of having a hand in criminal activities. A German, Mr Nordheim, is affianced to the daughter of Captain Shirley. The latter has invented a wireless-controlled submarine using a process Kennedy calls Telautomatics. But someone has been tinkering with its operation. Warning: claustrophobes will find part of this story difficult going but there is a nice twist vis a vis who is responsible.

Montague Phelps has died after going into a coma whose cause cannot be discovered. Not long before he had married the dancer Anginette Petrovska, but during their honeymoon trip the family banking house failed and Phelps returns home pretty well wiped-out financially. As if that was not bad enough, the family mausoleum is desecrated and Mrs Phelps receives a blackmailing letter. Then her husband's body is stolen and it's up to Kennedy to solve the matter.

Sanford Godwin is in Sing Sing, awaiting execution after conviction for poisoning his adoptive father, Parker Godwin. Sanford and the Elmores, the three grandchildren of Parker Godwin's sister, are co-heirs and the state asserts the cause of Godwin's crime was a new will which in effect disinherited him. Nella Godwin, Sanford's wife, appeals to Kennedy for help. The solution features both a twist and a particularly satisfying denouement.

My verdict: Though the mysteries are sometimes slight with few suspects unless the culprit might be a passing pedestrian who carpe diemed, the scientific explanation are delightful if somewhat long-winded for modern taste. I found myself wondering if the various types of equipment utilised by Kennedy would operate as stated, so consulted an electrical engineer of my acquaintance about one, the phantom circuits -- and apparently it's correct. Presumably the other contraptions strewn in the path of wrongdoers would also work as stated. An enjoyable collection, especially for those interested in sleuthing aided by science.

Etext: The Dream Doctor by Arthur B. Reeve

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: Ronald Standish by Sapper

by Mary

Narrated by Bob Miller, this collection of short stories involves his friend Ronald Standish. Wealthy and something of a sportsman -- particularly keen on golf and cricket -- Standish only takes cases that interest him and having done so persists until he solves them or, according to Miller and unusually for amateur detectives, must own himself beaten. His greatest assets when investigations are afoot are an excellent memory for faces and unusual facts and a talent for noticing small details others have missed.

In this entertaining work, Miller relates several investigations undertaken by Standish.

THE CREAKING DOOR tells what it knows and thus aids the discovery of the culprit when an artist is murdered after a scene precipitated by his kissing a girl against her will. The story ends with a rather nasty twist.

THE MISSING CHAUFFEUR works for the Duke of Dorset and has done a bunk the week before Grand Duke Sergius of Russia is due to stay for a few days. A letter written in blood arrives...

Visiting the small Cornish town of St Porodoc, Standish and Miller hear a strange tale from a young curate who sees a ghost in THE HAUNTED RECTORY. A garden snail points to the solution of the mystery.

Love's young dream is thwarted by lack of cash, and when a valuable tiara is stolen only the suspect's beloved believes him innocent. It takes A MATTER OF TAR to show who was really responsible for the theft and associated assault.

The sister of one of Standish's fellow cricket-players consults the detective about her new neighbour, who runs a boarding kennel but mistakes an Irish terrier for an Airedale -- and reacts with fury when corrected. And whose is the terrified face seen peering from a window of THE HOUSE WITH THE KENNELS?

Standish is consulted about a letter his client's uncle received instructing certain papers be left in a specified place. Not long afterwards the uncle fell to his death, his son came into the estate, is sent an identical communication, and in turns dies. What will THE THIRD MESSAGE say?

It takes Standish some thought to solve THE MYSTERY OF THE SLIP COACH, wherein a man is found shot to death on a train with a smashed egg splashed about his compartment in a nice example of the locked room mystery.

An extremely unpopular village resident is found murdered and nobody mourns him. It looks bad for the man with more than one reason for a grudge against the departed. THE SECOND DOG provides the clue clinching the solution to a case of revenge....

Threats from Indian priests over disrespectful behaviour toward temple dancing girls follow a man who has returned to England and who now fears for the safety of his niece at the hands of THE MAN IN YELLOW seen flitting about the house and yet never found.

A blackmailing cur is brought to book by THE MAN WITH SAMPLES in a story getting my vote for the best in the collection, not least because of the method used to catch him, which neatly sidesteps a situation in which as is usual with blackmail his victims are very reluctant to involve the police.

When a retired businessman purchases THE EMPTY HOUSE and arranges for its renovation, incidents of vandalism begin and he receives warnings he will regret taking up residence, escalating in an attempt to run him down. Yet what could be the reason?

An obnoxious landowner is found drowned in THE TIDAL RIVER and a young man is brought to trial on charges of murdering him in what appears to be an open and shut case. But Standish casts his line out for other fish...

My verdict: An enjoyable read presenting challenges of various degrees to those who enjoy trying to guess whodunnit. Standish is more of a cerebral detective than a scientific sleuth, which will add interest for those who like their crimes solved without bubbling test tubes or advanced electrical whatnots getting involved.

e-text: Ronald Standish by Sapper

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Review: Average Jones by Samuel Hopkins Adams

by Mary

As an assiduous reader of personal advertisements -- and if you won't admit to doing the same, I think you'll agree they are important plot points in a number of detective novels -- I warmed instantly to Adrian Van Reypen Egerton Jones, nicknamed Average Jones for obvious reasons.

A highly intelligent, very rich, and terribly bored young man, as the first yarn opens he is wondering what to do with himself. His friend Mr Waldemar, owner of The Universal, an important NYC paper, suggests Jones set up as a kind of one man consumer protection wallah, giving advice, as Jones' business card will later declare, "upon all matters connected with Advertising". As a bonus, Jones will pass on discoveries about various swindles perpetrated through ads to Waldemar, thus keeping the paper's lengthy advertising columns "clean".

Jones gives it a whirl and soon becomes engrossed in the work to the extent of setting up an agency to handle the more humdrum requests for advice while he looks into ads that grab his attention, particularly those hinting at criminal activity. Average Jones relates the cases he investigates.

It's difficult to review short stories without giving too much away, but I'll take a stab.

THE B-FLAT TROMBONE is a locked room mystery. By what method was mayoral candidate William Linder blown up in a locked room on the third floor of his mansion on Kennard Street in Brooklyn?

After three unsuccessful attempts on his life, Malcolm Dorr keeps two guard dogs. Both are killed yet neither were shot or poisoned. Then there is a rash of canine deaths in Bridgeport, CT. Is there a connection between them and the mysterious RED DOT?

Where is young rakehell Roderick Hoff? His father, who made millions selling quack medicine, engages Jones to find him. Jones follows an OPEN TRAIL to find the lad and outfoxes Hoff's swindling father when he tries to wiggle out of paying the reward money.

MERCY SIGN is rooted in a real historical tragedy and is much darker than the first three stories. Jones and his friend Robert Bertram look into a strange case involving a missing academic assistant, a wrecked houseboat, and a dead foreign dignitary.

The jewels are called BLUE FIRES and form a beautiful necklace, a gift from a Mr Kirby to his fiancee Edna Hale. Their disappearance means their wedding is postponed -- yet they were neither stole nor returned. What do a torn curtain and broken-off bed knob have to do with the matter?

Anonymous letters of a particularly nasty sort -- being attempts to persuade their recipient to commit suicide or commit himself to an asylum -- are written out in PIN-PRICKS on junk advertising mail sent to William Robinson. What is the purpose of these communications and who is responsible?

Bailey, the 14 year old son of rural minister Revd Peter Prentice, is missing after a meteor lands on a New England barn, setting it ablaze. Then an ad appears revealing he is alive but not where, and a certain bit of BIG PRINT aids Jones in tracing the lost boy.

Enderby Livius is THE MAN WHO SPOKE LATIN, claiming he has been transported from Roman times to the present day and cannot speak English. He is up to no good in bibliophile Colonel Ridgway Graeme's chaotic library, and to find out what Livius is at Jones poses as a mute classical scholar.

THE ONE BEST BET begins with a man committing suicide because he arrives at Waldemar's newspaper too late to amend his personal ad, having had second thoughts about what he wrote -- as well he might since the ad reveals a plot to murder the governor. Can Jones prevent the crime?

THE MILLION-DOLLAR DOG involves one of those odd wills so beloved by the rich in detective fiction. In this instance, Judge Hawley Ackroyd's advertisement seeking 10,000 black beetles puts Jones on the trail of an attempt to gain a fortune by killing the titular dog and concealing its body.

My verdict: What an inventive way to introduce a detective to cases in all levels of society! I enjoyed this collection a great deal and recommend it to readers who enjoy slightly offbeat and very clever short stories. Now I'm off to read the personal ads in today's papers....

Etext: Average Jones by Samuel Hopkins Adams

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Review: The Case and the Girl by Randall Parrish

by Mary

Captain Matthew West has just been honourably discharged from the army after twice being wounded during l8 months of service in France during World War I. Feeling restless and not yet ready to return to civilian work, he is browsing a paper at his club and decides to answer a personal ad running thus:

"Wanted: Young man of education and daring for service involving some personal peril. Good pay, and unusual reward if successful. May have to leave city. Purpose disclosed only in personal interview."

As it transpires, truth in advertising certainly applies to the warning.

Instructed to bring his evening clothes -- and a good job he has them! -- he is soon off to a rendezvous with orphaned heiress Natalie Coolidge. She does not explain what task she requires him to undertake but Captain West agrees to help her even so, and is whirled off in her limo to the family mansion, where he is astonished to be introduced to the house guests as her fiance.

One of those in attendance is Natalie's uncle and guardian Percival Coolidge, and the two men dislike each other on sight -- in fact, Uncle Percy accuses Captain West of being a fortune hunter, the cad. It is not until next morning that the gallant captain is able to have a private chat with Natalie and learns someone is impersonating her but nobody believes her story because the responsible party is so like her she fools even Natalie's friends, not to mention the servants and bank clerks who know her well.

Is Natalie telling the truth, mistaken, or demented? Well, despite doubts at times, natural enough in the circumstances, West takes it on faith and agrees to try to solve the mystery. There are a couple of odd happenings, statements made don't quite check out, and then a death occurs and West is plunged into an adventure with enough twists and turns to make a scriptwriter swoon. The detective work is partly deductive and partly wearing out shoe leather and when it comes to action, West usually wipes the floor with his opponents, yet in a manner that shows he is not a super hero unlike some modern protagonists we might mention.

My verdict: Apart from the fact Captain West is a bit slow on the uptake at times -- at one point I was muttering *don't* go in there, usually reserved for women who are alone in the house and yet insist on going to investigate odd noises in the cellar after both the phone and power mysteriously fail -- this was a rollicking read and kept the interest to the end. I particularly admired a sequence towards the close of the novel, in which West and Natalie are trapped in...but no, I will not ruin the suspense although I will say it gave me the creeping heebie-jeebies.

Etext: The Case and the Girl by Randall Parrish