Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: The Hunt Ball Mystery by William Magnay

by Mary

Give me a novel opening with a fellow arriving for a social gathering at a country house, and I'm as happy as the proverbial clam.

The Hunt Ball Mystery begins in just this fashion, and right away we are in crisis mode. Hugh Gifford discovers he is without evening clothes due to a mistake the guard made in unloading luggage. It seems Gifford and his friend Harry Kelson are going to a "ripping dance" -- the Hunt Ball of the title -- to be held that evening at Wynford Place, now the home of Dick Morriston although once the property of Gifford's uncle.

The station master wires up the line to arrange for Gifford's traps to be transferred to a down train at the next stop, although Gifford won't get them until about ten. Still, the night will still be fairly young at that hour and he will have plenty of time to attend the festivities.

The two men depart in a fly with a stranger who has the gall to ask them for a lift given he will be a fellow guest at the Golden Lion Hotel. They are outraged at his request and amazed to hear the stranger is also going to the Hunt Ball. Gifford sniffily decides the man is not of their class, a conclusion based largely on the other's looks and manner. It transpires the man is Clement Henshaw, brother of Gervase, whom Gifford knows by repute as a fellow legal eagle.

In private conversation at the Golden Lion, Gifford and Kelson indulge in a positive orgy of character shredding. Henshaw is, they tell each other, the "[w]rong type of sportsman...spoilt by that objectionable, cock-sure manner" and similar comments.

At this point I was almost starting to hope this nasty pair of snobs would be found stark dead behind the stables at Wynford Place.

But it's Henshaw who's found dead, locked in a room in the tower at Wynford Place -- a room with the key on the inside. Admittedly there's a window big enough for an adult to use to escape but there's an 80 feet drop to the ground. The general consensus is Henshaw committed suicide by stabbing himself with a chisel.

Suicide by chisel seems an unlikely method, I hear you remark, and indeed this is the opinion of Gervase Henshaw, who now appears at the house door. His opinion it was not suicide is shared the doctor who gives evidence at the inquest.

At this point the mystery gallops off in full cry after the fox of whodunnit, how, and why.

My verdict: I have long been a fan of the Country House Mystery, set on estates owned by families residing in rambling houses with secret passages, panelled halls with huge fireplaces, morning rooms opening onto peacock infested terraces, libraries lined with leather bound tomes and ancestral portraits, wooded grounds featuring lakes and terraces and gamekeepers, and carriages rolling up and down wide drives sweeping between rows of ancient oaks to exit past lodges guarding ornate iron gates. Being born and raised in a grimy industrial city, these mysteries were an alien land to me and one I enjoyed and still enjoy exploring.

Thus I was disposed to like The Hunt Ball. Alas, this particular visit was not too successful. For example, the locked room solution is pedestrian and most readers will guess it. I found the characters unsympathetic and the police presented as inept, not least in overlooking a couple of clues -- including one of a particularly glaring nature. It may be this novel was intended as a spoof of the Country House Mystery, but all in all I found The Hunt Ball Mystery something of a disappointment.

Etext: The Hunt Ball Mystery by William Magnay

Sunday, October 18, 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 stolen 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 l4 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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Review: The Bat by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart

by Mary

Everyone in the city, from millionaires to the shady citizens of the underworld, goes in fear of The Bat. All that is known of him is like his namesake "he chose the night hours for his work of rapine; like a bat he struck and vanished, pouncingly, noiselessly; like a bat he never showed himself to the face of the day". The media scream in vain for his arrest. Such was his tawdry fame that, inevitably, "a popular revue put on a special Bat number wherein eighteen beautiful chorus girls appeared masked and black-winged in costumes of Brazilian bat fur; there were Bat club sandwiches, Bat cigarettes, and a new shade of hosiery called simply and succinctly Bat".

But the fact remains the Bat was a cold-blooded loner whose crimes range from jewel theft to murder and whose calling card was a drawing or some other form of expression of bathood.

Detective Anderson asks his chief to be transferred to the Bat case. His superior is reluctant, because his other best investigator, Wentworth, was killed by The Bat. However, Anderson insists, having been a friend of the dead man, and so his chief, convinced Anderson will meet the same fate as Wentworth, promises the next time the Bat strikes and a new case is opened Anderson will be transferred to work on it.

We next meet wealthy, elderly, and independent spinster Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, scion of a noble family and the last of the line. An adventurous spirit, at 65 and comfortably situated, she still longs for a bit of an adventure. It maddens her to think of the sensational experiences she is missing as she contemplates that "...out in the world people were murdering and robbing each other, floating over Niagara Falls in barrels, rescuing children from burning houses, taming tigers, going to Africa to hunt gorillas, doing all sorts of exciting things!" Why, she'd love to have a stab at catching The Bat given half a chance!

But all is not lost, for having taken a house in the country for the summer Miss Van Gorder finds herself within twenty miles from the very area wherein the Bat had committed three crimes. Courtleigh Fleming, owner of the house, has died, and the bank of which he was president just failed, possibly because Mr Bailey, its cashier, has stolen over a million dollars -- or so it is said.

Since Miss Van Gorder's arrival at the Fleming mansion strange things have happened: she has received an anonymous letter advising her to leave, the lights mysteriously went off one evening, her butler claims he spied someone looking into the kitchen, and Lizzie Allen, Miss Van Gorder's personal maid for decades, is convinced she saw a strange man on the stairs.

Miss Van Gorder's niece, Dale Ogden, is a guest and her aunt senses she is unhappy about something, perhaps an affair of the heart. As the story opens, Dale has a phone call and goes off to the city. While she is there she will look for a gardener. After she departs, it transpires the cook and housemaid have decided to leave for obviously false reasons. Despite all persuasion, Miss Van Gorder states she *will* remain in the house with or without a full staff, but as it happens an agency promises replacements in three days. Until then they will just have to manage with the aid of the butler and the hoped-for gardener.

And then adventure makes its appearance in Miss Van Gorder's life, for in the morning post there comes another anonymous letter stating "If you stay in this house any longer--DEATH. Go back to the city at once and save your life". Being a stubborn person, Miss Van Gorder decides to handle the matter not by calling in the authorities but by ensuring the numerous windows and doors of the house are kept locked and by making a phone call, the recipient of which we are not told at that point.

She is practicing with a revolver she purchased for a trip to China when Dale arrives with the news a gardener will be there to take up his duties that evening. After dark a storm begins to rise while Dale goes off to the local country club to visit Richard Fleming, the deceased house owner's nephew and heir, who lives at the club. Miss Van Gorder, left with her maid and the butler, finds herself growing nervous. So she gets out the ouija board and she and a very reluctant Lizzie hold a session. The board first spells out a string of nonsense and then B-A-T.

Not long afterwards, Brooks, the new gardener, arrives. The advancing tempest knocks out the lights and the stage is set for various characters to flit in and out a many doored and windowed living room lit most of the time only by candle and firelight. The Bat is based upon a stage play and I imagine one that must have had its audiences perched on the edge of their seats a fair bit of the time.

My verdict: I would describe The Bat as related to the old dark house mystery, with enough obfuscation to keep the reader guessing although one or two surprises are less well concealed. I found it a light, diverting read which held the interest without taxing the attention too much and would sum up The Bat as an excellent cold-night-outside read.

Etext: The Bat by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Break Out the Bubbly!

by Eric

The Yankees clinched a playoff spot over the weekend, a few days before the official publication date for Murder in Megara so, as a baseball fan and writer, it has been a good week for me. When I read about the Yankees' clubhouse champagne celebration I recalled the last time I had champagne, on the first of January, outside in the cold and snow, at Mendon Ponds Park in Rochester, New York. The C.A.T.S. running club put on a New Years Day 10K race. Beyond the finish line, in the icy parking lot, folding tables held boxes of bagels and plastic cups of bubbly.

The park terrain was formed by ancient ice sheets so we ran up and down a confusion of hills and hollows, puffing steam, our procession gradually lengthening as fast runners pulled away from those of us laboring behind. There is one particularly steep incline curving around the hill into which ancient ice gouged out a kettle pond called The Devil's Bathtub. I can still see clearly that challenge rearing up in my path. Heavily bundled, early morning dog walkers gave us perplexed stares as we passed, warmed only by light sweats and our own efforts.

I loved running. There's a camaraderie in getting together to do something pointless and stupid simply because you can. It's exhilarating. In retrospect. At the time, at the five mile mark, where the route turned out of the park onto a slushy highway exposed to a raw north wind, I wondered what the hell I'd been thinking to sign up for this.

That was a long time ago. Longer than it seems because after my back decided I could no longer run I kept making sporadic attempts and held out hope. Now it has become obvious that running is a chapter that's finished. It was one of my favorite chapters.

Running is simple. It rewards your efforts. If you put in the miles you improve. Unlike the arts where efforts can go forever unrecognized. Nor is there the subjective quibbling artistic works are subject to. At the end of the race the clock gives each competitor the objective, inarguable truth. There's no room for critics. Blowhards can't change reality or promote themselves into prominence.

These days my endeavors are limited to activities which do not require healthy of spinal discs. Things like writing. Today Murder in Megara is out. It is always exhilarating when a new novel appears. The writing itself can be grueling. With each bend in the plot a writer is confronted by new challenges. And towards the end, when we're already exhausted, rewriting feels like running an endless straight-away into a bitter north wind. Now that the finish line has been crossed maybe we should break out the bubbly.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review: The Man In Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart

by Mary

Lawrence "Lollie" Blakely, narrator of The Man In Lower Ten, is a partner in the Washington law firm of Blakeley and McKnight. In this novel he describes "the strange events on the Pullman car Ontario, between Washington and Pittsburgh, on the night of September ninth, last".

Blakeley is going to Pittsburgh to take a deposition from John Gilmore, an ailing millionaire and the prosecution's chief witness in a big forgery case. Strictly speaking, it is his partner Richard McKnight's turn to take the journey, but he's cried off, claiming he's "always car sick crossing the mountains." However, the real reason, as Lollie well knows, is McKnight wishes to visit a girl he loves, as on a number of previous weekends.

While Lollie is packing a bag, McKnight drops in to give him certain vital documents relating to the forgery case. During his visit, even before Lollie sets out on his journey, mysteries start to gather. Who is the woman McKnight claims to see staring into Lollie's room from a house across the way, a house that has supposedly been empty a year? McKnight connects this strange event with the documentation Lollie is to carry, and advises him to guard it with every care, for its loss will mean disaster for the prosecution.

So Lollie visits Gilmore's house, where he notices a framed photo of a lovely girl named Alison, Gilmore's granddaughter. Needless to say, this photo makes quite an impression on Lollie. Having obtained Gilmore's deposition, Lollie visits a restaurant for a meal before taking the overnight train back to Washington, and while dining notices a couple whose relationship seems rather strained and that the man is somewhat intoxicated. At the station, he is just about to buy his sleeping berth for the return journey when a woman unknown to him asks him to buy her a lower berth when he purchases his, as she has been traveling in upper berths for three nights.

I would have thought anyone approached by a stranger in this fashion, and especially a lawyer, would consider it somewhat odd, the more so given the social mores of the time. In any event, Lollie being a gentleman obliges. Given the choice of berths, he gives the lady lower eleven and takes lower ten for himself.

However, when he goes to his berth later that evening he finds the man from the restaurant snoring away in it, evidently having mistaken it for his due to his intoxicated condition, and so Lollie instead occupies lower nine. But sleep eludes Lollie, so he is up and about in his jammies and bathrobe while just about everyone else aboard is in the arms of Morpheus. He eventually retires to bed and wakes up next day to find his clothing and bag (wherein is locked the vital legal evidence) missing and the man in lower ten murdered.

Forced to wear the clothing left behind by whoever stole his clobber and due to circumstantial evidence of a convincing nature, Lollie is suspected of the murder. He is saved from arrest by perhaps one of the most outrageous deux ex machina in detective fiction: a train crash in which he and one or two others are the only survivors.

But to be fair, this crash later leads to an important pointer on a line of enquiry in the investigation of the murder, although this pointer is one whose method of appearance rather strains credulity.

Suspected of murder, Lollie (arm is broken in the crash) returns home and finds himself plunged into all manner of strange goings on. With his partner McBride and one or two helpers he tries to find out the who and why of the death, while himself being shadowed by the police and fighting a growing attraction to McBride's light o' love.

The Man In Lower Ten is written in MRR's usual light style but offers a fairly dense plot with an occasional red herring and a large cast of characters bound together in occasionally unexpected ways. Narrator Lollie is not as giddy as some of her protagonists, though there are dollops of humour here and there. Ultimately the mystery is tied up in a satisfactory fashion. I haven't read all the author's works yet, but enjoyed this one, not least because it's a sort of locked room mystery -- but not quite. My eye always lights up when I see plans of houses or rooms or fragments of documents reproduced in the text, and this novel features a sketch of the carriage where the murder was committed although its role is minimal compared to what is revealed in similar diagrams included in, say, Agatha Christie's works.

Etext: The Man In Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart