Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: The Clue of the Twisted Candle by Edgar Wallace

by Mary

Assistant Commissioner of Police T. X. Meredith, a man of unorthodox though successful methods of detection and best friend of mystery writer John Lexman, has been investigating Remington Kara, an extremely rich Greek with something of a turbulent history and a former suitor for the hand of Lexman's wife.

Kara was almost murdered years ago, and such is his fear of another attempt being made his bedroom is “practically a safe.” It features burglar-proof walls, reinforced concrete roof and floor, an unreachable window, and its sole door has in addition to a lock “a sort of steel latch which he lets down when he retires for the night and which he opens himself personally in the morning”.

Of course Kara is eventually found dead, locked in this safe-like room. How was Kara’s murder accomplished, why did his secretary disappear and his manservant run away, and for that matter who killed the dog in the basement of his house? Was Kara killed by the men he has feared for years or someone else, and if so, who was it and why?

Answers to these conundrums are revealed at a gathering at the end of the book in which All Is Explained, including how the challenge presented by the locked room was overcome.

My verdict: On the negative side I felt there were perhaps one too many coincidences and the identity of the murderer was not as well hidden as it might have been. On the other hand, the locked room explanation is ingenious, clues to how it was accomplished are revealed in a fair fashion in the narrative, and I confess I did not foresee one of the final twists. I would sum it up as a diverting, light read.

Etext: The Clue of the Twisted Candle by Edgar Wallace

Sunday, November 22, 2015

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

by Mary

Readers must have been surprised to learn Philo Vance bred Scottish terriers, but it was as well for the forces of law and order he did, for it was this interest, coupled with his vast knowledge of Chinese ceramics, that ultimately provided the solution to the Kennel Murder Case.

The novel begins with one of my favourite fictional crime scenes: a suicide in a room locked on the inside. This is merely window dressing, for it is in fact murder. And murder most peculiar, for collector Archer Coe had been shot after his death. In addition, his coat and waistcoat have been removed and his dressing gown substituted but his street shoes have been left on -- not to mention he has been struck on the head and a rib broken. Then there is the question of the badly injured Scottie found downstairs, an unknown dog in a household that does not care for them.

Leaving aside intruders, there aren't many suspects. There's Archer's brother Brisbane and niece and ward Hilda Lake. Milanese museum official Eduardo Grassi, is a house guest, Raymond Wrede, a friend of the family, visits often, and the Coe's Chinese cook Liang Tsung Wei is naturally viewed as suspicious. Financial motives of various sorts provide most of them with an interest in the affair, although Mr Wei is an unknown quantity and seems too cultured for a mere servant. There is talk of revenge for shady deals and tomb robbing and further mayhem ensues but of course Vance ultimately solves the case.

My verdict: The Kennel Murder Case rattles along faster than other entries in the series and there is less eyeball glazing vapouring on esoteric topics than usual. This is intriguing, given the solution hinges on knowledge of canine matters and porcelain, but the leaner prose is the better for it. The reader is cleverly misled through their own expectations although part of the solution begins to manifest to the really attentive towards the end of the book. As for the kennel, we don't see too much of it so the title is somewhat misleading but the little Scottie goes to live with Vance, so it ends happily for her, if not for certain others. In a discussion of methods used to lock rooms from the outside to give the impression of having been bolted by someone inside the room Van Dine naughtily reveals examples from two named novels, so beware of spoilers.

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: The Sleuth of St. James's Square by Melville Davisson Post

by Mary

Sir Henry Marquis is Chief of the C.I.D. at Scotland Yard. This collection relates some of the cases in which he played a part, although in a few entries he takes a more peripheral role.

The Thing On The Hearth is blamed for the death of Mr Rodman, a scientist who invented a process to make precious gems. He is found dead in a locked room guarded by an Oriental servant and his death involves what appears to be a visitor from...somewhere else. Sir Henry visits Rodman's New England mansion to investigate the matter.

Sir Henry has been looking over the memoirs of Captain Walker, head of the US Secret Service. In their ensuing discussion Walker tells him the tale of an inebriate hobo, who, when everyone else had failed, was instrumental in locating a number of stolen plates for war bonds, thus earning The Reward.

The next story involves a large sum of money Madame Barras is foolishly carrying on an unaccompanied two mile journey through the forest lying between the home of an old school friend and the village hotel in which madame is staying. Sir Henry is also a hotel guest and helps search for The Lost Lady.

The titled parents of a young man fighting at the front in France are extremely distressed. His fiancee has been staying out half the night motoring all over the landscape with Mr Meadows, and even admits to having deliberately picked him up! But when Mr Meadows obligingly gives a lift to Sir Henry, who is on his way to investigate a murder, footprints from The Cambered Foot, not to mention other clews, turn out to be not at all what they seem.

In the next story, an Englishman, an American, and an Italian are *not* sitting in a bar but rather are chatting about the justice systems of their respective countries at Sir Henry's villa. The Italian count relates how it was legally possible for The Man In The Green Hat, proved without a shadow of doubt to be guilty of premeditated murder, to escape the death penalty.

Sir Henry owns a diary kept by the daughter of his ancestor Mr Pendleton, a justice of the peace in colonial Virginia. The diary describes cases in which Pendleon was involved and this one concerns dissolute Lucian Morrow's wish to buy a beautiful Hispanic girl from Mr Zindorf, whose ownership of her is dubious to say the least. However The Wrong Sign turns out to be right for saving the innocent.

Another Pendleton story follows. Peyton Marshall's will favouring Englishman Anthony Gosford has gone missing and it transpires Marshall's son has hidden it for what appears to be good reason. But can the lad's unsupported claims be proved, allowing him to inherit what his father promised him? The Fortune Teller will reveal the answer.

The next tale relates a third case involving Sir Henry's ancestor. Pendleton meets a girl wandering about in despair. This is not surprising given her uncle, with whom she had been living, has just kicked her out of his house after informing her that her father was a rogue who robbed him and absconded. The Hole In The Mahogany Panel bears mute witness to the truth.

The war is over and the traitoress Lady Muriel is in desperate financial straits as she can no longer sells British secrets. She overhears a conversation that ultimately leads to her to kill a man when discovered in the act of stealing an explorer's watercolour of, and map showing the route to, an African lake where treasure lies at The End Of The Road.

In The Last Adventure explorer Charlie Tavor tried to find the ancient route of gold-bearing caravans crossing Mongolia in order to salvage the precious metal from those that foundered. He returns to America with only a few months to live and his friend Barclay undertakes to sell Tavor's map to the location to a man who had previously swindled Tavor...

Jewel dealer Douglas Hargrave meets Sir Henry at their London club. Sir Henry is puzzling over an advertisement run in papers in three European capitals, trying to deduce what The American Horses represent in an obviously coded message. Then Hargrave meets a lady who wants to buy a large lot of valuable gems from a Rumanian who demands payment in cash....

Lisa Lewis, American Ambassadoress, relates a curious tale at a dinner party at Sir Henry's house. The Dominion Railroad Company has experienced a number of terrible accidents and fears numerous reports alleging negligence will lead to its bankruptcy. Yet despite all possible precautions the Montreal Express derails because of The Spread Rails. Lisa's friend Marion Warfield, who revised a textbook on circumstantial evidence, solves the mystery.

At the same dinner party Sir Henry describes the case of the hardhearted lawyer who demands more money to represent a butler on trial for murdering and robbing his employer. The money cannot be found and the accused's wife wanders the streets in despair. A wealthy opera singer takes pity on her, treats her to a meal, and listens to her story. Is she a fairy godmother in the modern equivalent of The Pumpkin Coach and can she help the man on trial?

Miss Carstair is having doubts about her marriage to diplomat Lord Eckhart despite her fiance's gift of a stunning ruby necklace, for she is extremely troubled by gossip he is the worst ne'er do well in London. While she is pondering the matter Dr Tsan-Sgam, who has been dining with Sir Henry, arrives with news of the death of her father in the Gobi Desert, ultimately learning of its connection to The Yellow Flower.

Next, a post-war story narrated by a weekend guest at Sir Henry's country house. Sir Henry reveals the true story of an incident on a hospital ship boarded by Prussian submarine commander Plutonburg. Wounded St Alban defies him with the fighting words "Don't threaten, fire if you like!", becoming an instant hero to the British. But there's a lot more to it than that, and a situation as bitter as the rolling waves is revealed in A Satire of the Sea.

In the final yarn, the uncle of narrator Robin tries to put him off visiting him, but the envelope in which the letter arrives has a hastily scrawled appeal to ignore the contents and come to The House By The Loch. Will his uncle's labours to cast a perfect Buddha ever be successful? Who is the highlander sitting knitting while talking about the Ten Commandments and taking a great deal of interest in the movements of Robin's uncle?

My verdict: A first rate collection with several stories having a O. Henryesque twist or two catching the reader by surprise. My favourites were The Last Adventure, a wonderful biter-bit yarn, and A Satire of the Sea, with its psychological underpinnings. An author's note for The Man In The Green Hat cites a specific American legal case and readers may like to know it was heard in 1913.

Etext: The Sleuth of St. James's Square by Melville Davisson Post

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: As a Thief in the Night by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

As is her custom, Mrs Barbara Monkhouse is away for a week or two helping organise a women's emancipation movement but this time she returns home to find her husband Harold is dead.

The exact nature of chronic invalid Harold's illness has never been diagnosed although he's been ailing for years. During Barbara's absence Harold's brother Amos visited him and was so shocked by his appearance he insisted on an expert opinion. It is all to no avail, however, for a few days later Harold dies of arsenic poisoning. Was it administered in his food or drink or perhaps added to his medicine? Everyone in, or with access to, the house at the time is under suspicion -- domestic science teacher Madeline Norris (Harold's daughter by his first wife), Harold's highly strung secretary Anthony Wallingford, the servants, and even medical man Dr Dimsdale, not to mention regular visitor and narrator Rupert Mayfield, a barrister and inseparable childhood friend of Barbara Monkhouse and her now deceased stepsister Stella Keene. Mayfield asks Dr Thorndyke to investigate so that innocent parties can be cleared of suspicion, but the true depravity of the culprit is only revealed at the close of the novel.

My verdict: This entry in the Thorndyke saga revels in a particularly inventive plot, richly decorated with such details as mysterious bottles of unknown origin and an infernal machine in the post, not to mention what well may be the most inventive way of administering poison ever utilised in the annals of detective fiction.

Etext: As a Thief in the Night by R. Austin Freeman

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Review: The Cat's Eye by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

Dr Jervis being away advising on a case in New York, Robert Anstey, KC, narrates the mystery of The Cat's Eye as the complicated affair unfolds.

Anstey is crossing Hampstead Heath one night when, just after a man runs past him, he hears a woman crying for help in the other direction. He finds her in time to see her knocked down and her attacker get away.

The mysterious woman has been stabbed and Anstey carries her to a nearby house to seek aid. Just as he arrives, he hears the terrified housekeeper Mrs Benham calling the police, for her master Andrew Drayton has been murdered in his small private museum of inscribed objects -- lace bobbins, ornaments, jewelry, and the like.

The dead man is the brother of Sir Lawrence Drayton, a neighbour of Anstey's in the Temple as well as an acquaintance of Dr Thorndyke's, who is brought in to investigate while the police pursue their own enquiries. Anstey has acted as Thorndyke's leading counsel for years and, in order to provide him with useful evidence, takes -- illegally, one would think -- two pieces of fingerprinted broken glass away from the crime scene.

The injured woman, Winifred Blake is interested in inscribed jewels and had visited Drayton that evening to look at his collection. She had hardly entered the house when he was shot in another room, and in foolishly trying to follow a man escaping from the scene was herself assaulted. Evidence shows two criminals were involved and that certain items of jewelry have been stolen.

The plot then thickens into a rich stew whose ingredients include Biblical verses with no apparent relation to each other, a good luck charm made from a porcupine ant-eater bone, a strand of blue hair, spectacles which allow the wearer to see what is happening behind him, and a mystery within a mystery.

My verdict: A particularly rich plot featuring a dash of romance, with clues realised to be in plain sight once the reader knows the solution. The novel includes some interesting asides, such as an explanation of how Scotland Yard's Habitual Criminals Registry compares hundreds of fingerprint records kept on cards when seeking matches to a particular set of dabs. The preface mentions a particular incident, identical to one that happened in real life, was already in a chapter written some time before the actual event occurred.

Etext: The Cat's Eye by R. Austin Freeman