Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review: Till The Clock Stops by John J. Bell

by Mary

Published in 1917, this novel could well have been subtitled The Wandering Green Box, for said receptacle appears and disappears more than once. Add to that the peculiar instructions left by a man now dead concerning the titular timepiece and there's more than one mystery to solve.

It all begins when young, financially embarassed Alan Craig borrows a hefty sum, giving as security a will made in favour of the lenders, Francis Bullard and Robert Lancaster. Craig is about to depart on an Arctic expedition but before he leaves he goes to Scotland to visit his ailing uncle, Christopher Craig, who made a fortune in, and owns a staggeringly valuable number of diamonds from, South Africa.

Time passes but Alan Craig does not return from the Arctic. By then his uncle is dying, as he tells Bullard and Lancaster, who have been friends of his for some time. He also reveals he has willed his fortune to the missing, presumed dead, nephew. But nothing can be done about winding up his estate, including disposing of the diamonds, until the clock stops.

The clock was specially constructed with a mechanism that will stop it a year and a day after it has been started, a task given to a devoted servant to carry out once the master has died. It's a sinister sort of timepiece, for its bottom third is filled with a sluggish green liquid and the niche the clock occupies is labelled 'Dangerous". Is the strange matter gas or poison, explosives, or some sort of corrosive matter? What will happen when time runs out and the clock stops working?

Before the reader discovers the answer to that interesting conundrum, they will have contemplated a veritable Newgate Calendar of crimes including -- but not limited to -- breaking and entering, blackmail, and infernal engines. Toss in romantic entanglements and much to-ing and fro-ing between London and Scotland among other things, and the result is a novel in which the convoluted skein of events eventually works out smoothly and those that deserve it get their comeuppance in satisfactory fashion.

etext: Till The Clock Stops by John J. Bell

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Jacob Street Mystery by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

Tom Pedley is a painter of landscapes. However, on this particular day in May the work on which he is engaged needs more than a little imagination, for he is in a small copse in Gravel Pit Wood, whose bosky dells are being rapidly gobbled up by developers. Concealed by shrubbery from the casual glance, he observes a woman creeping along the path through the wood. Her odd behaviour shows she is eavesdropping on a pair of men who have just walked past. One man returns and is furtively followed by the woman, and the intrigued Pedley checks the far end of the path but sees no sign of the second man.

Pedley lives in a studio in Jacob Street, which has a number of houses favoured by artistic types, and while eating his tea that afternoon decides to create a work based on the strange incident. He will call it The Eavesdropper and use his keen artistic eye to recreate the three strangers as actors in the scene. About a week later, he is working on the painting when his friend Mr Polton -- they first met in a Soho antique shop -- calls with a gift, a pewter tankard purchased in a shocking state from a Shoreditch junk stall and refurbished by the handy Mr P. Nor is this the only skill Mr Polton displays in the course of the mystery. Indeed, if he had ever turned to a life of crime he would have been difficult to catch.

It is from Mr Polton that the artist, who has no wireless and does not read the papers, learns a murder by forcible administration of poison was committed in the wood during the very time he was painting the sylvan scene, and that from a description circulated in print and on the airwaves he is obviously the man being sought for interview by the police.

Enter Inspector Blandy, not to mention the brassy Mrs Schiller, a modernist artist separated from her husband and now living next door to Pedley, and Mr William Vanderpuye. He is studying with Dr Thorndyke and thus known to Mr Polton, who introduces him to the artist. It is while visiting the studio to arrange for a portrait sitting that Mr Vanderpuye meets Mrs Schilling, who pops in for a visit most days. The pair strike up a close friendship and Mr Vanderpuye is the last person seen with her before her disappearance. For while a dead woman is found locked in Mrs Schiller's room, she is not its tenant.

We now leap forward a couple of years. Mrs Schiller is still missing, but Drs Thorndyke and Jervis become involved in the case due to a large bequest which would be hers if she is still alive. A presumption of death has been requested but the solicitor feels uneasy about the circumstances. Is she alive, and if she is, why has she not been found despite sterling efforts by the authorities and a vast amount of publicity in the press? Who is the woman found dead in her room and what is the connection between them?

My verdict: Readers of this book learn another way to open a door locked from the inside. Doubtless most if not all listees are familiar with at least two of them, the turn-key-from- the-outside-with-the-sugar-tongs and the push-key-out-on-to-a-piece-of-paper-shoved-under-the- door-and-pull-carefully-to-your-side. The latter works as I discovered when locked in my bedroom in a 1930s vintage flat as a witty jape, but you need a door with a gap under it. The method used in this case needs a particular type of key, common at the time so fair enough, and its use helps point up the fact that, despite appearances, the dead woman found in Mrs Schiller's room was not a suicide.

There are sufficient and fair clues, and the investigations are described in lively fashion. It turns out to be a more complicated case than it seems at first glance. I guessed part of the solution but not the whole, and all in all found this novel one of the better Thorndyke outings.

Etext: The Jacob Street Mystery by R. Austin Freeman

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Review: The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts

by Mary

Scotland Yard Detective Mark Brendon is on holiday and while on his way to fish in an abandoned quarry on Dartmoor meets a lady whose looks strike him more than somewhat. Then a man appears, chats about fishing, and tells him about a couple building a bungalow not far from the quarry.

Four days later the husband of the bungalow couple is found murdered and the finger of suspicion is pointed at his uncle-in-law, a man fitting the description of Mr Fish Chatter. And what's more, the striking lady turns out to be the murdered man's widow.

Thus begins The Red Redmaynes, the title referring to a family so-called because they all have red hair -- or should I say red manes?

The novel opens at a stately, not to say sedate, pace, but by the closing chapters the characters whirl about in a lively mazurka.

Brendon's investigative method combines "the regulation methods of criminal research with the more modern deductive system", so here we have no leaps of faith or sudden intuitions but rather stolid police work followed on reasoned lines in a case puzzling for its leads that constantly go nowhere. For example, the trail of the red-haired uncle-in-law's mad ride on a motorbike with a suspicious sack strapped to its back vanishes into mid air -- as does the body from the bungalow.

Has Redmayne escaped abroad? Brendon suspects he may have killed himself from horror at what he did. But then another of the widow's uncles is murdered and again the body cannot be found.

Brendon meantime has fallen for the widow but has a rival for her hand in the form of an Italian servant who bids fair to sweep her off her feet -- and her husband not even officially declared dead yet!

The remaining chapters rattle along with criminal goings-on all over the place including abroad, and while readers may tumble to part of the solution perhaps a quarter way through, the twist at the end is striking and the place of concealment of a certain item caught me by surprise.

My verdict: Readers may find the early part slow going but may wish to keep reading as there are surprises ahead as the pace increases and Brendon dashes hither and yon, constantly thwarted despite some near-misses. The case is finally solved with assistance from a man who sees what Brendon does not, reminding readers not all investigators are all-seeing, even those who use the modern deductive system, which depends on established facts -- which are difficult to pin down in this particular case.

Etext: The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: R. Holmes & Co by John Kendrick Bangs

by Mary

The family of writer Jenkins is temporarily out of town. On a blistering hot night he is dozing in a hammock on the fire escape when a nocturnal visitor climbs up it and pops into his flat.

Surprised to say the least, Jenkins follows the burglar to his library, where he finds him perusing royalty statements. The visitor is Raffles Holmes, son of Sherlock and grandson of A. J., and he is there to suggest, if he finds these statements satisfactory, that Jenkins record some of his exploits for mutual financial gain. Besides which, he says, Jenkins needs some new ideas for his fiction. Ouch!

Here follow a few lines about the various adventures related by Jenkins, hopefully without giving too much of their plots away.

The Adventure of the Dorrington Ruby Seal relates how Raffles Holmes' parents met during the hitherto unrecorded case of a jewelry theft from Lord Dorrington's stately home, the swag including an immensely valuable ruby seal given to the family by George IV. Raffles Holmes' mother's name is Marjorie, daughter of A.J. Memo: who was her mother? Though Bunny did hint Raffles' had a number of escapades with the ladies...

The Adventure of Mrs Burlingame's Diamond Stomacher underlines the constantly warring nature of Raffles Holmes -- an insistent desire to pinch things and the equally strong wish to bring malefactors to justice. When Mrs B's highly valuable stomacher is stolen, her dinner guests, despite being the cream of society, are under a cloud of suspicion. To say more would be to reveal Raffles Holmes' cunning plan to collect the reward money for its return.

The Adventure of the Missing Pendants involves a theft from Gaffany & Company, whose craftsmen are cutting a section of a fabulous diamond into four pendants. Two pendants go missing, and the solution involves Raffles in disguise and a water cooler.

The Adventure of the Brass Check comes about because everyone Mrs Wilbraham Ward- Smythe has a rope of enormous pearls and everyone knows it. Raffles Holmes hatches a clever plan to claim a reward for its return without actually stealing the pearls.

The Adventure of the Hired Burglar involves an attempt to save the reputation of a man who has been up to no good with someone else's bonds and must produce them in a very short time when their owner reaches majority, Raffles Holmes agrees to help out, but this leads to a triple cross...

The Redemption of Young Billington Rand is necessary because while Rand is an honourable man he is also weak, and as a result is now more or less bankrupt and owes money right, left, and at the club. Raffles Holmes intervenes to save him from taking a criminal step.

The Nostalgia of Nervy Jim The Snatcher is for his cosy jail cell, preferably for ten or more years, as the old lag cannot cope with life outside prison. To help him achieve his wish, Raffles Holmes and Jenkins sing in the chorus of Lohengrin at a performance at which Mrs Robinson-Jones' valuable necklace is stolen.

The Adventure of Room 407 involves an intercepted telegram and a man masquerading as a member of the nobility, but despite a promising start it is perhaps the least of the stories related by Jenkins.

The Major-General's Pepperpots are a massive golden pair, a gift from the King of Spain, as now General Carrington Cox relates. Stolen some years before, Raffles Holmes sees one on a friend's dinner table and he has the other by way of a sentimental event. After hearing why Carrington Cox was given the pepperpots, Raffles Holmes decides he must do something....

My verdict: Fans of Holmes and Raffles will find this collection amusing and some of the planning and execution worthy of old Hawkface himself. The criminal collation tends more to the Rafflian turn of phrase than the Holmesian, and I must admit I laughed out loud when, after Raffles Holmes whacks Jenkins on the shoulders and almost topples him into the fireplace, the former declares "Don't be a rabbit. The thing will be as easy as cutting calve's-foot jelly with a razor." It's well worth spending an hour or two with Bangs when readers fancy something a little lighter than usual in the criminous literary line.

Etexts: R. Holmes & Co by John Kendrick Bangs