Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review: The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor by Lee Thayer

by Mary

"How had the crime been committed? How, conceivably, could it have been done in the time and the murderer make good his escape?"

Thus a character muses and the reader along with them.

As the novel opens, rich and much hated lawyer James Randolph Stone is dictating his will to a stenographer who, along with one of his clerks, witnesses the document. They have hardly stepped away from Stone's office when they hear a thud and a groan and find Stone dead with a dagger in his heart.

It's obvious the culprit got into Stone's private office via the door opening directly into the hall. Stone was in the habit of leaving the door unlocked for the benefit of visitors who did not want to be seen by his employees, but how did the murderer manage to creep up on Stone? The senior clerk sees a strangely familiar figure racing along far below, apparently having used the fire escape to leave the building in haste....and the just-signed will is missing.

Detective Graves appears and must solve such conundrums as how the seemingly impossible deed was done and who stole the will and why. Is the culprit a man with an old and justified grudge against Stone? He's rented the office next door to Stone's and furthermore was seen dropping a dagger. Then there's Stone's nephew, overheard quarrelling violently with his uncle the night before the murder.

When the nephew is arrested, office boy Peter and telephone operator Maybelle collaborate with Mr Gregory to investigate the case. Thus begin episodes of romance, secrets, and breaking and entering, not to mention suspicious behaviour by Stone's other nephew.

While the dialogue is sometimes stiff, the exchanges between Peter and Maybelle are lively, and once through the first few chapters the action begins to speed up and carries the reader along. The plot is deceptively simple in that suspects' actions present such an appearance there seems little doubt one or the other is guilty. Indeed, the reader may, as I did, begin to suspect a third party to boot.

Plus there is always that lingering puzzle: how did the murderer kill Stone and get away so quickly? Stone's office has an open window but it's over 20 yards from his old enemy's window and besides they are on the thirteenth floor. There's a communicating door between the two offices but it's blocked with obviously undisturbed books and in any event the books couldn't have been removed and put back in the very short time Stone was alone in his office between signing his will and being found dead.

My verdict: There's some well-done misdirection which, together with the matter of the missing will, is ultimately explained in excellent fashion. However, the revelation of the murder method, while perfectly acceptable in itself, is somewhat disappointing because there's not a jot nor tittle of a clue to hint at it earlier nor any indication why the murder was committed until the culprit reveals it. So while I'd give another Thayer novel a whirl, I shall award The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor a B-.

Etext (some minor scrambling ): The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor by Lee Thayer

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Postmaster's Daughter by Louis Tracy

by Mary

John Menzies Grant is taking an after-breakfast stroll in the garden of The Hollies, a charming house just outside the hamlet of Steynholme, Sussex. An ex-officer and now writer, he's another of the typical Golden Age "healthy, clean-minded young Englishman" so sadly lacking in detective fiction these days. But what is not lacking is a body -- in this case a bound woman dragged from the river at the end of a line tied to Grant's side of the river.

Grant recognises the woman as actress Adelaide Melhuish, to whom he had proposed marriage three years before. He then discovered she was married, and her suggestion he pay her husband to facilitate a divorce so disgusted Grant it precipitated their parting. He had not seen her since except hers was, he thought, the face in the window he had glimpsed fairly late the evening before but had dismissed as his imagination running riot.

The other woman in the case is a mere slip of a girl, Doris Martin, the postmaster's daughter of the title. She lives across the river and she and Grant signal back and forth from home and garden. There is an as yet unacknowledged attraction between them, and the pair were in Grant's garden the evening of the murder stargazing at Sirius at a time deduced to be not long before the murder took place.

It transpires Miss Melhuish had been in Steynholme for a couple of days asking questions about Grant and his friends and doings, and so suspicion naturally falls on him. Feelings start to run high in the village, fanned by the arrival of Isidor G. Ingerman, Miss Melhuish's husband, who hints at a suit for alienation of affection against Grant and is otherwise quite beastly. Grant has some moral support from Miss Martin as well as the owner of another pair of boots which take up residence under his dinner table, this particular set belonging to Grant's close friend and global adventurer Walter Hart, whose conversational turns of phrase would make a number of present day humourists envious.

Tracy's delightful pair of dueling Scotland Yard detectives solve the mystery, although the eccentric Charles Furneaux initially turns up without his more stolid investigative partner James Winter, who does not get onstage until about half way through the book.

My verdict: This is the sort of novel where the reader is drawn along at a rattling pace. There are few clews and much obfuscation, with comic interest added by badinage between the Scotland Yard men and Hart. Readers will quibble with how some of the evidence is obtained, but the shifting moods of the local residents are well portrayed and the mystery ends with a strong denouement in the hamlet's main street, followed by a brief "what happened next" chapter tying up the loose ends. It's fair to say cozy fans as well as GADers will enjoy this novel.

Etext: The Postmaster's Daughter by Louis Tracy

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: A Silent Witness by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

Dr Humphrey Jardine's narration treats of a strange chain of events that befell him when he was newly qualified, at a time when there were still horse-drawn cabs and the descent of dusk saw lamplighters at work.

His adventures began late one evening when he went for a stroll along Millfield Lane on the edge of London's Hampstead Heath. He sees a corpse, a clerical gent going by his garments, lying further up the narrow thoroughfare but when he returns with police reinforcements a few minutes later the body has gone. Naturally enough, the chaps in blue are politely sceptical about what Jardine saw or, as they see it, did not see.

Jardine returns next day to examine the lane and finds a suspicious stain on the fence near where the body had lain. He also picks up a tiny reliquary made of gold, its frayed silk cord suggesting it had been worn as a necklace or in some other way about its owner's person.

Climbing up and looking over the fence, he sees obvious tracks leading away from the fence -- taken all together, suggestive circumstances to say the least.

Dr Thorndyke suggests Jardine act as locum tenens for one Dr Batson, thus pitching the young medic into a positive whirlwind of odd goings-on. After a particularly inventive effort at murdering Jardine, Thorndyke's colleague Dr Jervis takes over Jardine's locum tenems position pro tem and investigations get under way to find out who is assiduously trying to dispose of Jardine, a man with, so far as he knows, no enemies and with no relatives liable to benefit by his death.

My verdict: The plot unspools into a web of disturbing incidents, unexpected meetings and re-meetings, attempted murders, and a deserted house which nonetheless tells a great deal as the novel rattles up hill and down dale, or rather lane, in a landscape through which move a pretty young artist with a ferocious aunt, a mysterious stranger afflicted with a rare eye disorder, a Jesuit priest seeking news of a missing friend, and a "downy bird" or two of both genders -- not to mention a hidden portrait. There is much following about of various people and sending of telegrams, and, of course, despite lack of clews, Thorndyke cracks the case, although not in time to...but no, I shall say no more.

Etext: A Silent Witness by R. Austin Freeman

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: Number Seventeen by Louis Tracy

by Mary

When writer Frank Theydon emerges from a theatre, he notices a beautiful girl and a distinguished man, evidently her father, waiting for their car. A minor accident delays Theydon's taxi home to Innesmore Mansions by ten minutes, and he notices the man, who had told his daughter he was dropping in at his club, outside the building.

Theydon occupies Flat 18 on the top floor, opposite the titular 17. Much to his surprise the man seen outside enters the building. By the sound of his footsteps Theydon deduces the stranger visits 17, the home of Edith, widow of Arthur Lester, for about five minutes, and then leaves.

Next day Theydon is off to dine with millionaire James Creighton Forbes to talk about the latter's campaign urging the peaceful use of airships. Not long before this engagement Theydon learns Mrs Lester was murdered the previous night. Yet another shock awaits him: Forbes turns out to be the man he saw outside the block of flats. And what's more, Theydon is followed home from Forbes' house by a mysterious grey car.

After being interviewed that evening by Chief Inspector James Leander Winter and Detective Inspector Charles Furneaux, an unlikely pair who appear to be constantly at each other's throats but are *far* shrewder than they seem, Theydon becomes involved willy nilly in their investigation of the murder and its ramifications.

And so the reader is off to the races with numerous twists and turns involving, among other things, an American tourist, a motorcycle chase, kidnappings, shots through windows, pea-sized ivory skulls -- and the return of the grey car.

My verdict: Number 17 might best be characterised as a mystery-thriller with a dash of romance. I liked the sparring police partners, straightforward Winter and imaginative Furneaux, who pop up unexpectedly all over the landscape. There's plenty of action and a bit of suspense and in fact as Furneaux remarks at one point, "Oh, it's a plot and a half, I can assure you", and indeed it is, Oscar, it is.

Etext: Number Seventeen by Louis Tracy

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Review: At the Villa Rose by A. E. W. Mason

by Mary

Middle-aged Julius Ricardo is on holiday at Aix-les-Bains. One evening at the casino he notices Celia Harland, beautiful companion to wealthy Madam Camille Dauvray. Rescued from starvation, and probably worse, by her kind-hearted employer, Miss Harland is now romantically involved with rich young Englishman Harry Wethermill. Both men are staying at the Hotel Majestic, and next morning Wethermill bursts into Ricardo's room with the news Madam Dauvray has been murdered at the Villa Rose, her confidante and maid Helene Vauquier bound and chloroformed, and Miss Harland, madam's car, and all her extremely valuable jewelry are gone. Wethermill insists Inspector Hanaud of the Paris Surete, also holidaying in the town, aid the local authorities with their investigation, not least in finding the missing girl, even though he appears to be the only person who believes her innocent of the terrible crime.

My verdict: Several undercurrents swirl about the villa and red herrings abound. Was the young woman using her skill as a faux medium to hoodwick her employer and if so, why? How was a vital witness killed in a cab which did not stop in its journey between station and hotel? What can be deduced from a pair of cushions? The identity of the murderer is well concealed. There are clews for readers to spot as they go along, but I missed most of them!

Etext: At the Villa Rose by A. E. W. Mason