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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Movie: The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance


The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance
Based on characters created by Louis Joseph Vance
1941


Quite a wild ride, this installment of The Lone Wolf series. At times it felt like someone had taken a few Three Stooges shorts and spliced them together, replaced Moe, Larry and Curly with The Lone Wolf, aka Michael Lanyard, and his valet Jamieson, and tossed in some mystery elements. Which is not a criticism, mind you. As wacky and chaotic as this one was I actually liked it quite a bit.

Things get underway with a great comic scene involving a cat, a necklace and our pair of protagonists. It has little bearing on what follows but that's alright. Before long a kidnapping is tossed into the mix and there's a murder right outside Lanyard's apartment. There's a little more to the latter crime than what I've said but I won't spoil it by elaborating. In any event, circumstances combine to point the finger at Lanyard for the murder and he takes it upon himself to do some detecting in order to save his neck.

Turns out it all has to do with a gang of baddies who are trying to get their hands on some engraving plates used to print money. Hence the kidnapping of an inventor who came up with a high-security train car to ship the plates. Lanyard and Jamieson find themselves on the train but the bad guys succeed in convincing the police that they're upstanding citizens, to Lanyard's detriment.

After our heroes narrowly escape the police the action moves to an old dark house where the criminals have holed up and things take a decidedly Stooge-like turn. The crooks slip off yet again and this time Lanyard must charter a private plane to chase down the train and finally bring them to justice.

Of the three Lone Wolf movies I've seen thus far I'd venture to say that this was the most overtly comical of the bunch. It contains a lot of gags that would qualify as just plain slapstick and yet there's still an element of suspense to the proceedings, right in the midst of all the silliness. Look for Lloyd Bridges as the inventor, in one of his earliest movie roles.

For another perspective on this one, try this article at TCM's site. As it notes, this was the fifth of nine Lone Wolf movies for star Warren William, who previously played such roles as Philo Vance and Perry Mason.

Here's what the New York Times reviewer had to say about it back in the day.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Death on Demand, by Carolyn G. Hart


Death on Demand
by Carolyn G. Hart
1987


If you don't like authors who name drop mysteries they've read then you need to run screaming from Death on Demand, should you ever happen to encounter it. Given that Carolyn Hart's protagonist is the owner of a mystery bookshop on a South Carolina island that caters to the tourist trade, this is not as off-putting as it might sound. Granted, it seems that the author name drops at least once, and often quite a bit more, on every one of the two hundred-plus pages, but for this type of book it works and it was actually kind of fun. Hart either knows her mystery history very will or she's great at faking it. I suspect the former.

The author has written nearly two dozen installments of the Death on Demand series in all. One can't help wondering how things play out twenty books into it but I found this book, the first in the series, to be rather entertaining, for the most part.

The owner of the Death on Demand bookstore is one Annie Laurance Darling, who hosts a weekly Sunday night gathering of mystery writers at the store. That so many popular and successful mystery writers should reside on one remote South Carolina island is a bit much to swallow but we'll chalk that one up to dramatic license. When one of the group claims to have dug up some dirt on each of his authorial colleagues he is bumped off forthwith, in a manner that fans of old-school mysteries will applaud, and more murders are not far behind.

The local Sheriff zeroes in on Darling as the most likely culprit, but she's not having any of that and proceeds to go into amateur detective mode, along with her ex-flame, who has recently turned up again to complicate her life. While I could do without romantic subplots, as a rule, this aspect was toned down to the point that it didn't really interfere with the story much.

Darling is actually no great shakes when it comes to the amateur detection thing and she makes a number of blunders along the way that don't really help her cause. She and ex-flame Max zero in on the other writers in the group and manage to sort it out by the time it's all said and done. In the best tradition of GAD mystery fiction there are plenty of maps, charts and lists to help the reader keep track of it all.

Judging from how many times her name was dropped throughout I'd hazard a guess that Hart's favorite author is Agatha Christie. While I'd never go so far as to use that dirty publisher's trick of calling her a worthy successor to Christie, I'd venture to say that she's come up with a fitting tribute to the old-school style of mystery, as practiced by Christie and others.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Movie - The Lone Wolf Strikes


The Lone Wolf Strikes
Based on characters created by Louis Joseph Vance
1940


Delia...it's been nice not seeing you in the past few days. (Michael Lanyard, The Lone Wolf)

A jewel theft is the crime du jour in this installment of The Lone Wolf series. The culprits and methods are pretty well laid out early on and so there's not a whole lot of whodunit action this time around. But it's an entertaining way to spend about an hour nonetheless and there are a few interesting twists thrown in later in the proceedings.

When a wealthy banker lets a young, attractive lady friend wear an expensive string of pearls she takes this as an opportunity to do the old switcheroo. Not long after the banker dies in a suspicious car crash and his partner comes to see The Lone Wolf, aka Michael Lanyard, to get the jewels back and bring the thieves to justice. Given Lanyard's background working on the wrong side of the law he's uniquely qualified to sort it all out.

For a more in-depth look at The Lone Wolf in fiction and film, try out this article at TCM. For another take, here's a review from a fan site dedicated to star Warren William.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hallmark's Mystery Movies


If you haven't noticed, the Hallmark Movie Channel currently airs reruns of Matlock and Murder, She Wrote. Over the years they've also produced a number of installments of various mystery series at movie length. I wrote about two of these recently, in a piece that appeared at the Criminal Element site.

Most of us probably know Hallmark as the greeting card people, but if your cable TV lineup extends beyond the basic selections you may have noticed that somewhere higher up there in the channel range is a creature known as the Hallmark Movie Channel. While Hallmark’s not going to give Hollywood a run for their money anytime soon, they do generate quite a few original movies, including nearly 250 Hallmark Hall of Fame titles alone over the course of several decades.

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Movie: The Ex-Mrs. Bradford



The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
From a story by James Edward Grant
1936


Brad's very quick. Nothing escapes him. Except the murderer. (Paula Bradford)

After taking a crack at Philo Vance in The Kennel Murder Case, in 1933, William Powell took up the role of Nick Charles in The Thin Man a year later and in five sequels over the course of the next thirteen years. Amongst all of that activity he also found time to play Dr. Lawrence Bradford in the comic mystery, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.

As things get underway Bradford is drawn into the investigation of the murder of a jockey, while also dealing with the ramifications of the sudden and unexpected return of his ex-wife. A few more murders break out along the way, Bradford gets roughed up on more than one occasion, and the couple end up coming to a truce and reuniting.

As for the mystery elements, one could safely say that the method used for the murder is kind of gimmicky and more than a bit farfetched. The method Bradford uses to nail the murderer also stretches credibility a bit, as he calls on resources that seem far above what he would have access to. But such considerations are probably secondary when it comes to this type of screwballish mystery.

Fans of comic mystery cinema should note that Eric Blore, who plays Bradford's butler Stokes, turned up playing a similar role in a number of installments of The Lone Wolf series. Hildegarde Withers fans will surely recognize James Gleason, who played her foil, Inspector Piper, in all six of the Withers films from the Thirties. His portrayal of Inspector Corrigan here is essentially more of the same, albeit with the gruffness factor turned down a few notches.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Three for the Chair, by Rex Stout


Three for the Chair
by Rex Stout
1957


I don’t like the slant of your eye. If you're thinking of badgering me, don't. Go somewhere. (Nero Wolfe, to Archie Goodwin)

My game plan was to skip over the few volumes I missed the first time through the Nero Wolfe canon and go through the entire list again, this time in order. So much for those best-laid plans. Since I ran across one of the unread volumes at my local bookstore I decided to give it a whirl. I wouldn't say that Three for the Chair is one of Stout's strongest outings but it had its moments.

A Window for Death
My main quibble with this one was the pacing. The first half of the story finds Wolfe and the principals in the (murder) case sitting in Wolfe's office, discussing the case. While I'm not expecting the pacing of a Die Hard movie it got to be a bit much. Fortunately the second half picks up a bit and Stout throws in something fairly ingenious - but enough said about that.

Immune to Murder
In this one Wolfe gets out of the brownstone to attend a gathering of the rich and powerful at a lodge in upstate New York. One of the diplomats visiting there has requested that Wolfe attend and execute his famous recipe for fresh trout. Things proceed quite nicely until one of the other attendees is bumped off and Wolfe springs into action - more so that he can get home than out of any sense of duty. As you can see from the accompanying clip this is one of the stories made into an episode for the most recent Nero Wolfe TV series (FYI - I haven't reviewed the clip for spoilers).

Too Many Detectives
I'd rank this as the best of the bunch, probably because the fat man and Archie have a strong interest in resolving the crime that drives it. Wolfe and a number of other private detectives have been called to Albany for questioning about their role in some potentially illegal wiretapping activities. While they're being questioned a somewhat bold crime is committed, Wolfe ends up in hot water and must rally his fellow detectives to get things sorted out.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Top 11 Mystery Books for 2011



I'm jumping the gun a bit and it may be necessary to do an update or two in the next few weeks but here is my Best of List for 2011, as it stands now. In my estimation the first four books on the list are a cut above the others. Other than that the list is in no particular order.

I didn’t put together a best of list for mystery movies that I saw this year, but in that category I'd give a special shout out to the Hildegarde Withers movies, as adapted from the works of Stuart Palmer. Of these, my favorites were Murder on a Blackboard and Murder on a Honeymoon, the second and third installments of the series of six. If you keep an eye on Turner Classic Movies you'll probably run across them before long.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Sabina Hall, by L.B. Greenwood (1988)
The Second Confession, by Rex Stout (1949)
The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore (2010)
The Dime Museum Murders, by Daniel Stashower (1999)

Nine Man's Murder, by Eric Keith (2011)
A Dark and Stormy Night, by Jeanne Dams (2010)
Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter, by Barry Grant (2010)
The Magic Bullet, by Larry Millett (2011)
Christmas Is Murder, by C.S. Challinor (2008)
Hercule Poirot's Christmas, by Agatha Christie (1939)
The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, by James Anderson (1981)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Movie - Mr. and Mrs. North



Mr. and Mrs. North
Based on characters created by Frances and Richard Lockridge
1942


Lieutenant Weigand, could you possibly find the murderer by Friday? (Pamela North)

I tried to read one of Frances and Richard Lockridge's Mr. and Mrs. North novels a little while back and I lost interest not too far in. Since watching this movie I've decided to give their fiction another shot.

What I find a bit odd is that Dashiell Hammett's solitary Thin Man book spawned six movies. Stuart Palmer's detective Hildegarde Withers appeared in about a dozen and a half books and wound up on the big screen seven times. As for Mr. and Mrs. North they only made it to film once, even though their adventures were chronicled in more than two dozen novels.

The movie could probably have been called just Mrs. North and no one would have objected. Gracie Allen is a bit before my time but I gather that she specialized in playing ditzy dames not unlike this incarnation of Pamela North. Allen steals the show here and William Post's role as Gerry North is pretty much relegated to that of straight man and suspect.

The problems start when the Norths come home one day to find a stiff stashed in a closet. As the story unfolds there are more and more bits of evidence uncovered that cast suspicion upon Mr. North. Of course, his devoted wife is not about to take this lying down, although at one point even her faith in him seems to waver a bit.

In the tradition of Lt. Columbo, James Anderson's Inspector Wilkins, and probably quite a few more I can' t think of right now, Pam North is one of those crime solvers who doesn't exactly inspire confidence but who does a great deal to figure out the whole mess before it's all over. If you haven't guessed it already things are played mostly for laughs here and there's a great running gag about a Fuller Brush salesman who actually has some information the police need but keeps getting tossed out on his you know what because everyone assumes he's just trying to make a buck.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Dime Museum Murders, by Daniel Stashower


The Dime Museum Murders
by Daniel Stashower
1999


Our investigation is at yet in its earliest stages, but we've managed to rule out homicidal orangutans. (Lieutenant Murray)

A locked room murder with Harry Houdini as an amateur detective? Well, sign me up for that one.

My intense fascination with the exploits of Harry Houdini probably began to fade at some point around age ten. Which was a few decades ago. But there's apparently still some residue of that fascination left even to this day and so when I ran across Daniel Stashower's The Dime Museum Murders at my local library I did not hesitate.

I'm not sure what to make of the retrofitting of real-life people to make it seem that they were amateur detectives but in this particular case I was willing to suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride. The tale is told some years after Harry Houdini's death and the premise is that his brother Dash is relating the story to a newspaper reporter.

Dash is the sensible, level-headed brother, which is a good thing since he serves to keep Harry grounded. Stashower's portrayal of Harry Houdini is an interesting one as he's not a particularly likeable or even sympathetic character. In the time period covered by Dash's reminiscences it's early in Harry's career and he has yet to become the sensational escape artist who would later go on to capture the world's attention.

The Harry Houdini of this story is a driven man who remains convinced of his greatness even though he is scraping by, working as a magician and doing whatever else he needs to do in traveling shows and in a dime museum (think circus sideshow) in New York City. Because he spends a fair amount of time in their jail cells, practicing his escapes, Harry is rather well-known to the police and so is called upon to assist when a toy magnate is found in his locked (from the inside) study, with an odd little gadget known as an automaton on his desk.

Harry is called in to consult only because of his knowledge regarding automatons, but when a toy shop owner and good friend of the brothers is arrested for the crime, Harry drags Dash into a full-scale amateur investigation. Stashower throws in some interesting twists and turns along the way and the solution of the locked room murder is actually a rather clever one that shouldn't leave any reader feeling as though they've been cheated.

Although the brothers eventually solve the crime you could make the argument that Harry is not a particularly shrewd detective and Stashower keeps up a nice running gag wherein at one time or another Harry wrongly points the finger of suspicion at nearly everyone connected in any way with the case.

Highly recommended, even to those who didn't spend their early years as an avid Harry Houdini fan.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Movie: Murder on a Honeymoon


Murder on a Honeymoon
From a story by Stuart Palmer
1935


I never look at a corpse on an empty stomach. (Inspector Oscar Piper)

The worst thing about the movie appearances of Stuart Palmer's amateur detective Hildegarde Withers is that there weren't enough of them, especially the ones starring Edna May Oliver, who played the role in three of the six installments.

This time around Oliver and James Gleason, who played the crabby Inspector Piper in all of the Withers movies, really hit their stride, following Penguin Pool Murder, the series opener, and Murder on a Blackboard, the second film. The comic antics seem to have been ramped up a few notches and I can't help wondering if it has anything to do with the fact that humorist Robert Benchley had a hand in the writing.

Things get underway with Miss Withers on a flight to a resort on Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California. Before the plane arrives one of her fellow passengers expires and it's not long before foul play is suspected. Though the Inspector is back in New York he finds out about the death and has access to information that suggests that Miss Withers might be in danger. Thus he must go west, which dispenses with the problem of how to get our crime-fighting duo together.

Once they do they proceed to untangle the complicated web of plot with the usual difficulties thrown in their way. Of course there's no shortage of the expected bickering and fussing with each other as well. Oscar the grouch is typically gruff and somewhat clueless and its Miss Withers who once again does much of the actual crime solving.

There's only one more of the Withers movies that I haven't seen and then that well will be dry. But it looks like Turner Classic Movies is planning a marathon of Thin Man movies later this month so all hope is not lost in classic comic mystery land.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fer-De-Lance, by Rex Stout


Fer-De-Lance
By Rex Stout
1934


There was no reason why I shouldn't have been sent for the beer that day, for the last ends of the Fairmont National Bank case had been gathered in the week before and there was nothing for me to do but errands, and Wolfe never hesitated about running me down to Murray Street for a can of shoe-polish if he happened to need one.
(Opening line of Fer-De-Lance, the first Nero Wolfe novel)

In 2010 and early 2011 I read through most of the Nero Wolfe canon, though I came up about nine books short. I also read a handful of the post-Rex Stout novels written by Robert Goldsborough. Rather than seek out the nine books that I have yet to read I decided to give the Wolfe books another go, this time working my way through the series in order.

Which brought me to Fer-De-Lance, the one that started it all. I have to admit that I had some misgivings about re-reading these books but since the Wolfe books are as much about the characters and their interactions as they are about the whodunit aspect that didn't turn out to be much of an issue. Especially since I don't always have the greatest memory for the assorted and sundry details of plot in a book I first read over a year ago.

You may or may not know what a fer-de-lance is. As I recall, I didn't before reading this book. I won't spill the beans for those who don't but it wouldn't be that much of a spoiler. It's fairly early on that Wolfe works out the clever method by which the murder that drives this book is committed. It's not all that much further before he also determines who the killer is. From there it's just a matter of digging up enough dirt to make things stick.

This being the first book of the series, there were a few things missing that tended to turn up in many, if not most, of the later novels and novellas. One of the most notable, and it obviously has to do with the fact that the crime is committed out of town, is that the long-suffering Inspector Cramer is nowhere to be found. Saul Panzer and some of the other regular operatives are on hand as is one who apparently fell by the wayside before long - the name escapes me at the moment. Also worth noting, Archie apparently has yet to develop that amazing recall of his and at one point even has to go so far as looking up a phone number that he called not all that long ago. And there is no gathering together of the principals in the case for one of Wolfe's grand and theatrical summations.

Fer-De-Lance is also a lot longer than many of the Wolfe novels, as it clocks in at nearly three hundred pages. For me, it seems that the shorter books and novellas seem to work better for the most part but this one didn't really seem to suffer much from its added bulk.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Movie: The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady



The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady
Based on a character created by Joseph Louis Vance
1940


When a would-be jewel thief is killed the finger of suspicion points to the woman whose apartment he died in. She rushes into to the street and (no small coincidence here) encounters one Michael Lanyard, aka The Lone Wolf, who, along with his valet Jamison is trying to outrun a traffic cop.

The Lone Wolf is a somewhat renowned and rather dapper jewel thief. He and Jamison do the chivalrous thing and take the fair lady under their wing while trying to determine who perpetrated the crime. Another stiff turns up before it's all said and done and there's a fairly interesting twist regarding the necklace that started the whole mess.

Which makes for a pretty entertaining and quite lighthearted little piece of celluloid. About the only real drawback for me was Eric Blore, who tended to overplay his role as Jamison quite a bit. Three Stooges fans (guilty) will want to note that there's a brief walk-on by none other than Shemp Howard (see the accompanying video clip).

I wasn't familiar with The Lone Wolf prior to this viewing experience but there were actually more than two dozen films made from Vance's stories, the first of them all the way back in 1917. For a fairly thorough overview of The Lone Wolf's exploits, look here.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Shakespeare, Rex Stout and the Novella



Here's another one from the shameless self-promotion file. I recently published a mystery novella called Murder at Terra Vista Station. Even more recently I wrote a brief piece for Omnimystery News, in which I discuss my reasons for writing a novella, rather than a novel or a long short story.

My reasons for doing so have a lot to do with the inspiration provided by one of my favorite authors, Rex Stout, who actually published more Nero Wolfe novellas than novels. You can read the piece here, if you're so inclined.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Corpse Wore Tartan, by Kaitlyn Dunnett


The Corpse Wore Tartan
By Kaitlyn Dunnett
2010


It seems these days that most mysteries have to be about something. Which, at first glance, seems like kind of a boneheaded statement. What I mean to say is that it seems that we've been beset these days with a veritable epidemic of mysteries that fit into various narrowly defined specialty areas (White House gardener, flower shop owner and so on).

Kaitlyn Dunnett's books are about Scottish culture and heritage, which is a fine enough thing to be about, I suppose, and not nearly as flaky as some of the specialty mysteries currently making the rounds. The twist is that her amateur detective Liss MacCrimmon is the proprietor of Scottish-themed shop located in the small burg of Moosetookalook, Maine.

This looks to be the fifth volume in this series and I selected it from among the others because it uses a favorite premise of mine - the old tried and true device of gathering a bunch of characters in a remote location, stranding them (in this case because of a blizzard) and introducing foul and nefarious deeds into the proceedings.

As the Scottish Heritage Appreciation Society descends upon a nearby hotel for its annual meeting, one of a pair of twins gets himself knocked off and Liss and her cop friend Sherri Willett spring into action to try to figure out what happened. There's a key word in that last sentence that gives a pretty big clue as to how things are going to play out but that's as much as I'll say.

Not a bad one, all in all. I could have done with a little less of the romantic subplot, but that's just me.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks, by James Anderson


The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks
By James Anderson
2003


A cuff can mean a sort of slap on the head. Links are seaside golf courses. So we could surmise that the deceased lady once hit somebody on a golf course, and this was an act of revenge. (Inspector Wilkins)

You can't help feeling sorry for the residents of Alderley. It's the estate of George Henry Aylwin Saunders, the twelfth Earl of Burford, who lives there with his wife, his daughter Gerry, the butler Merryweather, and the usual assortment of household staff. These are surprisingly likable people, particularly when you stack them up against those upper-class English types so often found in other mystery novels.

You have to feel sorry for the Earl and family because in the last year or so they've been plagued by two rather high profile outbreaks of crime, each taking place during country house weekends attended by a wide variety of guests. In The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks a similar scenario is about to play itself out again.

Cufflinks is the last of Anderson's three Alderley books and in the real world there was a 28 year span between the events of the first one - The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy (1975) and this. In between readers were treated to the events that made up The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981).

Cufflinks features another gathering of the usual diverse cast of characters, but this time around they're not at Alderley for a party. One of the Earl's elderly relatives has recently died and requested to be buried in the family plot. For reasons of convenience, the Burfords have cautiously agreed to host a post-funeral gathering, followed by a reading of the will.

Which sounds simple enough and in theory it should all go relatively smoothly, but this being a James Anderson novel it's not long before murder breaks out and the plot thickens, weaves, twists and turns to the point that the reader may need a pill to fend off motion sickness. Of course, Inspector Wilkins is on hand to do the thing that he does, but this time around he seems not to be relying quite so much on his stupid cop act.

Of course, for fans of the Alderley books this is where the road ends, since Anderson passed on a few years after the publication of Cufflinks. It's been mentioned (in these pages and presumably elsewhere) that there's a fourth, unfinished Alderley book lying about somewhere, but time will only tell what the future holds in this area.

In the meantime I highly recommend that anyone with a love for old-school country house murder mysteries check out Anderson's work immediately, if not sooner.

Note: I reviewed a hardcover copy of the book, but the image of the audiobook was too good not to include here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Movie: The Plot Thickens


The Plot Thickens
from a story
by Stuart Palmer
1936


Now don't be anymore stupid than usual, Oscar.
(Hildegarde Withers)

The tone is light as Miss Withers and Inspector Oscar Piper team up again to solve a series of crimes. It starts with the murder of a wealthy man whose body is found in his study and leads to the attempted theft of a certain rare item from days of yore. The inspector barks and grumbles throughout, of course, while Withers does much of the heavy lifting as far as the detection goes. I didn't think this particular flick was so great as far as plot goes and there were some coincidences that were a bit hard to swallow but I don't think plotting is the primary appeal of these movies anyway.

It looks like there were a total of six Stuart Palmer adaptations produced during the Thirties. I've seen three, each with a different Hildegarde Withers. James Gleason apparently starred as Piper in all of them. The consensus seems to be that Edna May Oliver was the best Miss Withers and I won't argue that point. I also liked Helen Broderick, who took over the role for Murder on a Bridle Path. As for ZaSu Pitts, I'm not sure what other kind of roles she starred in but I don't think her ditzy approach to Withers quite did the trick. But it's worth a look even so.

For another take on this one, check out this review at MysteryFile or a contemporary one from the New York Times.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy, by James Anderson


The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy
By James Anderson
1975


But don't expect me to solve anything. I'm not sanguine, not sanguine at all. (Inspector Wilkins)

I'm not generally keen on re-reading books. There are too many books I'd like to read once to allot time to ones I've already read. So it's a measure of my esteem for James Anderson's country house mysteries that I took The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy out for another spin recently.

This all came about because I found out that Anderson wrote three of these books, rather than two, as I'd previously thought. After I'd gotten my hands on The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981), I decided I might as well revisit the first and third volumes of the series - The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy and The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks (2003).

Though the books were not written in the Golden Age of Detection, they might as well have been. They are all set in the 1930s, at the estate of one George Henry Aylwin Saunders, the twelfth Earl of Burford. Other regular players in the cast are the Earl's wife, his daughter Geraldine, and a very proper butler known as Merryweather. And then there's Inspector Wilkins, but more about him in a moment.

This time around the estate is playing host to some delicate and very important political negotiations, in which Lord Burford's diplomat brother is taking part. At the same time Lord Burford, who is quite an avid gun collector, is playing host to a wealthy American who also has a penchant for weaponry. All of which will be quite relevant, of course, when the stiffs start piling up.

At which point Inspector Wilkins appears on the scene. There may be another detective in the annals of crime-solving who's as seemingly inept and lacking in confidence as Wilkins (Lt. Columbo, perhaps), but he's probably pretty near the top of the heap as this sort of thing goes.

If you've read any of Anderson's books then you'll understand the futility of recapping his rather intricate plots, something I'm not going to do. Suffice to say that if you're looking for a bang-up country house mystery you'd do well to start here and then move on to the other two volumes.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin


Murder on the Leviathan
by Boris Akunin
1998


Shall we ever learn the true story behind this nightmarish and unfathomable case?

Boris Akunin's Murder on the Leviathan is the 2001: A Space Odyssey of mystery. No, I'm not smoking anything. Bear with me. If you've never seen the Kubrick/Clarke masterpiece, then what you need to know, for purposes of this analogy, is that structurally it's set up with a fairly dynamic series of opening sequences, followed by a lengthy and somewhat slow-moving middle section (that tends to put off some viewers) and then the whole affair closes with a bang, so to speak.

Ditto for Akunin's book. It opens in Paris in the aftermath of a particularly grim crime. Nine members of the household staff (including two armed guards) of a wealthy Englishman have been found in the same room, dead from a morphine overdose, while upstairs the master of the house has had his brains bashed in. Among the items missing, an immensely valuable statue of the Hindu god, Shiva, which is found at the bottom of a river a few days later.

Cut to the Leviathan, an ocean liner of titanic proportions that's bound for Bombay. On board is a not so likable French police detective named Gauche, who's convinced that the murderer is aboard. He has the most likely suspects assigned to his salon on board the ship so that he can keep a closer eye on them and the story is told round robin style from the POV of these suspects. Most notable among the suspects, a Russian diplomat named Erast Fandorin, whose presence becomes increasingly critical as time goes on.

As with 2001, this middle section can seem a bit slow-moving, in spite of some fairly significant happenings. But Akunin winds things up in bang-up fashion, with an old-school type summing up with a few nifty twists thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Burglar in the Library, by Lawrence Block


The Burglar in the Library
By Lawrence Block
1997


This could turn out to be a cross between The Mousetrap and Ten Little Indians. All that's missing is a body in the library.

If you wondered if the resemblance between Block's The Burglar in the Library and Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library is more than coincidental Block clears that up at various points throughout his book, including the quotation referenced above. While his book could be viewed almost as a parody of this type of work, he actually manages to turn out a pretty decent old school whodunit by the time it's all said and done. "Think Agatha Christie at Fawlty Towers" is the comparison Block makes at his web site, though it's perhaps not quite so madcap as that suggests.

This is number eight of ten in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series and this time the bookstore owner/burglar is stranded at an English country house - in upstate New York. He's gone there to spirit away a very valuable book (one that would be quite appealing to hardboiled fans, if it actually existed) but of course there's no way it can possibly be that simple.

As the guests are cut off from the outside world by a blizzard and the bodies start to pile up Bernie finds himself in the unlikely position - given that he is a burglar - of heading the effort to solve the murders. Which he does, for the most part, with everything being wrapped up pretty much in a satisfying manner.

I liked this book quite a bit but I have to admit that I picked it up primarily because of the country house/traditional mystery angle. I'm not sure if I'll be revisiting the Rhodenbarr series at any time soon, but that's mainly because there are so many other books of a traditional bent that I'm more keen to read.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Body in the Library, by Agatha Christie



The Body in the Library
by Agatha Christie
1941


He's gone down to the farm. Looking at pigs and things always soothes him if he's been upset.

It seems that in many of the mysteries I read the author tends to take a leisurely approach, setting the stage, introducing the characters and Lord knows what else before any crimes are actually committed. So it's kind of a nice change of pace when a crime is flung at the reader with almost no preamble, as in Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library.

The library in question belongs to the well-heeled Bantry family. The body is that of a young and attractive young woman and no one in the household seems to know who she is - or so they say. A gang of police spend a great deal of time and energy trying to determine how and why she got there and who did the dirty deed and there are quite a few twists and turns on the way. But it's ultimately Miss Jane Marple - whose presence throughout is comparatively low-key - who puts all the pieces together.

A body in the library might just be the ultimate cliché of the whodunit, but in Christie's hands its rises above all that. This one is certainly worth a look.

Movie: Murder in the Pullman

Murder in the Pullman
From a story by S.S Van Dine
1932


There's no Philo Vance to be found in this short whodunit from 1932. Just a gold-digger and her new husband who are on their way to New York. Also on board, the woman's freshly jilted ex and her current boyfriend, who is something of a shady character. A certain Inspector Carr and Dr. Crabtree also happen to be on board, which comes in handy when the woman is found strangled.

Not a bad effort, but it's somewhat hampered by the short run time (24 minutes) and the fact that there are really only three suspects.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Movie: I Love A Mystery

I Love A Mystery
The Decapitation of Jefferson Monk
1945




An updating of the popular radio series, this nifty piece finds a pair of detectives looking into the case of a wealthy socialite who's convinced he'll be killed in three days. Is there a shadowy Asian secret society a work? Ultimately it's all for naught as the man loses his head - literally - in an auto accident. Which is not a spoiler. The tale is told in flashback from this main event, with a few nice twists thrown in for good measure.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Death of a Cozy Writer, by G.M. Malliet


Death of a Cozy Writer
by G.M. Malliet
2008


From what he had seen of Mrs. Ketchen, he thought it unlikely she had any idea whether on any given day her employer was at home, pinned under a lorry, or planting gunpowder in the basement of Westminster.

The term "cozy" kind of rubs me the wrong way. I can't quite put my finger on why - there's just something about it. The fact that Malliet's Death of a Cozy Writer uses this particular term in its title is really my only quibble with the book, for which the author scored the 2008 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

The cozy writer in question, the wildly successful Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk, has summoned his four children to his manor house, presumably to tell them of his impending marriage. It should probably go without saying that they're a pretty dysfunctional bunch all around and Sir Adrian's new wife was accused and acquitted of killing her former husband, to boot.

Of course, there are a few murders, including the one that's pretty much telegraphed by the title, and Detective Chief Inspector St. Just and Sergeant Fear are brought in to make sense of it all. While there's probably nothing here that you haven't seen half a hundred times before in this sort of book, Malliet handles it all with such skill that I wouldn't begrudge her that Agatha Award.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, by James Anderson


The Affair of the Mutilated Mink
by James Anderson
1981


Never a week goes by without a nobleman being murdered in his library...or a don in his study, or an heiress in her bath.

A number of the mystery bloggers I follow focus on more traditional styles of mystery fiction. Not surprisingly, given their interests, they tend to zero in on certain authors who are under-appreciated nowadays. Some of the authors I've discovered thanks to their tireless cheerleading are William De Andrea, with his Matt Cobb mystery series; the many and varied historical mysteries of Paul Doherty; Paul Halter, the French author who apparently grabbed the torch once held by locked room master John Dickson Carr; and Herbert Resnicow.

To this august group of under-appreciated authors, I'd propose adding James Anderson. Though he apparently wrote quite a few works before his death in 2007, for my money the books that deserve to be remembered are his trio of country house mysteries. Which consist of The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy (1975), The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981) and The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks (2003).

If you figured that the country house mystery had its heyday sometime in the 1930s, well, you may actually be right. If you figured that no one's written a decent one since then you have to look no further than Anderson's books for proof to the contrary. Set in the 1930s, the events of the books play out at the estate of George Henry Aylwin Saunders, the twelfth Earl of Burford. Who's perhaps a bit dotty, but all in all is not a bad chap, as these rich, titled fellows who populate murder mysteries are concerned. The other main players in the immediate family and household are the Earl's formidable wife, his daughter Geraldine, or Gerry, and the exceedingly proper butler known as Merryweather.

Since these are country house mysteries, there are, of course, a rotating cast of visitors, victims, suspects and law enforcement. In this volume there are a high proportion of movie industry people, including a successful producer scouting the house as a possible location for a shoot and one of his biggest stars, who's come along to butter up the Burfords.

Before long someone shuffles from this mortal coil - with a little assistance, of course. Which is about all I have to say about the plot. If you've ever read one of Anderson's books you'll know why. They are brimming over with a ridiculous number of clues and red herrings and I hope it's not too much of a spoiler to say that in one of Anderson's novels almost nothing is what it seems.

Like Inspector Wilkins, for instance, who appears to be about the dimmest bulb in the lamp store. But is he really? Hmmm. This time around he has some assistance, after a fashion, from Scotland Yard, though things don't play out in quite the way you might expect.

You could call Anderson's books pastiches or knockoffs or who knows what else, but I'd venture to say that tribute is probably the best term to describe what he's done to the country house mystery sub-genre.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Last House-Party, by Peter Dickinson


The Last House-Party
by Peter Dickinson
1982


I finished The Last House-Party a few weeks ago and I'm still not sure what I think about it. I found it to be very well written but ultimately I don't think it was quite my type of book. The back cover of my paperback edition bills it as a whodunit, but even though it contains some elements of mystery I don't think that description quite hits the mark.

I'd venture to say that, at least in this book (the only Dickinson I've read) the writing is closer to what you might call literary - and yes, I realize that that can be something of a loaded word. Dickinson proceeds in rather a leisurely style and even though the elements of mystery are fairly intriguing, they seem at times to almost be beside the point.

The last house party of the title took place in the Thirties, some four decades prior to the present day setting of the novel. Both threads of the narrative take place at the Snailwood estate, which was renowned for gathering high-ranking politicians and other luminaries for a series of legendary soirees. Part of the mystery deals with who might have committed a rather repellent crime during this final gathering and how it ties in with the demise of a fabulous mechanical clock that hasn't worked since that weekend.

All of which is left somewhat up in the air and might not appeal to readers to like things tied up in a nice neat package. But if you'd like something that takes a somewhat different approach to the standard mystery this might be worth a look.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Movie: Murder on the Blackboard


Murder on the Blackboard
From a story by Stuart Palmer
1934


Amateur snoop Hildegarde Withers teams up with Inspector Oscar Piper in yet another adaption of a work by Stuart Palmer. This time around a music teacher is knocked off in the very same schoolhouse where Miss Withers teaches and where much of the action of the movie takes place. As always, things are played for laughs and the crime-solving duo waste no opportunity to take digs at each other as they navigate the many twists and turns that finally lead them to the solution of the case.

I've only caught one other of the half dozen or so Withers flicks but I've got a few more queued up, thanks to the good people at TCM. I'm looking forward to checking them out.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

And on the Eighth Day, by Ellery Queen


And on the Eighth Day
by Ellery Queen
1964


Wow.

I'm not sure where to start. I should point out that I've read and enjoyed a handful of Ellery Queen novels thus far. I recently reviewed The Perfect Crime and gave it high marks.

So it's not that I have anything against Ellery Queen. Which is perhaps a bit beside the point, since this book was apparently ghostwritten by Avram Davidson (who is better known for his SF and fantasy), under the direction of Dannay and Lee, the writing partners who were Ellery Queen.

It took me a long time to get through this one, since I had to set it aside several times. The first hiatus was for several weeks. The second one was not quite as long. At no time did I actually fling the book across the room - though I probably thought about it. Which is to say that I really didn't like this book - not at all. I'm not going to go too deeply into my reasons, as a brief summing up should do it.

To put it in a nutshell, the book is set in World War II (though it was published in 1964) and Ellery has just finished some scriptwriting work to support the war effort. While driving home, he's stranded in the California desert and comes across a religious cult who have had little contact with the outside world for over a century and who all speak as though they've just stepped from the pages of the King James Bible. They've experienced almost no crime over the course of the last few decades, but within days of Ellery arriving someone is bumped off.

Which sounds like it could make for a pretty decent whodunit and perhaps it might have, if whoever had final cut had insisted that the major characters be something more than the most rudimentary cardboard cutouts. And if the arcane dialogue had been dispensed with. And if the completely overblown melodrama had been dialed back about 12-15 notches. And if the crime and solution had been something more than a fairly by the numbers snoozer. And if there hadn't been two fairly significant twists at the end of the book that were so dorky that I actually groaned aloud. And if Chapter Seven hadn't consisted of the following words and nothing more, "Ellery wept."

Ouch.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Perfect Crime, by Ellery Queen


The Perfect Crime
by Ellery Queen
1942


When I started reading this Ellery Queen book I had another Ellery Queen (And On The Eighth Day) on my To Be Read stack. I'd started it a while back, got fed up and put it aside. I found that book to be something of a slog, to say the least, but I whipped through The Perfect Crime in no time at all.

The only information I can find about this book is that it's supposedly a novelization of a 1941 movie called Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime. The Pyramid paperback I read is dated 1968 with a copyright of 1942 and mentions nothing about it being a novelization. I'm not really sure what the score is but in any event it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book.

To start with a very mild spoiler, it's pretty obvious to any reader that Ellery is going to hash things out before it's all over and thus the crime is not actually a perfect one. But I quibble. What actually happens concerns a tycoon who has ruined a number of his investors due to some shady business practices. One of those investors just happens to live next door, a fact that comes into play when the tycoon is found dead in his study, having apparently shot himself.

Which is exactly what happened, of course, and everyone accepts this as gospel truth and the book ends there.

But I jest. Of course, Ellery (or anyone else with a grain of sense) isn’t buying the suicide explanation and he springs into action, attempting to sort out exactly what happened. I won't go into much detail for fear of spoiling, except to note that there's a monkey on hand, that naturally the reader is provided with a map to help keep tabs on things, and that this compact novel zipped right along at a nice clip and is well worth a look.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Death on Allhallowe'en, by Leo Bruce


Death on Allhallowe'en
By Leo Bruce
1970


At some point before I started this site I tackled a book by Leo Bruce. Since I can't recall if I finished it I'm assuming it didn't leave much of an impact. Fortunately Death on Allhallowe'en was rather more memorable. It looks to be about number 20 of some 23 books in Bruce's Carolus Deene series.

There are certain books that I'd describe as workmanlike - and I don't mean that in a bad way. E.X. Giroux's A Death For Adonis fits the bill and so does Death on Allhallowe'en. I've read several books by Catherine Aird and I'd also put them in this category. Workmanlike, in this case, referring to detectives who are not particularly flashy or distinguished and who make their way to the solution of a crime in a methodical manner.

Which is exactly how Deene proceeds when he's summoned by a friend in the clergy to the small town of Clibburn, a place that's clannish and not very welcoming to outsiders. Strange things may be going on in and around Clibburn. A boy has died, possibly as a result of his involvement in unsavory Satanic rites. After Deene arrives there's a high-profile killing, and though he's not exactly welcome around these parts he still manages to get it all sorted out.

While reading this I couldn't help being reminded of The Wicker Man, particularly in matters of tone and atmosphere. Interesting, since the book said to be the inspiration for that movie - David Pinner's Ritual - was published three years before Bruce's book, with the movie following in 1973.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Magic Bullet, by Larry Millett


The Magic Bullet
by Larry Millett
2011


I've decided to add more locked room mysteries to my reading list in upcoming months. To kick things off I thought I'd start with one that's just been published and then move on to some of the classic works. I'm not sure how many writers are working in this particular sub-genre these days but Millett has come up with one that I'd rank right up there in terms of overall story. As for the locked room aspect, I'm not real well versed in that area, but I'd venture to say that this was a decent one.

Millett has written a number of books thus far in which Minneapolis saloonkeeper Shadwell Rafferty and Sherlock Holmes team up to solve crimes. I haven't read any of the others and it sounds like a weirdo premise, but in this particular case Holmes plays a relatively small role and he is offstage the entire time, communicating with Rafferty by mail.

The story takes place in 1917, in Minneapolis, at a time when the city is being disrupted by various anti-war and labor agitators. Against this backdrop we are presented with the locked room murder of one Artemus Dodge, a paranoid tycoon who has barricaded himself inside a penthouse suite consisting of office and apartment, a setup which would give most bank vaults a run for their money.

I'm normally a bit reluctant to take on any mystery that runs longer than 300 pages (or even 200, for that matter). As I've noted before, brevity is an excellent quality for most works in the genre, but Millett manages to confound my theory with a work that totals 347 pages and doesn't waste any of them. Yes, the solution to the crime is a bit convoluted and requires many pages to explain, but isn't that pretty much the point of these exercises?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Keeper of the Keys, by Earl Derr Biggers


Keeper of the Keys
by Earl Derr Biggers
1932


I'm not completely sure what I expected as I set out to try a Charlie Chan novel, the first one I've read. I've never seen any of the movies and yet had somehow built up an image of a rather goofy Chinese detective speaking awful pidgin English and spouting quaint homilies lifted from a fortune cookie.

I couldn't have been farther off the mark, except for those homilies, and quite frankly Biggers might have gone a little bit over the top in that particular area. But that's a minor quibble. There is actually another Chinese character who's integral to this book and he does speak awful pidgin English, but Chan is articulate and mild-mannered and yet a rather formidable opponent for anyone who attempts to cross him.

The story takes place at Lake Tahoe, in winter, which is quite a novelty for the Hawaiian detective. He's been called there to tackle a fairly mundane job but when he arrives at the lakefront house he finds his employer has called together the current husband of his ex-wife, an opera singer, as well as two of her other ex-husbands. The opera singer turns up before long and not so long after that she turns up dead, shot to death in an upstairs room.

From here on out Chan works hand in hand with the local sheriff, who admits that he's not really qualified to do this sort of thing, and the sheriff's retired father who preceded him as sheriff. Together they manage to sort it all out and while the crime and solution were nothing terribly exceptional the entire package was sufficiently well constructed to make for quite a page-turner.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Movie: Murder 101 - Locked Room Mystery


Murder 101: Locked Room Mystery
Written by Walter Klenhard
2008


It's the best TV movie that stars Dick Van Dyke and features a locked room murder. I guarantee it.

But seriously. The Hallmark Channel turned out four of the Murder 101 movies between 2006 and 2008. This was the third one. They starred Van Dyke as criminology professor Dr. Jonathan Maxwell and his son Barry Van Dyke as an ex-cop who now works as a private investigator. Various other members of the Van Dyke clan turn up in the movies - a total of four of them are featured in this episode.

The setting this time around is a popular new age center headed by a messianic healer named Samuel (I didn't catch his last name - perhaps it wasn't given). He is fairly likeable and down to Earth as these messianic healer types go. The locked room murder - Samuel is shot - takes place in a sealed meditation chamber. There are only two keys and both are held by inhabitants of the chamber. When the door is broken down Samuel's four pupils are in such a deep trance that blanks fired from a policeman's gun elicit no response.

All of which could have made for a decent enough locked room mystery. Things proceeded in a relatively entertaining fashion for a TV movie, but the major drawback was the solution to the murder. I'm no expert on locked room crimes but I'd have to rank the solution to this one as a flat-out cheat.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Nine - And Death Makes Ten, by Carter Dickson


Nine - And Death Makes Ten
By Carter Dickson
1940


John Dickson Carr is known for many things, but one of the things I like best about the dozen or so of his books that I've read is the sense of atmosphere he's able to create. He does this to great effect - at least at first - in the unfortunately titled Nine - And Death Makes Ten.

It's early in World War II and a group of nine passengers are making their way across the Atlantic on an ocean liner designed to carry many more people. It's a dicey time to be making such a voyage, given the likelihood of being picked off by enemy submarines. A chance that's only enhanced by the fact that the ship is carrying a cargo of military equipment.

You might not be surprised to find out that before long a murder takes place. Not long after, and fairly well into the book, the ninth of the ship's passengers is revealed - it's none other than Sir Henry Merrivale. Whose buffoonish mannerisms pretty much shoot that whole oppressive atmosphere thing in the foot. Before it's all said and done there are more murders and the explanation of the rather complex crimes takes up a considerable chunk of the book.

As I noted recently in a review of the movie version of The Dragon Murder Case, featuring Philo Vance, it's a whole lot of fuss and bother to go to just to bump someone off, especially on an ocean liner where you could probably just push them over the rail, with no one being the wiser. But if you're reading these intricate GAD puzzle mysteries you're probably not a real stickler for realism. I'm sure not.

For some additional perspective, see what Puzzle Doctor had to say about this one.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Death For Adonis, by E.X. Giroux


A Death For Adonis
By E.X. Giroux
1984


A sculptor's model is found dead. To add insult to mortal injury, he's also been chopped to pieces. What's left of him is found in the arms of the artist who was sculpting him, in a house where everyone else has been drugged. The sculptor is judged insane and is shuttled off to an institution, where he spends the next several decades in a catatonic trance. Enter barrister Robert Forsythe, who's retained by the sculptor's niece to look into this very cold case. The hope is that he'll be able to clear her uncle's name.

I wasn't able to find much information on E.X. Giroux, aside from the fact that it's the pen name for one Doris Shannon, who turned out ten novels between 1984 and 1993 chronicling Forsythe's exploits.

As I've noted before, I tend to not be very systematic when reading the works of any particular author. But in this case I lucked out, given that A Death For Adonis is the first of the Forsythe books. It's also quite a page-turner, if I do say so myself. I tend to favor brevity when it comes to mysteries and this one comes through, clocking in at a mere 149 pages and whipping by in what seemed like no time at all.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Second Confession, by Rex Stout


The Second Confession
By Rex Stout
1949


I've noticed something as I've been reading my way through most of the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe stories and a handful of the Robert Goldsborough knockoffs. The stories in which Wolfe has a personal interest in the case he's working on tend to be more interesting than those in which he's just trying to collect a fee. Which is all that he's trying to do at the beginning of The Second Confession.

As things get rolling Wolfe has been called upon by a captain of industry to confirm that his daughter's boyfriend is a card-carrying Communist. Once upon a time this was the kind of thing that was considered to be pretty serious stuff. Archie is dispatched to do the legwork, engages in a couple of legally and ethically dicey actions to further that end and lo and behold, the plot thickens, with a certain party hitting Wolfe where it really hurts. I won't go into it much further than this, except to say that this is the second novel of a trilogy (of sorts) in which high-powered gangster Arnold Zeck plays a role. The final volume - In the Best Families - pulls out all the stops, but this one ain't so shabby either.

Which isn't much of a review, when you come right down to it, but in the interest of not spoiling things I'll just say that this made for some good reading and would probably be even better if you read the three Zeck books in order, something that I didn't do.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Faked To Death, by Dean James


Faked To Death
by Dean James
2003


You could argue that Shakespeare and other great poets of yesteryear elevated the writing of sonnets to a fine art, one that may never be surpassed. I'm no expert on that sort of thing but I'll bet that even today there are people turning out pretty decent sonnets. Which is a somewhat gawky way to make the point that even though our forefathers and foremothers from the Golden Age mined out many of the major veins of classic/traditional mystery fiction there's no reason why someone can't pen a good one in a similar style nowadays.

Take Dean James, for example. I was a little leery of picking up Faked to Death, the second of four Simon Kirby-Jones mysteries, because of the fact that the protagonist is a vampire and I'm really, really over that whole vampire thing. It seemed a bit gimmicky but I forged on and found out that Simon is actually a gay vampire who writes history, ghostwrites mysteries and dabbles in amateur detective work on the side.

The fact of the matter is that Simon being gay or being a vampire doesn't have much of a bearing on what happens in the book. He could just as easily have been a straight plumber or a bisexual werewolf who carves duck decoys for a living without having any significant effect on the events as set forth by James.

Said events are laid out in the form of a country house weekend murder mystery, with a slight twist. Being that the principals have gathered for a writer's conference being hosted by one Lady Hermione Kinsale. They are mostly mystery writers and are a somewhat motley and dysfunctional group - what a surprise. Of course, it's not long before someone's gotta go and Simon and his assistant Giles promptly spring into action, trying to solve the crime while staying on the good side of the police.

Worth a look, for sure.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, by Paul Gilbert


Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra
By Paul Gilbert
2010


My foray into the world of Sherlock Holmes knockoffs continues, in spite of the fact that I haven't read the Arthur Conan Doyle works yet. My understanding is that the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra was alluded to in one of the Doyle stories but not much in the way of details were given. Which has led people like Paul Gilbert to speculate as to what exactly the circumstances of this case might have been.

With pretty decent results, if I do say so myself. It gets underway when a ship, the Matilda Briggs, is found drifting in a London dock with no one aboard but a dying cabin boy. Things get a little more complicated when Holmes and Watson are visited by the son of a great explorer who has recently been traveling in Sumatra and various other parts of Asia.

A good chunk of the book is in the form of letters from the father to the son but to say much more would be to take a chance on spoiling things. Suffice to say that Gilbert puts forth an interesting explanation as to how this famous case played out and we'll leave it at that.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Plot It Yourself, by Rex Stout



Plot It Yourself

By Rex Stout

1959




In Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels much is made of the detective's reluctance to leave his home on business. it's a trait that Rex Stout uses to good effect on those rare occasions when the fat man actually does get up and leave the house to tend to a business matter. This plays out in somewhat less dramatic fashion in Plot It Yourself than in some of the other novels. What's much more dramatic, this time around, is when Wolfe, frustrated with his performance on the case, swears off beer and meat until everything is straightened out.



It all has to do with a series of plagiarism cases that are being brought against high-profile authors. Given the way that each of these cases plays out it's become apparent that they're a scam that's being masterminded by the same person. So a group of the aggrieved decide to turn to Wolfe to figure it out. That's also about the time that several of the players in this drama - the ones who asserted that their works were plagiarized - start getting bumped off, presumably by the person who dreamed up the con in the first place.



If you're like me and you're kind of lame-brained when it comes to keeping track of details, you might want to make a scorecard for this one. Stout throws out a lot of information, especially at the beginning, but in the end I didn’t see any clues that would definitively have pointed the reader in the direction of the killer. It made for good reading all the same and it was actually the first Stout-penned Wolfe novel I've read for a while. Short and sweet at a mere 136 pages (in the paperback edition I read) and worth a look.





Monday, August 29, 2011

Great Black Kanba, by Constance and Gwenyth Little



Great Black Kanba

By Constance and Gwenyth Little

1944




You don't run across books by the Little sisters every day (or at least I don't) and so I was looking forward to reading this one. Then I started it. And set it aside about halfway through. And then came back to it several weeks later determined to give it another chance. And plowed through the rest of it with no small amount of effort solely for the reason of seeing how they were going to wind things up. And cut loose with a great big sigh when I'd finally wrapped it up.



The Little sisters were Australian-born New Jerseyites who wrote a total of 21 novels between the years 1938-1953. For whatever reason they chose to use the word "black" in the titles of all but the first book. I read The Black Paw a while back and recall that I was not disappointed by it at all. The sisters have been described as writers of "screwball cozies" and while that tendency was apparent in The Black Paw it wasn't here.



Great Black Kanba is the nickname of a train that's making its way across Australia. Along for the ride are one Cleo Ballister, who is suffering temporary amnesia and may not actually be Cleo Ballister at all. At some point she meets a group of people who may or may not be distant relatives that she's never seen before. They all climb aboard, a few murders take place, Cleo's memory starts to come back in bits and pieces and 240 plodding pages later it's all sorted out.



Brevity is the soul of wit, as the saying goes, and I'd propose that it is also the soul of the detective story. My thoughts on this one are the Littles should have done as Elmore Leonard famously said and leave out the parts that no one reads.



More on the Little sisters here.



Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter, by Barry Grant



Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter

By Barry Grant

2010




In my typically haphazard fashion I somehow managed to read Barry Grant's second Holmes knockoff before reading the first. Okay, so be it. That first adventure was The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes and Grant is apparently a sort of pen name for one Barry Grant Brissman (sez one source).



I try to read as little as possible about books before actually sitting down to read them, so it came as a bit of a jolt to realize that Holmes was operating in the present day here, along with his journalist sidekick, James Wilson. This has all come about because the great detective was recently defrosted after spending nearly a century frozen in a glacier. Yep. Really.



Which leads one to believe that this is not going to be your standard Holmes knock-off. But actually, if you push these details to the side, it is a fairly standard Holmes knock-off - to a point. I say that because about thirty pages from the end the author goes completely nutso and winds things up in a ridiculously over the top manner that would have fit quite nicely into any of the most lurid pulp fiction rags of yesteryear.



Which might not work for everyone, admittedly. I think the key here was just to abandon oneself to the sheer silliness of it all and go with the flow. Holmes purists might cringe at this sort of thing, but I gave it high marks all around.



For someone else's thoughts on this decidedly loopy book, take a look at this brief piece from Cleveland.com.



Saturday, August 27, 2011

Shorts: Max Carrados & John Silence


A Victim of Higher Space
by Algernon Blackwood
1914


The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage
by Ernest Bramah
1914


So there I was, skimming through the archives of Project Gutenberg, trying to see what I could see, when I came across some John Silence stories by Algernon Blackwood and some Max Carrados stories by Ernest Bramah. Because my To Be Read pile is rather sizable at the moment and I don't like reading on the PC or printing out reams of text I decided to just select one of each. Coincidentally, the ones I selected seem to be from the same year.

First, the John Silence story, which really didn't do much for me. Obviously, it's not fair to judge by one story so I won't. I'll also point out that I've read some of Blackwood's other fiction, not to mention a great biography by Mike Ashley, which I reviewed a few years back. I liked most of the other Blackwood stories I've read. Most were more in the horror/supernatural vein and his short story The Empty House still stands out for me as one of the creepier tales I've ever read.

As for this John Silence yarn, not so great. Silence, if I've got my story straight, is something of a psychic detective or investigator. In this tale he's visited by a man who keeps slipping in and out of another dimension. This, as you might guess, is causing him a great deal of stress and inconvenience. Silence hears him out and suggests a remedy, which the man later tries, successfully. That is the end of that.

Which isn't much to hang a story on, quite frankly. Not that I mind a tale which is primarily comprised of two guys sitting around talking. I read some of Asimov's Black Widower tales recently and like them quite a bit, even though they're basically a bunch of guys sitting around talking. But I'll need to give Silence another shot before coming to any hard and fast conclusions.

The Carrados story, on the other hand, was quite entertaining, if perhaps just the tiniest bit farfetched. Carrados was a blind detective whose short fictional adventures were collected in several volumes between 1914 and 1934. This story finds him looking into a case in which a man is suspected of planning to bump off his wife. It's a fairly clever yarn and one in which a kite plays a prominent role (enough said), but it has a seriously downbeat ending that I didn't see coming at all. Not one to leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside but it made for entertaining reading even so.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Murder on the Moor, by C.S. Challinor



Murder on the Moor

By C.S. Challinor

2011



According to the author's web site this is the fourth of five mysteries starring "Scottish barrister-sleuth" Rex Graves. This episode finds Graves hosting a house party, of sorts, at his new home in a relatively remote region in the Scottish moor. His old flame turns up, which is decidedly inconvenient since his new flame is already on hand. Things go downhill even further when the old flame is found dead in the nearby loch. Oh, and there's a child killer at work in the area, which makes for an especially grim undercurrent to the proceedings.



Not much else to say about this one except that if you like them short, sweet and fairly straightforward you'll probably like this one. I did.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the American Angels, by Barrie Roberts



Sherlock Holmes and the American Angels

By Barrie Roberts

2007




It wasn't my intention to make a study of Sherlock Holmes knockoffs, but I've read several lately and have two more on deck as I write this. Roberts wrote nine Sherlock Holmes books in all - this one was the last before his death in 2007. I didn't find this one as entertaining as the last novel-length Holmes pastiche I read, L.B. Greenwood's Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Sabina Hall, but it was fairly readable even so.



Things get rolling with Holmes deciphering a coded communication in the newspaper classifieds, which leads to a murder and then another one, apparently related to the first. The plot thickens considerably from here, with the possible involvement of a terrorist group responsible for assassinating American president William McKinley tossed into the mix, along with a cache of gold coins that went missing several centuries earlier.



All of which finds Holmes and Watson headed to the Scottish Highlands to get things sorted out. Where they encounter various obstacles, including a few attempts on their lives, before Homes wraps things up, collaring all of the villains and locating the missing gold.



Not bad. Not great. If you simply can't get enough Holmes, you may want to take a look.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Reminiscences of Solar Pons, by August Derleth


The Reminiscences of Solar Pons
By August Derleth
1961


If you're like me, you probably know of August Derleth as the guy responsible for posthumously rescuing H.P. Lovecraft from the dust bin of obscurity. Until recently I was not aware that he also published a number of volumes (looks like nearly a dozen) of the adventures of one Solar Pons, whose marked resemblance to Sherlock Holmes is no accident.

This is apparently the fifth volume of collected Pons stories. There are eight stories in all, along with an introduction by Anthony Boucher and A Chronology of Solar Pons, by Robert Patrick.

The stories were all published in the late Fifties and early Sixties, except for The Adventure of the Black Cardinal. This appeared in 1930 and, coincidentally or not, was the one I liked the least. A tale of a rabble-rouser fomenting dissent against the Catholic Church, it bogged down a bit in politics and church history. A nice scene, however (small spoiler warning), at the end with Pons in a light aircraft, ready to take out a baddie with a machine gun.

The other low point for me, The Adventure of the Troubled Magistrate, wasn't a bad tale but was merely a bit too straightforward and obvious. In the so-so category, The Adventure of the Cloverdale Kennels, which asks us to speculate how and why a man might have killed himself by placing a rifle in a tree outside his window and using a piece of string to pull the trigger. The Adventure of the Praed Street Irregulars involves a kidnapped kid and international intrigue and didn't really do too much for me either.

The stories I found more interesting included The Adventure of the Mazarine Blue, which has to do with a rare butterfly and a mysterious thirteenth coffin that turns up in a crypt where there were only twelve previously. Missing hats - and quite a few of them - pose an interesting problem in The Adventure of the Hats of M. Dulac.

The Adventure of the Blind Clairaudient presents a slightly farfetched tale of a woman who claims to be able to hear the future and who doesn't particularly like something she's just heard. Which leaves The Adventure of the Mosaic Cylinders, the longest and, for me, the most entertaining story in the book. It finds Pons unraveling an interesting puzzle that has to do with the cylinders of the title, a poem and some valuable antiquities.