Pages

Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 12 of 2012 - Fiction and Film

I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't put together a list of favorites for the year. So here it is. Since I've taken to reviewing quite a lot of mystery film, as well as fiction, it's almost evenly divided between the two. No particular order of preference here, although if you twisted my arm I might let it slip that I really did like Fowler's Seventy-Seven Clocks quite a bit...

FICTION
The Stately Home Murder
by Catherine Aird
Published in 1969, but with (at least) one foot firmly in the Golden Age of Detection. An imposing English mansion, a few murders and plenty of dry wit.

Cards on the Table
by Agatha Christie
One of Christie's more clever Poirot books, if you ask me. The host of a party is killed by one of a foursome of bridge players who are actively engaged in their game at the time of his murder - in the same room.

Seventy-Seven Clocks
by Christopher Fowler
The fourth of Fowler's Bryant & May books and for my money the best. Certainly the wackiest plot/premise of the four I've read and probably the highest body count as well.

1222
by Anne Holt
My first foray into Norwegian mystery fiction. A couple hundred people are stranded in a lodge in the mountains following a train wreck. A blizzard rages without and nefarious deeds are committed within.

Wobble To Death
by Peter Lovesey
It's the late nineteenth century and a hardy band of contestants are vying for a large cash prize at a tough six-day marathon race in London, also known as a wobble. Would you believe that a murder or two breaks out? Imagine that.

Murder of the Bride
by C.S. Challinor
I've become a great fan of Challinor's series about the Scottish barrister, Rex Graves, and this was one of the best of the bunch. Not surprisingly, most of the misdeeds take place at a wedding in a manor house and mostly over the course of one day.

Death on Demand
by Carolyn G. Hart
A bit of a cheat, this one, since I actually wrapped it up two days before 2012 commenced. So sue me. Hart has written a couple dozen books in this series, which concerns an amateur detective who runs a mystery bookstore on a South Carolina island that caters to the tourist trade. This was the first one and the only one I've read thus far, but I'd call it a pretty decent Agatha Christie tribute and a nice showcase for the author's extensive knowledge of the mystery genre.

FILM
The Hound of the Baskervilles
2002
One of the more recent incarnations of Doyle's famous work. I particularly liked Ian Hart's portrayal of Watson, which was a bit different from the standard second banana to the great Holmes.

Death on the Nile
1978
One of the great Agatha Christie works, brought to the big screen in a big way, with big stars and whopping big cinematography. Big, big, big.

Fast Company
1938
The first of a series of three comic whodunits featuring Garda and Joel Sloane, a crime-solving pair of rare book dealers. Different actors took on the main roles each time out, but Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice turn in performances here that any Thin Man fans would be advised to take a look at.

Another Thin Man
1939
Speaking of the Thin Man, my favorite of the five installments I've seen thus far. This time out a wealthy friend of the Charles family is bumped off and Nick and Nora are called upon to crack the case.

Francis in the Haunted House
1956
As I said in the review, it's "the best movie that I've ever seen that featured a talking mule investigating a murder in a haunted house." I stand firmly by that position.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

7 Questions for Author R.T. Raichev

I've been thinking about doing this feature for a while and when R.T. Raichev happened to get in touch recently after reading my reviews of two of his books, I thought I'd see if he'd like to kick things off. He was kind enough to agree and so we present the first installment of the 7 Questions feature.

Though R.T. notes that The Riddle of Sphinx Island is his next book, what he doesn't mention is that it will be, as he put it in a recent email, "a take on Christie's And Then There Were None." Which sounds like it will be well worth the wait.

7 Questions for Author R.T. Raichev

What's your favorite (or most offbeat) murder method?
It's got to be the beheading with an ancient Samurai sword in Murder at the Villa Byzantine, though that's very much a one-off. I don't think I have a favourite murder method. I don't like blood at all. Looking at my books, published and  not-yet-published it goes like this: poison, gun, knitting needle, poison, manual strangulation, fruit knife, enforced drowning, gun, poison, knife, blunt instrument, gun, gun.

What's the first mystery book you ever read?
Doyle's The Sign of Four. I was about twelve, I think. I remember being haunted by the discovery of Sholto's hanging body.

Who would be your desert island mystery author?
Agatha Christie, as she stands the test of re-reading marvellously.

Who would you cast if your characters ever made it to the big screen?
Who should be cast as Antonia Darcy and Major Payne? If it is TV series, Emma Thompson and Nigel Havers. If for the big screen, perhaps, Demi Moore and Bill Nighy, or for a super-glamorous production, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, though they must acquire cut-glass English accents.

What would your readers find most surprising about you?
That I have completed five more Antonia Darcy mysteries, well ahead of schedule?

How did you come up with the your characters?
Antonia Darcy, bookish and introspective, was meant to act solo in The Hunt for Sonya Dufrette (my first published mystery), but in Chapter 1 she was teased by her son about having an admirer at the Military Club where she was a librarian. Her son had heard a certain widowed Major mentioned. Antonia had just divorced her husband and was unhappy. I needed a Watson for her and then decided that if I did introduce a retired Major who fancies Antonia, that would not only resolve the Dr. Watson problem, but would provide a touch of romance, which most readers -- especially the female readers -- like. That's how Major Payne was born. He courted Her in Sonya Dufrette and they were already married in The Death of Corinne. Antonia Darcy and Major Payne owe something to Hammett's Thin Man series, the Francis Durbridge mysteries, the screwball comedies of the 40s and of course Christie's Tommy and Tuppence.

What's next for R.T. Raichev?
My next Antonia Darcy and Major Payne mystery, The Riddle of Sphinx Island, will be published on 8/1/13 by the Mystery Press. The MP have also got my number 9, The Killing of Olga Klimt, which they are hoping to bring out in early 2014.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie - The Thin Man Goes Home

The Thin Man Goes Home
Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett
1945

The consensus seems to be that the Thin Man movies went downhill after the first one. I'm on the fence about that. I don't know that I completely agree but I can see how the argument could be made. For my money the six films of the series adhered closely enough to a formula that if you like one I'm not sure what there is not to like about the others.

While it would be nice to read and watch these series type books and movies in order, for me that rarely happens. This is the fifth of the Thin Man movies I've watched and I still have number four (Shadow Of The Thin Man) to go. There's no false advertising in this title, mind you. Nick and Nora (and dog Asta, of course) really do go home - to Nick's home town, where they take up residence with his loving mother and mildly disapproving father for a short time.

Which is a rather bucolic way to get away from it all, but of course there's no way that can possibly last. And it doesn’t, now that you mention it, given that someone is bumped off right on the Charles family doorstep and the crime-solving couple are forced to spring into action.

From here things take a somewhat familiar route to the end. Which consists of Nick gathering what seems like everyone in the town and perhaps even a couple dozen others for the summing up to beat them all. All of which would have been rather long and tedious if it wasn't handled so well and if there weren't a few great comic moments tossed in for good effect.

All in all, a rather down home affair, if I do say so myself. It could have just as easily been called Murder in Mayberry, but of course that fictional town wouldn't appear on any maps for about another decade and a half.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sherlock Holmes on the Radio

I've been listening to a number of old radio mysteries lately and while I don't see the need to comment on a lot of them I thought I'd mention a few episodes that stood out.

The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Adventure Of The Disappearing Scientists
1946

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are probably best known for playing Holmes and Watson in a number of films but they also appeared in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which kicked off in 1939 and ran for almost eight years. This episode, like many, was written by Dennis Green and Anthony Boucher. It concerns what for Holmes would have been a relatively new substance known as radium and the disappearances of a number of scientists working with it.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater
Nightmare in Gillette Castle
1980

I reviewed a few noteworthy episodes of CBS Radio Mystery Theater recently, a show that also ran for about eight years, starting in 1974. This episode doesn't deal directly with Holmes so much but rather with William Gillette, an actor best known for his stage portrayals of Holmes around the turn of the twentieth century. It concerns what happens when a young husband and wife break off from a tour group in Gillette's castle and find that the going gets decidedly weird.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Seventy-Seven Clocks, by Christopher Fowler

Seventy-Seven Clocks
By Christopher Fowler
2005

Well, I'll be damned. Someone's been reading Agatha bleeding Christie. (Raymond Land)

The first thing I noticed about Seventy-Seven Clocks was how whopping big it was. I've ranted (rather mildly) about long mystery novels on a number of occasions thus far and, as a general rule, once they pass the 200-page mark my interest begins to wane with each additional page. Normally I wouldn't go near a book that clocks in at just under 500 pages but since it was a Bryant & May book I forged bravely on ahead.

And I'm glad I did. Of the four of Fowler's novels that I've read and reviewed thus far, I'd rank this one at the top of the heap - by a longshot. Which is not to say that any of the others were particularly shabby, because they certainly weren't.

I'm not generally keen on conveying much of the plot in my reviews. I'll say even less about this one for the simple reason that Fowler has really outdone himself this time around and to spell anything out would really spoil the fun of discovering it all for yourself.

About all I'm going to say is that it takes place in the Seventies, the body count is rather high, the murders tend to be quite bizarre (and one comes from so far out of left field that I almost dropped the book) and the motivation for it all is very farfetched. And yet Fowler handles the latter so skillfully that you find yourself thinking that just maybe it could have happened. Or maybe not.

Enough said about this one. Highly recommended. Go read all 496 pages for yourself and see if you don't agree.

Friday, December 14, 2012

CBS Radio Mystery Theater

If I hadn't done some background research I'd have assumed that CBS Radio Mystery Theater aired in the Forties or Fifties, or perhaps even as early as the Thirties. But it actually ran from 1974 to 1982, featuring host E.G. Marshall and a varying cast, including some luminaries, and with a new episode airing most weeknights.

Before it was all said and done there were a total of 1,399 episodes (really, they couldn't have done just one more?), many of which are available right out there on Al Gore's Internet. You can probably find these in half a thousand places, but for now I'm sticking with CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which looks impressive enough to be an official site but is apparently the work of a very dedicated fan.

Of the four episodes of the series that I've sampled thus far there were two that didn't really do it for me. Tom Sawyer, Detective, sounded promising and it wasn't a bad story but was bogged down by too much dialogue that sounded like a cross between a Stephen Foster song and a Gunsmoke rerun. Murder On the Space Shuttle also seemed promising and it was even based on a story by Jacques Futrelle, but I'd also rank this one in the so-so category.

The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill
1974

This episode kicked things off way back in 1974 and it was a pretty decent debut. It starred Agnes Moorhead as an older woman who runs a boarding house and who hears the deathbed confession of a boarder, one that might clear someone else of a crime. Rather than let well enough alone, she decides to do something about it and the plot thickens considerably. Not an absolute gem as far as the story goes, but nicely done even so.

Blizzard of Terror
1974

I liked this one the best of this small bunch. It features a bickering couple who are stranded in the mountains in a blizzard and who find their way to shelter in a cottage. Oh, and there's a mass murderer on the loose. Which is the cause of no small amount of concern on their part when they find the kitchen spattered with blood and a suspicious type character already in residence.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Murder of Gonzago, by R.T. Raichev

The Murder of Gonzago
by R.T. Raichev
2012

"Lord Remnant was shot through the back of the head by a giant rabbit," Antonia said.

If you're looking for contemporary authors who set their mystery fiction in the modern day while still imparting something of a traditional feel to it, then be sure to R.T. Raichev to your list. The Bulgarian-born author wrote a dissertation on English crime fiction and it shows, not only in the way he tells a story but also in the way his characters frequently make sly references to various aspects of crime fiction.

If you know Shakespeare better than I (which wouldn't take much doing) you might know that The Murder of Gonzago is a play within a play that takes place in Hamlet. When wealthy old Lord Remnant and a few guests at his private island of Grenadin stage their amateur production of this curiosity he ends up rather deadish. While circumstances suggest that there might have been some suspicious goings-on, it doesn't help much that the old bat's body was hastily hustled off and cremated.

As it turns out the Lord was not a particularly likable sort, to put it mildly, and thus there was the usual cast of relatives and acquaintances who might have done him in. Which is the cue for mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband Major Hugh Payne to get involved and try to unravel this tricky case, which is full of a fair number of twists and turns.

Having reviewed two of Raichev's books now (here's the other), I'm still not quite sure what to make of them. I find them to be very well-written and entertaining to read but for me they're lacking that little bit of something that would put them into the must-read category along with the likes of someone like Christopher Fowler or C.S. Challinor. I can't quite figure out what it is that's missing. But I suspect that I'll be checking out another in this series at some point down the line. Perhaps it will come to me then.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and the Swedish Enigma, by Barry Grant

Sherlock Holmes and the Swedish Enigma
By Barry Grant
2012

"My grandfather was a bag of pumpkins," proclaimed Billy.

Here's another one from Barry Grant, who's written a series of Sherlock Holmes knockoffs that are set in the present day and in which the great detective has been thawed out after being frozen into a glacier for ninety years. Yes, really. This is book three in the series. I last reviewed book two, Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter. There's also The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes and the latest, Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein's Diary, neither of which I've read yet.

Which I'll probably get to eventually, given my penchant for Holmes knockoffs, and no, I still haven't read any of the Conan Doyle stuff. I'll get to that one of these days. This time around I was reminded somewhat of The Hound of the Baskervilles (haven't read it, but have seen various cinematic versions) in that after the theft of some pricey ancient Greek statues, Wilson heads to the gloomy coast of Cornwall to look into the matter, while Holmes falls off the map for a good chunk of the story.

Yes, I said Wilson, as in James Wilson. Since no one thought to freeze John Watson into a glacier Wilson plays the sidekick in this series and arch-villain Lars Lindblad steps in and takes over the Moriarty role. There's also a descendant of Lestrade acting in his official capacity as a sworn law enforcement officer.

By the time Holmes and Wilson meet up in Cornwall the plot has thickened quite a bit, as seems to be the case with Grant's books, or at least the two I've read. But unlike the last time out, when Grant pulled out all the stops for a rollicking ending, this time things kind of fall flat and the various concerned parties seem content to sit around talking about the case. Given that my favorite character of the book was a parrot, I guess it's safe to say that I recommend that you start your explorations of this series with another volume.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Movie - A Date with the Falcon

A Date with the Falcon
Based on a character created by Michael Arlen
1942

The Falcon was said by some to have been created in a magazine short story in 1940 (but was he?) and made his way to the big screen with little delay, in 1941. A Date with the Falcon came along the next year and before the decade was out sixteen movies of his adventures had been made. I have to read or view any of the exploits of The Saint, a popular character who predated The Falcon, but they were apparently similar enough to spawn at least one lawsuit.

George Sanders, who took the role of The Falcon in the first few installments had also played The Saint a number of times - imagine that - and for my money he resembles yet another serial character who was quite popular in this era - The Lone Wolf. Like that character The Falcon is a rather cultured and debonair sort, though I wasn't able to discern whether he had a dubious past like the Wolf, a reformed jewel thief. Other similarities include that tried and true device of the comic relief sidekick.

And it's jewels that are at the heart of this movie, now that you mention it, specifically artificial diamonds that an enterprising scientist has created in his lab. Before long a few bad eggs decide they want to get in on things and the scientist proceeds to disappear. At which point police inspector O'Hara beseeches and badgers The Falcon to help make sense of it all. O'Hara is played by James Gleason, by the way, who plays essentially the same role (the flustered, blustery cop) that he did in the Hildegarde Withers movies and everything else I've seen him in thus far.

Well, The Falcon manages to crack the case in due course - would you really expect anything less? But not before a merry series of events unfolds that border on slapstick at times and which find him repeatedly falling into the clutches of the baddies and then escaping, as well as getting in hot water with O'Hara and not the least of all, his jealous fiancée.

Which sounds a helluva lot like several of the Lone Wolf reviews I've written. Here's a contemporary review from the New York Times and a good overview of the character's "life" in its various media incarnations.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Malice on the Moors, by Graham Thomas

Malice on the Moors
By Graham Thomas
1999

As nearly as I can tell, Graham Thomas has written three or four books in his Malice series thus far. I read a few of them some time ago, before starting this site, and I thought I'd revisit one, just for the fun of it. For whatever reason I find the Moors to be an enticing setting for mystery fiction, as have a number of authors going back at least as far as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So I thought I might as well reread Malice on the Moors.

The series concerns the exploits of Scotland Yard's Chief Inspector Erskine Powell. This time around his hunting vacation has been shot down even before it started. Ironically enough, he is called out to Blackamoor Estate, where he tries to untangle the events surrounding the murder of one Dickie Dinsdale during a grouse shooting party.

Dinsdale had taken over the running of the estate and a thriving family business when his father became unable to carry on and wasted no time in racking up an impressive number of enemies, any one of whom might have had a hand in bumping him off. Which (apparent) murder seems to have been carried out by the unusual method of setting a poisonous snake upon him. It's up to Powell and his attractive young assistant, with whom he's never worked before, to get to the bottom of it all.

I'd put Thomas's book in the same company of those of E.X. Ferrars and C.S. Challinor, who I've become quite a fan of lately. All of the aforementioned write short, solid books that are not particularly flashy or fancy but are almost always worth a look.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Philanthropist's Danse, By Paul Wornham

The Philanthropist's Danse
By Paul Wornham
2011

If you're looking for promotional deals on mystery fiction ebooks, try Omnimystery News, where they typically alert their readers to several Free MystereBooks every day. At the low, low price of absolutely nothing I don't often see much that grabs me, but as I wade through the towering heaps of thrillers and pseudo chick-lit I occasionally run across something that looks interesting. Sometimes I even find a title that I actually read and once in a while there's one that I read all the way through.

Like Paul Wornham's The Philanthropist's Danse, which I found to be quite a page-turner. Wornham is apparently a first-time novelist and it looks like the book is self-published. Which is too bad, in a way, because it might never get the readership that it deserves.

I wouldn't call this one a traditional mystery, but it does use one of those tried and true conventions of that breed - the gathering of friends, relatives and staff following the death of some rich old coot. The switcheroo here is that said coot has decreed that this group be summoned to his mansion and given the task of splitting up his estate amongst themselves. With the catch that each time the clock strikes midnight without the group having completing their task another twenty percent of the estate is shunted off to charity.

Which is not a bad foundation to build a novel around, if you ask me, but like any great premise it won't mean much if the author drops the ball when it comes to execution. Which, for my money, Wornham definitely didn't do. This is a rather static novel, in large part, with the dozen concerned parties spending a fair amount of time in a conference room talking things out, with the attorney who's orchestrating the whole affair on behalf of his late client on hand to keep an eye on things. And yet Wornham still does a great job of moving the story forward and keeping things exciting.

Wornham's characters are fairly diverse and rather well sketched and he does a great job of portraying the wheeling and dealing that's inevitable when a group that's composed mostly of very greedy people get together and duke it out to see who's going to get what share of a substantial fortune. Wornham didn't really hit a false note here, as far as I'm concerned, except perhaps to some small extent with the ending. I'm not going to really elaborate on that except to say that the slight misstep here didn't cancel out the strengths of what came before.

While this was not really a traditional mystery and perhaps not even a mystery at all, whatever that means, there were some mysterious elements present throughout and I'd highly recommend the book regardless of what genre it might or might not belong to.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Stately Home Murder, by Catherine Aird

The Stately Home Murder
By Catherine Aird
1969

"Traditional, sir," Sloan reminded him. "You said we could expect the traditional at Ornhum."

Catherine Aird has become one of those somewhat underappreciated authors whom I bang the drum for whenever I can. The other two are James Anderson and C.S. Challinor. I read a few of Aird's books before starting this site and this is the second one I've reviewed here. I've yet to find a dud in that small bunch and I'm sure I'll be reading more of the two dozen novels she's turned out since 1966.

If I have my story straight, all but perhaps one of these novels deals with the exploits of British Inspector C.D. Sloan, who typically works cases in tandem with the somewhat dimwitted Constable Crosby and who is frequently harried by his boss, Superintendent Leeyes. The Stately Home Murder is the fourth of Aird's books and my favorite thus far of the handful I've read.

Though it was published in 1969, some decades after the close of the Golden Age of Detection, The Stately Home Murder is quite a traditional work indeed and wouldn't be out of place in that era. It takes place at Ornhum, an imposing estate that's home to yet another of those bands of batty and/or dysfunctional aristocratic types.

Whose batty and/or dysfunctional bliss is soon disturbed by a murder. I wouldn't dare reveal where the stiff turns up, though the cover of the old paperback edition I read effectively spoiled that one. Sloan and Crosby are brought in to sort things out, with plenty of off-site harrying from Leeyes. More mayhem eventually ensues, which throws something of a wrench in Sloan's brilliant efforts to crack the case up to that point.

Very traditional, indeed, but also quite witty. I don't recall whether the other Aird books I read were as funny as this one and it's hardly a Blotto and Twinks slapstick type of affair, but the author laid it on pretty thick throughout with the dry wit. Which was by no means detrimental to the story. High marks for this one all around.

Here's an interview with Aird from Rue Morgue Press, who have reissued several of her books.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Phi Beta Murder, by C.S. Challinor

Phi Beta Murder
By C.S. Challinor
2010

I've become something of a cheerleader for C.S. Challinor's Rex Graves novels. This is the third in a series that recently saw a sixth volume released. I've read four of these six books so far and I'm sure I'll be checking out the others soon.

Graves is a middle-aged Scottish barrister and widower with a son in college. It's that son who figures prominently in this volume as Graves goes out of his element to visit him at the small college he attends in Florida. Which is a kind of a switcheroo for the author who apparently attended school in Scotland and now makes her home in Florida.

Anyway, at the precise moment that Graves and his son first make their way to his dorm, they come upon the apparent suicide of one of the students, who's found hanging inside his locked dorm room. Yes, one must frequently suspend disbelief a bit in this sort of book when it comes to such coincidences. Now, before the locked room contingent begin to salivate, I'll say right out that this aspect of the book is so slight as to be barely worth mentioning. That's not a criticism, really. I don't think the author even set out to write a humdinger of a locked room book, though I could be wrong.

In any event, because he's a lawyer and has had some experience with amateur investigating, the dead student's parents ask Graves to look into the boy's death and he does just that. Given the title of the book I won't be spoiling anything to say that the suicide was not what it seemed. Graves works pretty methodically to get to the bottom of things and of course he figures it all out.

Like all of books in this series this one was compact and to the point, although there was a bit of an unnecessary digression regarding one of Rex's old flames. There's nothing fancy or flashy about Challinor's books but that works just fine for me.

With all of that said, I also have to say that I liked this the least of the four books that I've read so far. That's only because Graves is out of his element here. The other installments I've read found him solving crimes in a snowed-in Scottish hotel, in his hunting lodge on the moors and in a good old-fashioned country house. Rex hanging out in Florida with a bunch of college kids made for a solid enough book, but it lacked the atmosphere of those others.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

After the Funeral, by Agatha Christie

After the Funeral
By Agatha Christie
1953

A group of relatives gathers at the home of Richard Abernethie, the kind of wealthy old coot who frequently populates this type of book. His flighty sister stirs the pot by suggesting that he was murdered, something no one had given any thought to previously. Is this just a manifestation of her flightiness or is there something to it? One must certainly start to wonder when she's killed in her home with a hatchet the very next day.

Which is the cue for Abernethie's lawyer to call upon one Hercule Poirot, who springs into action and proceeds to sort it all out, which he does in part by adopting another persona and infiltrating the family. Before it's all said and done there are two more attempted murders, one by poisoning and one by clunking over the head with a heavy object.

The solution to this one was actually a fairly clever one. Someone more skilled than I at figuring this sort of thing out might have seen it coming a mile away but I confess that I did not. As was so often the case, Christie did a rather thorough job of muddying the waters and thus making it tricky to figure out exactly what's going on.

And so I continue to work my way through some of the Poirot novels on my unread list. While I liked this one better than The Clocks, which I reviewed most recently, I didn't think it quite measured to Cards on the Table, which I read before that and which ranks as one my favorite Christie novels thus far.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess, by Simon Brett

Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess
By Simon Brett
2012

If the adventures of Blotto and Twinks ever made their way to the big screen they'd surely merit an X rating. That's X for eXtremely silly, of course. For make no mistake about it, these are very silly books indeed. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you.

This is the second installment of a series that's already up to four books (though only the first two seem to be available yet here in the US). Which is not surprising, given that Brett is a book writing machine who has turned out more than eighty novels in all. Other books in the series include the first - Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King's Daughter - which I reviewed here. There's also the more recent Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera and Blotto, Twinks and the Bootlegger’s Moll.

If you've read my reviews here before you know that I don't typically go in for providing intricate plot descriptions, regardless of the book, but especially with something like a Blotto and Twinks book. As I said in my aforementioned B&T review, the plot in these books is really nothing more than "a framework on which Brett can hang an endless string of gags." After reading this volume I'm sticking by that statement.

But to summarize briefly, this time around the aristocratic brother and sister crime-solvers and their formidable Duchess mother are visiting another gang of aristocrats when the formidable Duchess matron of that family gets bumped off. Suspicions falls on the family's chauffeur and Blotto and Twinks set out to clear his name. One thing leads to another and before long the murder plot is left in the dust as the pair uncover a shadowy and nefarious organization whose goal is to wipe out the aristocracy itself, if you can imagine such a thing.

With the dimwitted Blotto providing the brawn (and occasionally wielding his beloved cricket bat as a weapon) and Twinks charming every man she comes in contact with and taking care of all of the brainwork, things eventually get sorted out in due course.

Did I mention that this was a very silly book? I suppose I did, but it bears repeating. This is a very silly book. If you like that sort of thing you certainly won't want to miss it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Clocks, by Agatha Christie

The Clocks
By Agatha Christie
1963

There are a few novels that I've read and reviewed recently that started with a premise that really dug its hooks in me. There's Christie's Cards on the Table, which I reviewed not so long ago and there's Boris Akunin's Murder on the Leviathan, which had one of the best hooks I've run across.

Christie's The Clocks ain't so shabby in this department either, mind you. A young woman from a secretarial pool is asked for by name and goes to the house of the person who hired her. She's told to let herself in if no one is there and does so, only to find a nasty old corpse in the living room. As the owner of the house comes home, Sheila realizes that she's blind as she runs screaming from the house and into the arms of one Colin Lamb.

Who happens to be a friend of one Inspector Hardcastle, who's assigned to sort this mess out. Another interesting feature of the case is that the blind woman's living room contains four clocks that don't belong to her. None of them have been wound and each is set to 4:13.

That's the good news and a rather spiffing premise, if you ask me. It might not be fair to say that things went downhill from there, but there were a few things that didn't exactly knock me out about this one. I've never been a fan of espionage and spy fiction and Christie seems to have set out to combine elements of that with the more traditional whodunits she was known for. Which didn't really do it for me but I guess by 1963 Christie had written so many outstanding traditional mysteries that one can hardly begrudge her for wanting to mix it up a little.

I also found it odd that although this is a Poirot novel he doesn't really figure into the proceedings in any significant way until relatively late in the book. Until then we are present with the alternating viewpoints of Lamb and Hardcastle. Naturally when Poirot does finally get cracking on the case he solves it with relative ease even though he hasn't deigned to visit the crime site or talk directly to any of the witnesses or suspects. It all seems a rather Herculean feat - if you'll pardon me saying so - and perhaps just a bit of a stretch.

Which is not to say that this didn't make for good reading and I certainly wouldn't say that I didn't like it but I also wouldn't rank it near the top of my list of Christie experiences.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, by Robert Goldsborough

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe
By Robert Goldsborough
2012

I've read a couple reviews of Archie Meets Nero Wolfe thus far. Wolfe fan Patrick liked it, with a few minor reservations. Puzzle Doctor has never read an entire Wolfe book and didn't like it. Which makes sense. With apologies to the author and his publisher, who surely want to sell as many truckloads of books as possible, this one is pretty much for the Wolfe fans.

I've read all but a few of the many Wolfe books by original author Rex Stout and most of the ones by Goldsborough, who took over writing them after Stout's death in 1975. I'm not normally keen on writers pinch-hitting for dead authors but I liked the Goldsborough books for the most part and thought he did a good job of capturing the ins and outs of life at the old brownstone.

But let's move on to Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. First, the plot. There is one and it's perfectly serviceable but in the tradition of most Wolfe fiction it's not really a dazzler. That's to be expected. Most people I know read Nero Wolfe for other reasons and turn to the likes of John Dickson Carr and whatnot for those dazzling plots, intricately worked out impossible crimes and all that sort of stuff.

While I too liked this book for the most part, I can't really complain too loudly about the things I didn't like, or more correctly the things that I felt were lacking. Since it's clearly marked as a prequel it's reasonable to assume that it's not going to be the standard Wolfe novel.

One of the things that's most lacking here, as Patrick noted in his review, is Archie Goodwin's voice. Given that he narrates all of the Wolfe books that's a major issue, but it's understandable. Since he's still a relative youngster and fresh off the train (bus?) from Ohio he has yet to develop into what will be one of the great wiseacres in mystery fiction.

Also lacking is that comfortable and highly structured routine at the brownstone, a routine that's shaken up to good effect from time to time in service of the latest yarn. Obviously since Archie is not yet in Wolfe's employ, we're not going to see any of that daily routine simply because it doesn't exist, at least not in the form we've come to know.

Along the same lines are the lack of interactions between key Wolfe characters. Most notable is that curious relationship between Archie and Wolfe, which finds the former goading the latter at nearly every turn and the latter putting up with it, simply because he knows he needs Archie or someone like him to do his leg work. Ditto for those mostly confrontational interactions between Archie and Wolfe with Inspector Cramer and the other guys at the police station. On the plus side of all this, the better part of the book involves many of the freelance operatives that Wolfe so often employs, including a few who rarely appeared in the Wolfe books proper.

Having re-read this review a few days after originally writing it I'm not sure what I think of it but I'll let it stand. I guess I can best summarize by saying that Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a well-written and entertaining book and an interesting look at the early days of the Wolfe-Goodwin partnership but I much prefer to read about that partnership in the established form of the "later" books.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

An Unmourned Death, by Audrey Peterson

An Unmourned Death
By Audrey Peterson
2002

There are certain sub-genres of mystery that I can't pass up and country house mysteries are right at the top of the list. So when I ran across An Unmourned Death at my local library I snapped it right up.

This one is not exactly like the country mysteries most of us are probably used to. It takes place a bit earlier than one typically would expect, in the late nineteenth century, and the protagonist is one Jasmine Malloy, a young widow who works for a detective agency on cases that require a woman's touch.

In the latest such case Malloy is sent to Renstone Hall to investigate the disappearance of Lord and Lady Renstone's daughter, Phoebe. The Lord is not about to take home any awards for winning friends and influencing people and he makes it clear to Malloy from the outset that he wants nothing to do with her investigation. Fortunately the rest of the residents of the Hall are more helpful.

Some rather dark and disturbing things are afoot here and as Malloy begins to make some progress on the missing persons case, murder breaks out, as it so often does in these books. With a little help from a few interested parties Malloy proceeds in a rather methodical fashion to get to the bottom of things. Though I thought I had this one all sorted out, the culprit in this case actually came pretty much from way out in left field, though not so much so that you could accuse the author of not playing fair.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Psycho Article at Criminal Element

Is there such a thing as too much Psycho? With all of the various sequels, remakes and various other re-imaginings over the years I got to thinking so. I put forth my arguments in an article for Criminal Element.

(Please Let) Norman Bates, Rest in Peace
By William I. Lengeman III

I liked Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as much (and perhaps even a bit more) than the next person. When I watched it again a few years back I found that it didn’t pack quite as much of a punch as it had all those years earlier when I first saw it, but it was still worth watching to admire Hitchcock’s skill in creating it.

As I recall I didn’t find the idea of Psycho II (1983) particularly appealing but I watched...

more

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Full Dark House, by Christopher Fowler

Full Dark House
by Christopher Fowler
2003

But where to start? We have yet to discover the lair of the Leicester Square Vampire. He's still got my shoes, you know. (Arthur Bryant)

After reading two of the later books in Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series I decided to go back to the beginning - Full Dark House. In writing it Fowler also went back to the beginning of the sixty-some year relationship between these two detectives. It's a story that jumps back and forth from the present day, where the offices of the Peculiar Crimes Unit have been leveled by a bomb, and the first case that Arthur Bryant and John May worked on together, not long after the latter joined the unit.

That part of the story takes place in war-torn London, which is being decimated almost nightly by Nazi bombers. The author does a great job of capturing the oppressive feeling of a city where blackouts, air raids and sudden death have almost become normal. In the midst of all this Bryant and May are called upon to investigate the murder of a dancer in a city theatre who died after having her feet severed by an elevator.

Which is pretty gruesome stuff, to be sure, but that's not the end of it. More gruesome and possibly symbolic murders take place at the theater and then one of the actors disappears and a number of people report seeing some sort of a phantom creeping around in the bowels of this vast, creaky and labyrinthine place. If it all sounds like something out of a grand old horror movie then consider that Fowler has also pressed his pen into the service of writing horror in the past.

As it turns out the two separate threads of narrative may have something to do with each other and Fowler manages to tie things up pretty neatly. It's also interesting to note that his two main characters have apparently not changed all that significantly over the course of sixty-some years. Quirky Arthur Bryant seems just as much an oddball in his early twenties as he does later on. It's not long before down-to-Earth John May steps into the role of minder, of sorts, for a partner who's more comfortable living in an odd alternate reality inside his head than in the real world.

For my other Bryant and May reviews look here.

Image: christopherfowler.co.uk

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Movie Review: Murder on Approval

Murder on Approval
Starring Tom Conway
1956

It's suggested here but not explicitly stated that detective Tom "Duke" Martin (Tom Conway) has something of a checkered past, as does his comic relief sidekick, Barney Wilson. Which leads me to believe the producers of this British flick (released there as Barbados Quest) were going for something like a Lone Wolf feel but I could be wrong on that count. The same pair turned up in one other film, Breakaway, which was released in the same year.

Rare stamps and murder are the special of the day this time around. Regardless of what might have happened in his past, Martin is on the side of good here and is called in to sort things out. Before long he finds out that there are a few more copies of a certain rare stamp in circulation than there should be. Needless to say he gets to the bottom of things in a sequence of events that are relatively uninspired. Though I will say that this one managed to hold my attention, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies.

Here's a 1956 review that appeared in the New York Times.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Movie Review - Fast Company

Fast Company
Based on a novel by Harry Kurnitz
1938

I wasn't knocked out by Melvyn Douglas's performance in the Thin Man knockoff, There's Always a Woman, which I reviewed recently. But I forged on and watched Fast Company nonetheless, in which Douglas co-stars with Florence Rice as a husband and wife crime-solving duo named Garda and Joel Sloane. That's two Thin Man knockoffs in one year for Douglas, if you're scoring at home, and a pretty impressive record, if I do say so myself. And a pretty impressive performance by Douglas, I might add.

Until I actually watched this one I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I'd seen it already, even though I had no record of it. Then I remembered that it was the first of a series of three "Fast" movies, each of which starred different actors in the main roles. See my review of Fast and Loose here. Screenwriter Kurnitz adopted his novel in this installment and ended up with quite a list of credits in Hollywood. Among these were an adaptation of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, which he co-wrote with Billy Wilder, and some of the later Thin Man movies. Kurnitz's play A Shot in the Dark was also made into the outstanding comic mystery starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

I suppose it's natural to hold William Powell as the gold standard for these screwball mysteries, given that he made things look so effortless. But even though I wasn't so impressed with Douglas the last time around I'd say that he gives Powell a good run for his money here. It probably didn't hurt that he had some great material to work with. As with Powell in the Thin Man movies it seems that Douglas is the source of much of the mirth here and at times the wisecracks are flying fast and furious (which is the name of the final installment of this series, by the way).

As for the mystery portion of our show, it's fairly standard stuff, as tends to be the case with this kind of movie. I guess I didn't mention yet that the Sloanes are rare book dealers and in this installment of their adventures one of their fellow book dealers is sent packing from this mortal coil with a blunt object applied to his skull with great vigor. All fingers point to a recently released ex-con whom the Sloanes have championed but they're convinced he didn't do it and set out to prove otherwise.

I'm not sure if there's anything the in the way of screwball mysteries that can top the first few Thin Man movies but this one came rather close by my reckoning. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who likes this sort of thing.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Movie Review - There’s Always A Woman

There’s Always A Woman
Starring Joan Blondell and Melvyn Douglas
1938

If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery then the people who made the Thin Man series of films must have been quite flattered by this one. There’s Always A Woman was intended to be a series of films, apparently, but only one more movie was made after this one.

Blondell and Douglas play Bill and Sally Reardon. He's a detective and she's his somewhat ditzy wife. With the detective business suffering Bill decides to throw in the towel and go back to working for the District Attorney's office. But as Sally is hanging around the old office one day she happens to hook up with one of his potential clients. The plot thickens considerably from there and the pair both end up working on a murder case from different directions, with decidedly zany results.

Or at least I'm assuming that's the way it was meant to be. But try as they might Blondell and Douglas don't manage to generate too much in the way of zaniness. I last saw Blondell in Miss Pinkerton, which I liked, and she holds up her end here for the most part, but Douglas seems too grumpy for this sort of role. Given that this is a pretty blatant Thin Man knockoff one can't help comparing him to the always witty and likable William Powell and he doesn’t measure up. I've got a few other allegedly comic mysteries starring Douglas in the queue so it will be interesting to see how he comes across in those.

I'd be willing to bet that there were a number of other Thin Man knockoffs back when, given the popularity of the series, but it would take someone more knowledgeable than I to confirm that. I can point to one example, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, which starred Powell, interestingly enough.

Check out contemporary reviews from Variety and the New York Times here and here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Dumb Witness, by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness
By Agatha Christie
1937

Dumb Witness comes from the same era as the last Agatha Christie book I read - Cards on the Table. In between these two she published Murder in the Mews, a story collection. I have yet to read the latter but all three feature Hercule Poirot. While I liked Dumb Witness quite a bit I liked Cards on the Table quite a bit more and have Mews on my To Be Read list.

The premise of Dumb Witness is a fairly traditional one, as old school mysteries go. A wealthy old woman dies and her surviving relatives behave as surviving relatives so often do in these situations - badly. Poirot takes this one on pretty much as a cold case, when he receives a letter from the deceased a few months after her death.

Needless to say there are some issues here that would suggest that foul play was involved and Poirot and Hastings waste no time in getting down to business. I won't say too much more about the plot and execution of this one except to note that Christie offers up a fairly significant clue that I managed to miss the significance of until sometime after I'd finished the book. But that's not particularly unusual for me and as a result I've decided not to take up crimesolving any time soon.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Father Hunt, by Rex Stout

The Father Hunt
By Rex Stout
1968

One doesn't drop in at the house on Thirty-fifth Street for the plot line. (Donald Westlake)

I wish I'd started this site before I commenced reading Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels. After going on a binge, of sorts, mostly in 2010 and 2011, I finally reached a point where I'd read all but seven titles. Rather than make a great effort to seek these out I decided to wait until I happened to stumble across them. Which happened recently with The Father Hunt, a title that I'd overlooked on my forays into the (virtual) stacks at my local library system.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this one, given that it was written near the end of Stout's career. Wolfe's creator was getting up in years by this time and only three more Wolfe novels were published before his death in 1975.

But I have to say that in my opinion Stout hadn't lost his touch. The Father Hunt might not rank with the best books of the series but it isn't so shabby either. As the title suggests, Wolfe and Archie are called upon to find the father of a girl who never knew him but he apparently sent her a large sum of money once a month. This was funneled through her mother until the mother died under suspicious circumstances.

Which is a serviceable enough plot, by Wolfe standards (even the most avid Wolfe fans would probably agree with the Westlake quote referenced above). What I found most interesting about this one was how mundane it was. Which might not sound like much of a selling point but what I mean is that it was a very nuts and bolts (and therefore probably fairly realistic) look at how a gang of detectives (Saul, Fred and Orrie are called upon to help out) crack a case with not much more than a lot of hard work that's not so far removed from drudgery and which takes them down numerous blind alleys which they have to try just on the off chance that something will turn up.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Movie Review - The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt

The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt
Based on characters
created by Louis Joseph Vance
1939

Some of the comic mysteries of the Thirties and Forties seem closer to screwball comedies with just a dab of crime and mystery content mixed in for good effect. Such is the case with The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, which is among the silliest of the installments of this series that I've seen thus far and which also marks the first appearance of Warren William in the title role.

William came to the role with some pretty decent credentials in the field of mystery cinema, having already played the role of Philo Vance (as did William Powell) and Perry Mason. The Lone Wolf got his start about a quarter of a century earlier in a series of books by Louis Joseph Vance and hit the big screen for the first time just three years later. I've only seen three of the many actors who played the role over the years but it's hard to imagine any of the others being more suited for it than William.

The plot of The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt is a fairly typical one, by Lone Wolf standards. A gang of spies want to get their hands on aircraft plans and make it look like former jewel thief, the Lone Wolf (Michael Lanyard), is the one who did it. The next time around they actually kidnap Lanyard and make him crack a safe, again framing him for the crime.

But Lanyard has a few tricks up his sleeve and before it's all said and done justice does prevail. With plenty of zany antics to lighten things up along the way. One notable omission this time around was in the character of Jameson, Lanyard's butler. He is actually here but this time out he's played by Leonard Carey, who played an incredible number of butlers and valets in his career and who was apparently Hollywood's go-to guy when it came to this kind of role.

Which is all well and good but his Jameson is really just Lanyard's butler, for the most part, unlike the next incarnation of the character, who served as much as a sidekick as a butler. That Jameson was played by Eric Blore, who took over the role and played it pretty much all the way through until the last installment, with perhaps one or two movies off. I didn't like Blore at first but I came to over time and he and William actually make quite a good pair.

Other points of interest here are Lanyard's pre-teen daughter, which was an odd twist, so much so that she doesn't appear in any of the later installments that I've seen. Also of note is the screwball comedy battle of the sexes subplot concerning Lanyard and his steady girlfriend, played (and perhaps a bit overplayed) by Ida Lupino. Much is made of a number of misunderstandings between the two, usually having to do with other women, which means that the beleaguered Mr. Lanyard is getting it from three sides at once - bad guys, police and significant other.

A pretty good installment, this one, if I do say so myself. For my other reviews of Lone Wolf movies, as well an overview I wrote for the Criminal Element blog, look here. For another perspective on the movie as well as a very in-depth look at its star, check out Cliff Aliperti's Warren William site.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cards on the Table, by Agatha Christie

Cards on the Table
By Agatha Christie
1936

Elmore Leonard once said that part of the secret to his success as an author was in leaving out the parts most readers skip. Which is a quality I've always attributed to Agatha Christie. I've only read perhaps a dozen or so of her books, but with one or two exceptions I tend to find myself blazing through them like Evelyn Wood's star pupil.

Which brings us to Cards on the Table, which I'd rank at the top of the heap of those dozen or so Christie books. The premise here is quite simple but also contrived, almost to the point of being absurd. Which didn't matter much to me since Christie turned the whole business into such a fine yarn.

Said premise finds bridge games going on in adjoining rooms in the home of a rather unlikeable party host. At one table are a foursome of detectives and law enforcement types, including one Hercule Poirot. At the other table are a quartet who will become the chief suspects in the murder of the host. Who is killed during the game while sitting by the fireplace in the same room as the suspects.

In the challenge (of sorts) to the reader that precedes the story, Christie points out that this is a mystery that will be solved by considering the psychology of the suspects, rather than the traditional system of gathering clues, recreating movements and whatnot. Scotland Yard's Superintendent Battle, who was present at the time of the murder, takes the latter route toward solving the crime. Poirot, not surprisingly, focuses more on what the suspects remembered about the bridge game, their memories regarding the layout of the room and other things that will help him understand the way they tick.

Which obviously isn't fair play, unless I missed a key point somewhere, but I guess that's what Christie was getting at in her introduction. Perhaps there was a bridge-related clue hidden somewhere in all this that would have helped me figure it out but I know nada about bridge. In fact, my eyes tended to roll back in my head during the detailed discussions of the games and the scoring, but that was my only minor quibble with what I'd otherwise consider to be an outstanding work and one that comes with my highest recommendation.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Memory of Blood, by Christopher Fowler

The Memory of Blood
By Christopher Fowler
2011

Perhaps I could just stop you there before I go mad and kill you. (John May to Arthur Bryant)

It seems like only yesterday that I read and reviewed Christopher Fowler's The Water Room. Probably because it was actually just a few days ago. That was the second of Fowler's Bryant and May series and The Memory of Blood is the ninth. No need to dwell on my seeming inability to read a series in order and I'll point out that I'm actually going back to book one, with the intention of proceeding in order through the volumes I haven't read.

In any event, The Memory of Blood shows that Fowler didn't lose any momentum between books two and nine. I'm still not quite clear on why there seem to be so many works of "traditional" mystery that deal with the theater, but here's another one. Things get underway when the wealthy owner of a London theater throws a party at his home for the cast and crew of the latest production, along with a few other invitees.

Things soon get ugly, with a particularly nasty crime that essentially falls into the impossible category. Given the rather peculiar nature of the crime, the Peculiar Crimes Unit - including the aging but not quite over the hill crime-solving duo of John May and Arthur Bryant - are called in to sort it all out. More mayhem ensues before it's all said and done but I won't go into much in the way of specifics here. Suffice to say that, just as water was the underlying theme of The Water Room, so are puppets (yes, really) the theme of this one.

It's all a great deal of fun and a refreshing change in a time when it seems that everything coming through the mystery publishing pipeline is either a "thriller," chick-lit dressed up with a few mystery trappings, or a super-specific niche series about candy store owners and whatnot.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Water Room, by Christopher Fowler

The Water Room
By Christopher Fowler 2005

This is supposed to be a sterile zone, although I've lost count of the number of times I've found your cough drops in a body bag.
(coroner Oswald Finch, to Arthur Bryant)

Perhaps one day I'll manage to read a series of books in what I'm assuming is the accepted fashion - from beginning to end. It's not going to happen with Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series, since I've already fouled things up by starting with book two - The Water Room.

Oh, well. So be it. I don't read that many mystery series, by the way, and it's actually rather rare that I read a second book by a given author, given that there are so many authors I haven't had a chance to try. But something about The Water Room struck a chord. Already I'm almost finished with another book in the series and have started a third. That's mighty high praise in my neck of the woods.

There's a pretty decent mystery at the heart of The Water Room and a whole lot of arcane history about London and sundry other topics, if you go for that sort of thing. But the chief draw here (at least for me) is the characters. Make that "character" actually, since the star of the show is really Arthur Bryant, the elder half (by a few years) of a crime-solving duo who are well past retirement age and who have been working together for more than a half century.

With all due respect to John May, who's a fine enough character, he's eclipsed by Bryant, who is an eccentric of the first order and rather irascible, to boot. It's a bit of a stretch, I guess, but I couldn't help thinking of May as the Archie Goodwin of the pair, given that he's practical, down to earth and able to play well with others. Bryant, of course, is the sorta kinda like Nero Wolfe character.

In any event the pair are part of London's Peculiar Crimes Unit, which is essentially the Rodney Dangerfield of the city's law enforcement establishment. The book kicks off with a decidedly peculiar crime when an elderly woman is found dead sitting in a chair in her basement. Though she and her surroundings are dry, it's discovered that she's ingested and drowned on river water.

Which is just the start of the peculiarities, but I won't say too much more about the specifics of plot and execution. Fowler lays things out and ties them up pretty neatly. Although, to be quite honest, it was the interplay of the characters and those liberal doses of arcane history that really kept things moving along for me.

Image: christopherfowler.co.uk

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Archie Goodwin Meets Nero Wolfe - The Prequel

I went on my Nero Wolfe reading binge before I started this site and so there are not too many reviews here of those novels and novellas. I've actually reviewed about as many Wolfe novels by Robert Goldsborough in these pages as I have by Rex Stout.

Goldsborough is, of course, the writer who took over after Rex Stout's death and wrote a handful of Nero Wolfe novels. I'm not normally keen on the notion of someone taking over for a dead author, but on the other hand I have to admit that I liked the Goldsborough books quite a bit.

Which is why it came as welcome news that he is due to publish a prequel, of sorts, which speculates as to how Archie and the fat man got together. It's called Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and it's due to hit the shelves in late October or early November.

As Goldsborough says, "In developing the story, I made use of what few clues Mr. Stout had sprinkled around in his tales, including a brief reference to the kidnapping of a wealthy hotelier’s son. That kidnapping became a central focus of my book, along with young Archie Goodwin’s coming of age as a detective in the Manhattan of 1930."

More at the author's site.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: The Childerbridge Mystery, by Guy Boothby

The Childerbridge Mystery
By Guy Newell Boothby
1902

Guy Boothby was nothing if not prolific. In a writing career that spanned only a little more than a decade the Australian-born writer managed to turn out more than fifty novels and amassed a fairly sizable fortune.

I wasn't able to locate much background info on The Childerbridge Mystery, which appeared in 1902, three years before Boothby's death. I will say at the outset that if you're looking for that type of whodunit where an enterprising amateur or professional detective painstakingly gathers and pieces together clues to solve a crime or crimes, this ain't it. But I'll also say that in spite of this I found it quite entertaining.

Though it does contain a somewhat strong element of mystery, the book actually seems closer to an old-school gothic novel in tone and execution. As things get underway, widower William Standerton is preparing to move back to England from Australia, along with his grown children, James and Alice. After emigrating down under at age 16, Standerton made his fortune and thus can afford to lay out a sizable sum for an imposing edifice known as Childerbridge Manor.

Which isn't quite Otranto, mind you, but it's got it's gothic qualities, including a few restless spirits who seem to be keen on terrorizing the staff. Not long after the family moves in one of these spirits - the Black Dwarf - appears a few times and then tragedy strikes. Which is about as much as I need to say about the plot, except to point out that, though the crime at the center of this piece pretty much "solves" itself without any human intervention, though there is a detective on hand, halfheartedly trying to sort it all out, as does the younger Standerton.

Beyond that, probably the chief drawback of the book is the very small circle of suspects, which offers the reader little challenge when it comes to figuring out who actually done did the dirty deed. But, as I've already said, if you can look past all of this, The Childerbridge Mystery is a surprisingly readable book and rather bite-sized, to boot.

Here's a little more background on Boothby and here's a review of one of his earlier books.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

1222, by Anne Holt

1222
By Anne Holt
2011

I haven't been avoiding Scandinavian crime fiction, mind you. It's just that until now I hadn't run across anything that looked like I'd want to read it. But when I found out that Anne Holt's 1222 uses one of my favorite old school plot devices - taking a bunch of characters, stranding them in dire straits somewhere and mixing in a bunch of nefarious deeds - I was hooked.

And I have to say that I was hooked pretty much all the way to the end of the book. I haven't been reading as much mystery fiction lately and the few books I have tried haven't exactly grabbed me. So it was a refreshing change to run across a book that qualifies as an actual page-turner, if you'll pardon the cliché.

Holt certainly doesn't waste any time in getting into it. As the book opens, the train wreck that drives the plot has already taken place, stranding a couple hundred passengers in the mountains (at an elevation of 1,222 meters) in one of the worst blizzards Norway has ever seen. The engineer is dead but injuries are rather light otherwise and before long everyone is holed up in a nearby hotel, with no hope of getting out for a few days, at the very least.

Needless to say, a few of those nefarious deeds ensue and it's up to former police detective Hanne Wilhelmsen and the small inner circle that's gathered around her to figure out what's going on. There's probably not much here that will dazzle hardcore whodunit fans, but the plot was solid enough, the resolution satisfying and the author plays fair with the reader throughout. Although there are hundreds of potential suspects Holt makes it pretty clear that there aren't really that many and in the end it's not all that difficult to deduce who the baddie is.

None of which detracts from the story, which I'd rank as one of the better ones I've read for a while. About the only thing I didn't like, quite frankly, was the main character. This is apparently the eighth in a series featuring Wilhelmsen and in this installment she's a rather unlikable character, though she seems to mellow just a bit as things play out. Wilhelmsen was shot and paralyzed in the line of duty some years earlier and hasn't really come to grips with living the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Which is understandable and surely not every protagonist needs to be as chipper and well-adjusted as Joe and Frank Hardy but it was all a bit much for me.

Which also didn't detract from the story enough to keep me from giving it a very high recommendation.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Movie: Evil Under the Sun

Evil Under the Sun
From a story by Agatha Christie
1982

If you like your mystery cinema on a grand scale then you won't want to miss Evil Under the Sun. It starred Peter Ustinov as Agatha Christie's famed detective Hercule Poirot, as did Death on the Nile (1978), which I reviewed here, and Appointment With Death (1988). Ustinov also played the same role in a trio of TV movies which were made in the Eighties.

I've never heard anyone use the term "epic mystery," but it wouldn't be out of line to use it to describe this movie and Death on the Nile, in which it seems that nearly every component, from performances to setting to cinematography to score, is somehow larger than life. Plus there's the usual cast of notable actors on hand to fill the other roles, including Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, James Mason, and Diana Rigg.

As for the plot, about all I'll really say it is that it worked for me. I haven't read the book yet so I can't make any comparisons, but at the core of things are a few murders and a missing gemstone, which M. Poirot is working to locate. Which task takes him to a (presumably) Mediterranean island resort where most of the action plays out.

Perhaps a more persnickety reviewer than I could have found something not to like about this one, but aside from the fact that many of the performances bordered on being downright over the top, I couldn't find much to quibble about.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Movie: The Fatal Hour

The Fatal Hour
Starring Boris Karloff
1940

With Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto all the rage back in the day it's no surprise that enterprising movie bigwig types created yet another Asian detective, this one named James Lee Wong. The Fatal Hour is the fourth of six of these movies to be hammered out between 1938 and 1940. The first five starred Boris Karloff in the main role and the last starred Keye Luke (a very busy actor, who people in my generation probably know best as Master Po, from the Kung Fu TV series).

Let's consider the relative absurdity of Karloff playing an Asian detective for just one moment and then move on. Actually Karloff, racial identity issues aside, is probably the best thing about this rather dull movie. It concerns smuggling and a cop is killed, apparently while investigating said smuggling activities, and Wong is called in to help one of the cop's colleagues sort out the matter. And to tell you the truth, that's about all I got out of it, given that my mind tended to frequently wander as things unfolded. If you're a Karloff completist, maybe you'd want to check it out. Or not.

Here's a brief New York Times review from back when, in which the reviewer didn't think much more of this film than I did.

Monday, August 6, 2012

New Yorker On Boris Akunin And Gore Vidal

What do novelists Grigory Chkhartishvili and Gore Vidal have in common? Well, for starters they both write/wrote detective fiction under a pen name and they were also both profiled recently in the New Yorker.

Chkhartishvili is better known to readers of his fiction as Boris Akunin and, according to the New Yorker piece, is one of Russia’s most widely read contemporary authors. Read the profile here but beware of some mild spoilers. Read my review of Akunin's Murder on the Leviathan, here. Or better yet read the book. You probably won't regret it.

I haven't read any of Gore Vidal's works and of course he's better known for writing novels that don't fall into the crime fiction category. But the New Yorker piece focuses primarily on the trio of crime novels he write under the name Edgar Box. Read the profile here.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Movie: The Solitaire Man

The Solitaire Man
Based on a play by Bella and Samuel Spewack
1933

A lot of the movies I review here fall into a zone that I'd categorize as not spectacular, but not so lousy that I felt like my time was wasted. Which was the case with The Solitaire Man (not to be confused with a recent Michael Douglas movie called The Solitary Man).

It stars Herbert Marshall as Oliver Lane, head of a gang of jewel thieves who's decided that it's time for him to go straight. When one of the other gang members doesn't get the memo and makes off with some jewelry, Marshall takes the drastic step of trying to return it without being noticed. Unfortunately, while doing so, a Scotland Yard inspector is bumped off by person or persons unknown and the plot thickens considerably.

Which accounts for about the first one-third of the movie and which is not all that riveting, to be quite honest. Things pick up a bit as the proceedings move to a small passenger plane traveling from Paris to London. The passengers are the four jewel thieves, another Scotland Yard inspector (apparently) and a loud-mouthed American woman. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that the wrap-up was particularly spectacular, it wasn't all that bad either.

Here's a New York Times review of the movie from back in the day.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Wobble To Death, by Peter Lovesey


Wobble To Death
By Peter Lovesey
1970


I haven't read any of Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond novels, but I gather that they're more widely read than the series of eight Sergeant Cribb novels he turned out in the Seventies, if only because they're more recent. Wobble To Death is the first in this earlier series and I have to admit that I was drawn to it primarily because of the subject matter. Thanks to Mike at Only Detect, who reviewed this one a while back and without whom I wouldn't have been aware of it.

I'd bet that Lovesey publishing a nonfiction book in 1968 called The Kings of Distance and the fact that Wobble to Death deals with ultra marathon running is no coincidence. Ultra marathon running is alive and well today but Lovesey's novel deals with similar events from the latter portion of the nineteenth century that were sometimes known as wobbles.

The particular wobble under consideration takes place in London, in late fall, in a cold and drafty hall where a dozen or so athlete/masochists have convened to see how much mileage they can rack up over the course of six days. It's no small feat to win one of these contests, given that top contenders often tally more than five hundred miles over the course of a race.

Succumbing to poison is one thing contestants don't typically have to concern themselves with but in this case this is exactly what happens to one of the front runners. Which is the cue for Sergeant Cribb and sidekick, Constable Thackeray, to appear on the scene. Though the spectacle is quite well attended and even more so as the days pass, Lovesey makes it clear that there are essentially a limited number of suspects, one of whom is knocked off not much further along in the proceedings.

I refrained from reading Mike's review until I'd finished the book but it looks as though we arrived at pretty much the same conclusion. I found Lovesey's book to be a very entertaining look at a little-known segment of history and a passable but not particularly dazzling whodunit.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Movie: The Murder of Dr. Harrigan



The Murder of Dr. Harrigan
Based on a story by Mignon G. Eberhart
(1936)


I have to admit that the notion of a mystery flick that takes place almost exclusively in a hospital didn’t really grab me. So this one lingered on my DVR for quite some time before I finally decided to take a look and ended up being pleasantly surprised. I don't think anyone would rank The Murder of Dr. Harrigan too highly in the annals of crime and detective cinema, but it's not a bad effort and at 66 minutes it doesn't tax your attention span.

It's obviously no spoiler to reveal that Dr. Harrigan is indeed murdered not too far into the proceedings. Which comes as no surprise since nearly all of the major characters here have some sort of beef with him. What throws a twist into the mix is that a wealthy patient who developed an experimental anesthetic Harrigan was planning to use has gone missing as well. Interestingly, Harrigan claimed the anesthetic was originally his formula and was stolen by said patient.

It was no great feat to figure out who did the killing though I wasn't able to divine the killer's motivation until it was revealed. Even though it was no great shakes as a whodunit I suspect that I found this one a bit more entertaining than a New York Times reviewer from back in the day.

As for writer Eberhart, she turned out a pile of novels in a career that lasted nearly sixty years. Here's a review of one of her books that's actually closer to a brief overview of her writing career.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Movie: The Lone Wolf and His Lady


The Lone Wolf and His Lady
Based on characters created by Louis Joseph Vance
1949


The Lone Wolf and His Lady is the seventh Lone Wolf movie I've reviewed and it's also the last one produced. This will probably not come as a surprise to anyone who's actually seen it. In terms of plot and execution it's actually pretty standard Lone Wolf stuff. Which is to say that it rolls out the boilerplate plot of having a priceless jewel stolen and suspicion focusing on a certain retired jewel thief, who then has to crack the case so that he can clear his name.

Which is all fine and dandy and it's a plot that's worked quite nicely in the other installments where I've seen it used. The problem here is Ron Randell, whose portrayal of Michael Lanyard/The Lone Wolf lacks even one speck of the sophistication that Warren William brought to the role. Even Gerald Mohr, who took over for William in three of the later installments, did a better job.

As for the wisecracking sidekick/butler/valet, Jamison, Alan Mowbray is a very poor substitute for the comic antics of Eric Blore, who took on this key role in numerous installments. I have to admit that I found Blore rather annoying at first, but he grew on me over time and I found myself wishing he'd been on board for this one.

This might have been a decent enough, if rather insubstantial piece of work, if you hadn't seen any other Lone Wolf movies. But, quite frankly, if you're going to start watching these movies you really owe it to yourself to go with one of the installments that star William and Blore.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Asey Mayo Trio, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor


The Asey Mayo Trio
by Phoebe Atwood Taylor
1943


I've concluded that Asey Mayo might not be for me. Prior to starting this site I read Out of Order, one of the earlier of the 24 books to feature the amateur detective and I found myself a bit underwhelmed. But not so much so that I wasn't willing to give Asey another shot.

My local used bookstore has a decent selection of Asey Mayo and this time around I thought I would go with The Asey Mayo Trio, a collection of three novellas. Since this is a form popularized by one of my favorite mystery authors, Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe), I decided it was worth a shot.

I flipped to the last of the novellas first, The Stars Spell Death, in which the Cape Cod-based detective tackles a murder in which a prominent astronomer is taken out with a good whack to the head. I wouldn't go so far as to say I didn't like it and I can't quite put a finger on what was lacking but I was underwhelmed enough (again) that I decided to skip the other two novellas and move onto the next item on my To Be Read pile.

About the best I can come up with by way of pinning down what I didn't like is to say that the plot just seemed to be a series of incidents strung together for no real purpose and with no real interest for the reader - or at least for this reader. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm done with Asey for good, but I'll probably think long and hard before trying another one.