Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: The Childerbridge Mystery, by Guy Boothby

The Childerbridge Mystery
By Guy Newell Boothby

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

By Anne Holt

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

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

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

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.