Friday, November 30, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and the Swedish Enigma, by Barry Grant

Sherlock Holmes and the Swedish Enigma
By Barry Grant

"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

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

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

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

"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

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

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

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.