Tuesday 28 February 2012

Francis Beeding - The Norwich Victims (1935)

For the most part, The Norwich Victims is an agreeable "inverted mystery". Miss Haslett, a matron at an English preparatory school, is in possession of a winning ticket in the French lottery and makes plans to travel to Paris to claim the prize money. Unfortunately for her, she also makes plans to visit John Throgmorton, an unscrupulous bucket shop investor who plans to murder Miss Haslett and have his female secretary assume Miss Haslett's identity in order to cash the ticket and obfuscate the time of Miss Haslett's death. An entertaining but somewhat undistinguished storyline at least until the ending. I felt that there must be something more to the story but dismissed one possibility as being too outlandish until I realized that it was the conclusion to which the authors (as Francis Beeding is a pseudonym for two male writers) were leading so that the book manages to be both benign and audacious. I'll let the two aspects cancel each other out and call the book "pleasant". (The plot summary at the beginning of the book hints broadly at the ending but fortunately I didn't read it until after I'd completed the book).

Thanks to John at Pretty Sinister Books for awarding me this book in his trivia challenge!

Saturday 25 February 2012

William Krohn - "The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus" (1965)

After recently reading a couple of reviews of The Death of Laurence Vining (here and here) I was reminded of this short story (originally printed in the April 1965 edition of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) with a similar premise--an impossible murder in a hotel elevator. Charles Kimball (an illusionist who goes under the stage name of Dr. Satanus) is found dead from a stab wound in the Hotel Bowman elevator. Two witnesses (including Kimball's wife) testify that he entered the elevator alone and that the car made no stops as it descended to the lobby where his body was discovered. Furthermore, the emergency exit in the roof of the car is locked from the inside. Who killed Kimball and how was his death carried out?

When it comes to my preference in impossible crimes, the more simple the explanation of the mystery the better and so I found "The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus" with its straightforward solution to be a satisfying impossible crime story.

According to the bio in EQMM, Krohn was a university freshman when this story was published and the first detective story he read was (surprise!) John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins. Although he started his writing career young, it doesn't appear that he published much (if anything else) in the genre. Too bad because this was a promising debut.

I thought this might be an obscure short story to get a hold of, but it was deservingly reprinted in 2007 in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Eugene Jones - Who Killed Gregory? (1928)

"...this fear of ghosts is nothing more than a phobia. Utterly a Preposterous Theory!"

I bought Who Killed Gregory? a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised when the book arrived with a dust jacket that wasn't mentioned in the listing. Three dollars (plus shipping) well spent! But was it time well spent to have read this obscure mystery? For the most part, yes.

The story is narrated by James Stanley, a doctor in a small Long Island town. Like many of the other residents, his curiosity is piqued with the news that an empty estate, the Grange, is to have a new owner. Curiosity, however, turns to bewilderment when, before the arrival of the new resident, bars are placed across all the windows. Upon taking the new owner, Wilton Gregory, as a patient Stanley discovers that Gregory fears an enemy from his past and despite learning that this enemy has recently died, Gregory believes that this man can still take vengeance from beyond the grave. "Crazy as a loon" is Stanley's diagnosis. At least until strange happenings begin to occur at  the Grange; prowlers, thumping noises coming from the basement, the ghostly appearance of a luminous dagger in the attic, sightings of a ghost which can disappear before walls, and finally, the death of Wilton Gregory in a locked room.

Gregory is discovered dead in his upper bedroom by the servants and his nephew Paul. There are no marks of violence on his body, no sign of footprints or a ladder in the ground beneath the window (although Gregory has apparently fired a gun at someone or something) and no evidence of poisoning. Suspicion falls upon Paul Gregory and Dr. Stanley advises the help of Byron Hughes, a newspaperman, to solve the mystery of Wilton Gregory's death.

Who Killed Gregory? reminds me of the works of Mary Roberts Rinehart and her imitators. A large mansion, mysterious goings on in the dark, the possibility of something hidden in the house, frightened servants and a story recorded by a nervous narrator. Indeed, Dr. Stanley seems to be the male version of all those Rinehartian spinsters (unsurprisingly he is middle aged and unmarried). There is much entertainment to be found and Dr. Stanley makes for a humorous narrator, especially when facetiously casting his housekeeper in the role of least likely suspect. The story only falters with the explanation of the locked room mystery. It relies on a great coincidence and, while I'm not certain, it seems that the means of death should have been more apparent to the people who discovered and examined Gregory's body. Still, I'm favourably disposed towards the book.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

C. St. John Sprigg - The Six Queer Things (1937)

"...there was nothing desperately odd about any of them taken alone, but taken together, as found in a carefully locked drawer which someone had attempted to force open, in a house where murder had been committed, they were mysterious and challenging. They were facts, cold, solid facts, which one could handle and touch, and yet for the first time the inspector had an unpleasant feeling that facts were not enough, that just because they were facts it would need some wild and extravagant theory to fit them all within the boundaries of one coherent story."

Sprigg's final mystery novel, published after his death during the Spanish Civil War, is darker in tone than the previous mysteries I've read of his although there are similarities between them. Like The Corpse with the Sunburned Face, The Six Queer Things has a hybrid quality to it but whereas TCWTSF moves from mystery to an African adventure thriller, TSQT takes the reverse route and uses an occult thriller beginning to set up the mystery elements.

The central figure in The Six Queer Things is Marjorie Easton, one of those improbably naive women found in detective fiction. Working at an ill-paying job and living with her miserly uncle, Marjorie is desperate to change her situation and a job offer from the strange Michael Crispin and his sister gives Marjorie that opportunity although not without a feeling of unease. Although the job promises to be remunerative, Marjorie has no idea what it entails other than the vague description of "research" and that it requires Marjorie to move in with the Crispins. On her first day of work, Marjorie is surprised to learn that Michaels' research is simply a euphemism for spiritualism. Crispin regularly holds seances at which he is the medium and at first Marjorie is simply required to record what happens at these seances but eventually she is encouraged to develop her own psychic gifts. Developing those gifts comes at a cost. She becomes more isolated, experiences terrible nightmares and is soon on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Marjorie's physician then enlists the help of her estranged boyfriend Ted to infiltrate the seances and to discover why Michael brought Marjorie to the Crispin house in the first place. This proves to be much more riskier than Ted foresaw, especially when a poisoning occurs at one of the seances and Ted is accused of being the culprit.

Enter Detective-Inspector Charles Morgan. Usually not an imaginative detective, he is given the task not only of discovering the poisoner and how the poison was administered but also the significance of the "six queer things" found in a locked drawer in the Crispin residence (some of which are obvious to the reader). While at this point the book has moved from the occult set-up to the mystery storyline, the novel changes direction again, adding scenes of gothic romance and a criminal conspiracy storyline. I was a bit disappointed when the mystery investigation gave way to these elements and the shift in focus rendered The Six Queer Things not entirely satisfying (although the shift wasn't as abrupt as the switch from England to Africa in TCWTSF). Although I've seen the novel described as humourless as compared to Sprigg's previous work, there still is some humour to be occasionally found in the novel (although sparingly and sometimes very black). As well there were some plot and character similarities to his earlier work (specifically Pass the Body). However, the mystery still manages a few surprises.

Overall, I would rate The Six Queer Things more highly than The Corpse with the Sunburned Face and Death of an Airman, but my favourite Sprigg still remains Pass the Body (with the delightful Charles Venables). Unfortunately, like much of Sprigg's output, The Six Queer Things is quite pricey on the used market.

Thursday 9 February 2012

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree - Illustrations

The following are some of the illustrations for the 1934 "Sunday Novel" edition of The Puzzle of The Pepper Tree. (I reviewed the novel in my previous post).

Stuart Palmer - The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933)

"Perhaps that poor fellow over there looks like just another case of heart failure to you, but I'm getting so I can detect the very smell of murder."

At the end of a short seaplane trip to Catalina Island, a passenger whom everyone suspected of simply being airsick is discovered dead in his seat. The chief of police would like to close the case as soon as possible but unfortunately for him Miss Hildegarde Withers is vacationing on the island and she suspects something much more devious than a simple case of heart failure. Especially when she discovers that the dead man was an unwilling witness in a corruption trial with a 15,000 bounty on his head. But which passenger was looking to make some extra cash...the movie director, the ambitious blonde, the simpering newlyweds, the pottery salesman, the Norwegian ship captain or perhaps even one of the pilots? And no murder investigation is helped by the disappearance of the corpse.

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree is one of the better entries in the humorous Hildegarde Withers series. While her usual sidekick, New York City police detective Oscar Piper, is absent for much of the book, Hildegarde teams up Phyllis La Fond, the ambitious blonde, and they make an amusing detective pair. Hildegarde is aided by one wildly propitious clue and the death of the passenger is revealed to rely on a dexterousness which seems improbable, but on the whole, if you're a fan of the series, you'll enjoy this one too.

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree is readily available from the Rue Morgue Press and was filmed in 1935 under the title Murder on a Honeymoon.


Joining a reading challenge and starting a blog has encouraged me to read some of the books that have been languishing on my shelves (and floor) for far too long (that is, if I can find where I've piled them). On the other hand, the more that I'm motivated to read, the more that I'm motivated to buy so that I despair of ever seeing my floor again. However, I must say that I was pleased to find some affordable copies of several Ludovic Travers mysteries. Also represented in this batch are Huntoon Rogers, Christopher Hand and Inspector Poole. One step forward, two steps back...

Monday 6 February 2012

Victor MacClure - Hi-Spy-Kick-the-Can (1936)

"Those bloody awful books of his were enough to provoke a desire to murder in anybody with a sense of decency."

In Murder Ink, a collection of essays edited by Dilys Winn, there's a humorous feature entitled The Don't List, things to avoid if you don't want to become the next victim with such entire as "Don't go for lonely walks with those you've just disinherited" and "Don't sample the chocolates that arrived by post, anonymously, on your birthday". I can add one that's missing from the list. Don't, at a gathering of bright young things, join in any games that involve turning off the house lights or running around in the yard in the dark. Invariably a sharp dagger will be introduced into the fun and festivities. Such is the background for Hi-Spy-Kick-the-Can. During a glorified game of hide-and-seek in which the partygoers are divided into two teams of hiders and searchers, the lifeless body of children's novelist and full-time sleaze Roger Ward, author of such classics as Mau'wiss the Mouse and Dinkery-donk, is discovered in the dark beneath a yew tree.

The investigation of the "murder in the shrubbery" is headed by Chief Detective-Inspector Archie Burford and the majority of the novel is set in the hours immediately following the discovery of Ward's body. Like the only other MacClure mystery I've read, The Clue of the Dead Goldfish, much of the investigation centres on tracking the movements of people at the crime scene through the use of footprints and other physical clues. These clues, along with re-enactment of the game of hi-spy-kick-the-can, soon prove that not everyone in the game has been forthright about their movements that night and it's up to Burford, who strives to be genial, fair and not given to premature theorizing, to discover what really went on during the game.

This is the type of mystery that I'd call hum-drum and I found my interest waning as I read it. I couldn't muster much enthusiasm for an investigation that centred mainly around footprints and tracking and was in desperate need of a change of scenery. Competent but not exciting, the most memorable part of the book is the ambiguous ending.

Kathleen Moore Knight - Exit a Star (1941)

"I don't like detective work...I don't like prying into other people's affairs. I don't like playing tricks and telling white lies and sitting in judgment on my fellow humans."

"I'm not gonna try it--you try it!" Television viewers of a certain age might remember the seventies "Mikey" commercial in which two boys look suspiciously at a bowl of Life cereal refusing to have a taste of it and finally giving the bowl to a third child to sample, which is how I felt about the mystery novels of Kathleen Moore Knight. Not difficult to find, inexpensive, plenty of titles to choose from but no one ever seemed to read them or blog about them. I was always waiting for "someone else" to review them so that I could decide whether they were worth reading or not. Finally, tired of playing the waiting game, I have read my first Knight title and you know what? I liked it! Hey, Mikey!

Exit a Star is the second title in the Margot Blair series. Blair, a principal in the public relations firm of Norman and Blair, has taken on a new client, Susan Holland, an up-and-coming theatre ingenue who has just landed her first role in a "Lynn Speakman" play. Giving Susan publicity as the best-dressed-girl-of-the-moment and spotlighting her fabulous Mlle Denise gowns should be easy enough except for one thing or perhaps I should say one person, Speakman's frequent and nasty star, Lucia Dracott. Somehow Dracott has obtained copies of Susan's "exclusive" gowns and is wearing them to the same functions that Susan is to attend, insinuating and trying to give Susan bad publicity as a silly copy-cat. While practicing the play at a rural theatre and following another humiliation of Susan, the atmosphere is tense. Speakman seems tired of Lucia, she is antagonistic towards the other cast members and it is not long before someone decides to promote Lucia as the fading-star-most-likely-to-be-found-murdered with Susan set to be the scapegoat. Reluctantly, Margot sets out to clear her client, a task made all the more difficult since Susan has disappeared.

Knight packs a lot into 300 pages. Backbiting, secret relationships, blackmail, betrayal and a murderer who, of course, just can't stop with one death. Add a dash of humour ("I see cactus is being worn this season") and a killer whose identity is well-hidden and you have a winning mystery. Now I just have to ask myself why I didn't take the Kathleen Moore Knight plunge earlier.