Thursday 29 March 2012

Henry Bellamann - The Gray Man Walks (1936)

"What are you looking for?"
"His head, man, his head. It's gone. His head isn't here."

Which of the following is the best indicator of the quality of this mystery? (a) The Gray Man, a legendary spectre whose appearance on an eerie island foretells misfortune (b) Miss Euphemia Clay, an acerbic spinster detective or (c) Kizzah the conjure man?

If you guessed (c) then give yourself a gold star! I had reservations about buying The Gray Man Walks after reading a plot summary which mentions Kizzah the local conjure man. Warning bells went off that the book would probably contain some nasty stereotypes and tedious-to-read "coloured" dialect but I bought TGMW hoping that the supernatural element and the presence of a Hildegarde Withers type detective would counter the unpleasant aspects. I found, however, that the legend and appearance of the Gray Man didn't provide much atmosphere and that Euphemia Clay didn't get enough book time, leaving the reader with a sheriff  who uses the n-word far too many times in the course of the book and non-white characters who are at best devious, suspicious and superstitious and at worst murderers, drug dealers and wife beaters. Yecccch!

Mystery-wise, the plot centres around the appearance of the Gray Man, the beheading of one of the island's residents and the investigation into  his murder by the man's sister, Euphemia Clay. But the mystery is fair and doesn't have any momentum to it. A hard-to-find title and deserving of its obscurity.

More More More!

A few more acquisitions (the harder to read spines are The Wraith and Murder's Little Helper). The Kirby Williams title features Thackeray Place, another Philo Vance inspired detective who would also appear in The Opera Murders.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Milton Propper - The Divorce Court Murder (1934)

Milton Propper is an author whom I find especially troubling. I thought that the first book of his that I read was "okay". "Meh" was how I felt about the second. However I rather enjoyed my third and fourth encounters with his Tommy Rankin series (even the one with the railway time-table...shudder!) which raises the question: were these Proppers better than the earlier ones I read or had my critical faculties (providing I had any to begin with) taken a long vacation? Contrary to his meagre critical reception, I think that his mysteries do have some merit.

The Divorce Court Murder provides an interesting look into the mores of 1930s Philadelphia. Surprisingly, the setting is not a law court but rather the offices of a legal firm where the socially prominent Adele Rowland is suing her husband for divorce, bringing evidence against him that he has been carrying on an extramarital affair with her secretary, Jill Edmond. It is this accusation of adultery that results in the case being heard in a private law office:

"Rankin was sufficiently familiar with the peculiar divorce law of his state...In Pennsylvania , the proceedings were generally private, instead of being held in open court before a judge and jury. Some member of the bar, called a 'master', was assigned by a justice to listen to the facts of the complaint, and present his findings to him; the court usually followed his recommendation, whether for or against the divorce...With one exception this system did not preclude jury trials where both parties preferred one. There could be no public hearing, if the grounds involved such details of immorality, profligacy or unchastity as to make their disclosure prejudicial to public morals."

Initially, Allan Rowland made no attempt to contest Adele's suit but, as the story opens, he is now attempting to take advantage of another peculiarity of the divorce law; if both parties have been unfaithful, the divorce will not be granted (the reasoning being that divorce is a privilege and will only be granted when the parties deserve one) and he has brought a witness with him to testify that his wife has also been involved in an adulterous relationship. When his lawyer attempts to bring her from another room where she has been waiting, the witness, the equally socially prominent Barbara Keith, is discovered chloroformed to death. Suspicion is then divided among Adele, her lawyer, her alleged lover and Keith's husband who is also discovered to have been in the law offices that day.

As in the other Propper titles, the investigation is carried out by the youthful looking Tommy Rankin who, lacking the brilliance and insouciance of other detectives of his era, relies on perseverance and thoroughness to solve his cases. While Propper is often maligned for his lack of characterization, Rankin and the other characters who populate The Divorce Court Murder are no worse than many British "Inspector Mundane of the Yard" mysteries although his prose will never be considered stylish or witty. While Propper is occasionally praised for his plotting (Francis M. Nevins contends that "his best books hold some of the intellectual excitement of the early novels of Ellery Queen"), I'm not sure that I found all the twists and motives of TDCM entirely credible but the mystery was a fairly engaging puzzle for the most part.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Kathleen Moore Knight - Death Blew Out the Match (1935)

"One moment--brilliant sunshine, shimmering sea, the pipe and whistle of birds, the quiver of a million growing things; the next--death and horror."

The first of the author's Elisha Macomber mysteries, Death Blew Out the Match is set on the Cape Cod island of Penberthy where recently unemployed Anne Waldron and her friend Hazel "Kerch" Kershaw have come to stay at the Waldron cottage. Their plans for an idyllic summer stay are shattered however when they discover the body of caustic playwright Marya Van Wyck who has unflatteringly portrayed several of the locals in a recent stage success. Marya is found in her cottage in front of the fireplace (unlike the dust jacket illustration), a charred match still held between her thumb and forefinger. Kerch, a nurse, thinks the death suspicious and an autopsy establishes Marya's death by cyanide of potassium poisoning. However the autopsy also shows no traces of food in her stomach or mouth . How was the poison introduced into Marya's system? Anne soon turns detective (her efforts describe as "philovancing") with her attention firmly focused on Mr. Hyland, a recent arrival to Penberthy.

I was disappointed with Death Blew Out the Match. While quick-tempered Anne Waldron's narration and investigation are for the most part enjoyable, much of the focus is centred on events that turn out to be unconnected with Marya's murder which is hastily (and rather accidentally) resolved. A paucity of suspects is also a weakness and the method of poisoning is more goofy than clever. Hopefully Elisha Macomber is better served in the next of his mysteries as his character could easily have been written out of this novel without a substantial difference to the plot.

Fans of old time radio can listen to an adaptation of the novel here.

Monday 19 March 2012

Mabel Seeley - The Crying Sisters (1939)

Janet Ruell is bored. A small town librarian whose only suitor is a dull bank teller, Janet vows that she'll take any chance for excitement that comes her way on her vacation. Stopping at a Minnesota tourist camp, she meets Steve Corbett and takes him up on an unusual proposition: to accompany him, a stranger, to the Crying Sisters Lodge, stay with him in a cabin and look after his son Cottie. While the offer seems innocent enough, Janet suspects that Steve has a different motive for visiting the resort other than relaxation and the gun that he gives her for protection makes her even more uneasy and puzzled. The first night in their cabin, Janet is awakened by a woman's scream and finds Steve's cot empty and the cabin locked from the outside. Could her new employer be a murderer?

The Crying Sisters, Mabel Seeley's second mystery, contains many of the trademarks of woman-in-peril novels; a sullen romantic interest who may be up to something sinister, a heroine who ignores common sense by putting herself in danger and who, despite collecting many clues, can't quite piece them together to solve the mystery, and a final attempt on the heroine's life. However, Seeley does play with some of the conventions and Janet proves to be tough and capable in a dangerous situation, lifting this mystery a notch above other similar novels.

This title and several of Seeley's other mysteries are readily available in new editions.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Aquisitions or Swept Away by a Wave of Book Overflow

Proving that I'm a firm believer that one can never have too many books (but can have too few bookshelves), I present some more recent purchases. Two things are apparent from this photo:

1. I'm continuing my love affair with Kathleen Moore Knight.
2. The "fat" Crime Club printings are much more attractive than the later slimmer editions.

A New Challenge with Old Books

I've decided to tackle a new theme in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge (as I recently completed the Cherchez le homme theme). I'm going to attempt the Murderous Miscellany challenge with my theme being "Pocket-sized Murder" as I'd like to read some of  my unread 40s and 50s smaller-sized paperbacks. First up...Brett Halliday...

Monday 12 March 2012

M.V Heberden - Murder Follows Desmond Shannon (1942)

" looked somewhat as if murder investigations in St. Callista conducted themselves. And, he thought grimly, conduct itself it could. He was on vacation."

After several years of tiring private eye work, Desmond Shannon finally takes a vacation to the island of St. Callista in the British West Indies but his vacation proves to be anything but restful when he unwillingly heads the investigation into the poisoning of one of the island's few white residents.

Although Shannon is a private eye, the background and cast of characters of the book make it similar to a British village mystery. In St. Callista Shannon undertakes the murder investigation among the vicar, his sister, several estate owners, a spinster and various other residents who congregate nightly at the local club and, who for the most part, are a prejudicial and insular bunch. They are most vocal in their enmity toward Jack Howell, a pacifist and plantation owner, and Shannon allows himself to be drawn into the case to avoid the crime being conveniently pinned on Howell. While Shannon defends Howell's right of conscience against the colony's bias, the same consideration does not extend to the island's non-white residents with Shannon's attitude varying from the condescending to the outright threatening (suggesting that an island bully needs a whipping) which makes for some uneasy reading.

While the choice of victim is surprising, the mystery is rather thin and the Desmond Shannon series is much better served with a New York setting.

Pictured is the author who used her initials when writing the series, as Mary Violet isn't the best name under which  to be writing a hard-boiled mystery.

Reading Challenge Progress

I recently completed the "cherchez le homme" theme in the 2012 vintage mystery reading challenge. I'll continue to add books to the list but will probably add a new "customized" theme to the challenge.

It's also easy to guess which decade I favour...

Cherchez le homme

Sherwood King - Between Murders (1935)
Victor MacClure - Hi-Spy-Kick-the-Can (1936)
Stuart Palmer-The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933)
C. St. John Sprigg - The Six Queer Things (1937)
Eugene Jones - Who Killed Gregory (1928)
Francis Beeding - The Norwich Victims (1935)
Stanley Hart Page-The Tragic Curtain (1935)
Frederick C. Davis - He Wouldn't Stay Dead (1939)
Christopher Bush - The Death of Cosmo Revere (1930)

Golden Age Girls

Virginia Perdue - The Case of the Grieving Monkey (1941)
Kathleen Moore Knight - Exit a Star (1941)
Carol Carnac - Death in the Diving-Pool (1940)
M.V. Heberden - Murder Follows Desmond Shannon (1942)

Saturday 10 March 2012

Christopher Bush - The Death of Cosmo Revere (1930)

At first glance it appears that head of the magnificent Fenwold estate died as a result of a tree felling accident but one of the first persons on the scene (with some knowledge of tree felling technique) recognizes the "accident" as a put-up job and soon Ludovic Travers and John Franklin are covertly investigating the death of Cosmo Revere. Travers adopts the guise of a representative of the law firm which is to make preparations for the new heir while Franklin masquerades as Ludovic's personal servant which results in a two-tier investigation. Travers investigates the "upstairs" contingent of the Hall--Revere's niece and the habitu├Ęs of the estate--while Franklin focuses his attention on the servants and residents of the village.

The focus of the detection is not so much "who done it" but rather "what are they up to" and while at first the set-up and the novelty of the complementary investigation (a refreshing change from the usual genius detective and his none-too-bright sidekick) holds one attention, I felt my interest wane with the slow pacing of the middle section. The novel does pick up in the last third with Travers and Franklin again acting in a complementary manner (with one discovering the identity of the murderer and the other the reason for the suspicious behaviour at the Hall) and one surprise revelation.

Best recommended for those readers who are willing to be patient with the slow progress of the novel although willing readers will find it a challenge to find an affordable copy. Scarce in the Doubleday printing and under the original British title of Murder at Fenwold.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Frederick C. Davis - He Wouldn't Stay Dead (1939)

"...I can't help feeling that you're getting off on the wrong foot by calling this a case of murder and body snatching."

He Wouldn't Stay Dead is the second mystery to feature Cy Hatch, a criminology professor who also happens to be the police commissioner's son and who, in his father's opinion, has a bad habit of becoming involved in the police department's cases. Aiding Hatch is Danny Delevan, a retired welterweight who is employed as Hatch's bodyguard to prevent any of the police commissioner's enemies from taking revenge against the father through the son (although Delevan is largely ineffectual in the role and functions primarily in the story as comic relief).

At the beginning of HWSD Hatch is visited in quick succession by two persons requesting his help in locating Sylvia Gregg, a witness in a car theft ring and murder investigation who disappeared shortly after being subpoenaed. One is a stripper named Dorelle who claims that her husband has helped Sylvia to disappear, the other Roy Foster, a fellow college instructor of Hatch's who has become lovestruck with Sylvia. Sensing that Dorelle is lying about her interest in the Sylvia Gregg disappearance and out of sympathy for Foster who's a nervous wreck, Hatch decides to take a hand in the case.

Visiting his father, Mark Hatch, at police headquarters for background on the case, Cy discovers that the case involves several missing persons. In addition to Sylvia, Sylvia's roommate Ruth Grayson, who has come into a million dollar inheritance and moved out of the apartment, also can't be traced and may be sheltering Sylvia. The police would also like to locate Phil Doyle, a disreputable private investigator who was seen at the Gregg apartment before she disappeared. Fortuitously, as Cy questions his father, a telephone call from Sylvia's landlady informs them that Phil Doyle is back at the Gregg apartment. As Cy. Mark and Danny arrive at the apartment, they hear a shot. Entering the apartment they discover Phil Doyle's body in the bedroom. No pulse and surprisingly, two gunshot holes in his shirt front. But the shooting gets even stranger. As the two Hatches search the apartment, Danny cries out in the bedroom. Finding the bedroom door now closed and locked, the father and son break down the door to discover Doyle's body no longer in the room and Delevan groggy on his hands and knees claiming that the corpse slugged him on the head with a gun. While Mark Hatch decides that Danny is mistaken and that someone else slugged Delevan and absconded with the body through the window, Cy is insistent that the shooting and Sylvia's disappearance are much more complex than they first appeared.

He Wouldn't Stay Dead is a winning mystery (and probably the most affordable and easiest to find of the early Cy Hatch cases). Briskly paced, humorous and fleshed out with characters who complicate the investigation--the secretary who's a little too willing to aid in the investigation, a deputy commissioner who indulges in a little eavesdropping and political backstabbing, and two hissably sadistic thugs. Hatch engages in some scientific detection and the usual rounding-up-of-the-suspects conclusion (although the astute reader will figure out what happened to Sylvia Gregg before he does). The only part that seemed underdone was an attraction between Hatch and one of the principals in the case.

Overall, a "fun" read and I look forward to the other Cy Hatch novels.

Friday 2 March 2012

Artwork: Stanley Hart Page

Artwork for two of Stanley Hart Page's mysteries. The first is from my own library, the second I found in an image search (and is much more striking than the original dust jacket).

Stanley Hart Page - The Tragic Curtain (1935)

"My policy is to construct as many [theories] as possible and balance them against each other amassing every atom of evidence in support or derogation  of them all, until the correct one achieves such conspicuity that the minimum possibility of error exists."

One can tell from the preceding quote that we've entered Philo Vanceland and I'll readily admit two things. Firstly, that Philo Vance is one of my favourite detectives and, secondly, that I'm a sucker for all the second and third-rate Philo Vance wannabes that came along in the twenties and thirties.

The Tragic Curtain is the last title in Stanley Hart Page's "Christopher Hand" series and is somewhat of an improvement over the preceding title Murder Flies the Atlantic. (I was surprised to find that MFTA wasn't the last title as with it's sloppy plotting it bore the hallmarks of the "last gasp" of a series). The Tragic Curtain relies on the well-worn plot of the disposal of the heirs of an aged patriarch (in this case, business magnate Leander Holloway). First of the heirs to die is Holloway's nephew, Robert Bradshaw, who is disposed of while sitting in front of a window (thus giving the book its title). Hand, a crankier version of Philo Vance, attempts to discover the guilty before any of the other heirs are murdered, a task made more immediate when his "Watson", Ralph Clark, falls in love with Holloway's great-niece.

There's enough plotting in The Tragic Curtain to lift it over the dry spots but Page ultimately falters with a groan-inducing motive for the killer (who's rather obvious as the misdirection in the book doesn't work well). Before the ending the book was a passable time-filler. With it, it's only suitable for faux-Vance diehards like me.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Acquisitions...Still More...

The great thing about starting a blog is that it's encouraging me to tackle my tbr piles (I do have more than one ). Unfortunately the more I read the more I buy so that's it's a case of one step forward and three steps back. So here's the latest edition of "three steps back"...

I was recently thinking that I never find Herbert Adams titles locally so I was pleasantly surprised to find one in a downtown thrift shop. I would have preferred it to be a "Roger Bennion" title but hey, I'll take anything. Come to think of it, I never find Miles Burton titles with pristine dust jackets locally either ;)

I've previously read all the authors represented in this batch with two exceptions; Gertrude Knevels (whom I was tempted to try after reading the entry for Death on the Clock in The Crime Club Compendium, yet another recent and long overdue purchase) and more embarrassingly H.C. Bailey, one of the few "name" authors whom I haven't sampled (even knowing that he's exactly the type of author whom I would enjoy). I hope to rectify that omission in the next few weeks...