Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sara Woods, The Windy Side of the Law


Sara Woods, The Windy Side of the Law
Harper & Row, 1965
© 1965 Sara Woods
(Out-of-print, but readily available from used booksellers.)

The seventh mystery featuring Antony Maitland, an English barrister [and his wife Jenny, his uncle Sir Nicholas Harding (also a barrister; Maitland is attached to Harding’s chambers—law firm) and Geoffery Horton (frequently Maitland’s instructing solicitor)] finds Maitland faced with defending—by investigating heroin smuggling charges—his old friend Peter Hammond.  (As is almost always the case with Woods, the title comes from Shakespeare, in this case Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4—and, yes, I had to look it up.[1]  Hammons has awakened in a relatively cheap hotel in London and has no memory of anything about himself or his life.  He finds Maitland’s name in a notebook, discovers his address, and sets out to find Maitland (who is, for all he currently knows, himself.)  He runs into Maitland outside Maitland’s home, and they soon return to the hotel, where two police officers are waiting for him.  (I should add that the desk clerk greets Hammond by name when they return.)

The officers want to ask him questions about a phone call they received alleging that Hammond was smuggled heroin into the country (he has just returned from a business trip to the far East).  And, lo and behold, there are two bricks of heroin in his luggage.  When he returns to his room following some initial questioning, he finds a body—of one of the hotel’s employees—in the bathroom.  And he calls Maitland for help.

At this point there is a rather important issue.  Is his amnesia real of feigned?  A pint that is never addressed in the book, Hammond must have known who he was when he registered at the hotel.  His name is in the hotel’s register (along with his signature) and the desk clerk knew his name.  All he has (apparently) done is sleep.  It’s no wonder the police do not believe in his amnesia; it’s not clear why Maitland is so immediately willing to.[2]

In the course of his investigation, Maitland talks with Hammond’s fiancѐ Nan, with the passengers on the ship on which Hammond returned to England (including another fiancѐ, Elaine), and his brother-in-law, for whom he worked (Hammond’s sister recently died).  Hammond, of course has (or claims to have) no memory of any of these people.  Not much progress is getting made, except that Maitland runs across a number of shady characters (one of whom he once defended).  But Maitland eventually reaches a conclusion (although I’m not sure we as readers have sufficient information to get there and all ends well (enough).

Unusually for a Maitland book, there are no courtroom scenes (which Woods handles extremely well).  The narrative moves well, and if more than usual is made of Maitland’s bad right arm, everything does seem to fit pretty well into place.  While this is not first-rate Woods, it is a good mystery and gives us additional insights into Maitland and his associates.  Well worth seeking out.

[1] The apparent meaning is that the speaker (Fabian) is urging his companion (Sir Toby Belch) to avoid any action that will bring attention to himself, as staying upwind from a deer you are hunting.
[2] Subsequently we get the suggestion that someone gave him a dose of scopolamine mixed with morphine, which is apparently true, at least in some cases (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5535325/)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ed Gorman, Sleeping Dogs


Ed Gorman, Sleeping Dogs
Thomas Dunne Books/Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press
© 2008 Ed Gorman
ISBN 978-0-312-36784-8
Also available as a ebook

The first in the 5 book series featuring Devlin Conrad, political consultant for hire, who works for centrist-to-liberal candidates.  In this campaign, he is working for incumbent Illinois Senator Warren Nichols, and, as the campaign draws, Nichols is about to face off against his (very conservative) opponent, Jim Lake.  As the “debate” nears its mid-point, Nichols wobbles, and collapses on stage.  This does not bode well for his re-election; the immediate question is why he collapsed.  That is answered pretty quickly—he was drugged.  And the immediate assumption is that someone working for Lake is involved.

And that someone might be R.D. Greaves, also a political consultant, but one whose mode of operation is more like an assault than a campaign.  Conrad’s suspicion that Greaves is involved is hightened when Greaves gets in touch, alleging that he has a videotape of Nichols in a very compromising position with a woman to whom he is not married.  Which, as Conrad knows, is plausible—because Nichols has a well-deserved reputation in that respect.  What Greaves wants is money—and a lot of it.  But when Conrad shows up to make the payoff, Greaves is dead and the tape is missing.

The rest of the book is the intertwined story of keeping the campaign afloat, and Gorman handles the story with his usual deft touch.  If there’s one thing about the book I had a little trouble with, it was that the opening seemed to drag a bit as Gorman introduces us to the campaign team, the candidate, and the candidate’s wife.  Once I was past that, the story moved quickly and compellingly to its conclusion.

Dev Conrad’s position sets this up well as a series, for a couple of reasons.  First, the series will not be tied to a single location or to a narrow cast.  And second, because Conrad is an appealing narrator, aware of his own weaknesses and strengths.  And, if you are a political junkie, I think Gorman has presented the life of the campaign in a realistic manner.  (I’m an outsider, but it sure seemed that the political narrative was plausible.)  My only regret, really, if that there are only 5 books in the series.  I will miss Gorman’s writing.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Rex Stout, Three Men Out


Rex Stout, Three Men Out
Viking edition, 1954
Bantam editions 1955, 1991, and 1994
© Rex Stout, 1952, 1953
(Also available as an ebook)

Another collection of novellas.  This time, we have “Invitation to Murder,” “The Zero Clue,” and “This Won’t Kill You.”

“Invitation to Murder” finds Wolfe reluctantly accepting a retainer from Herman Lewent, to investigate…something.  Lewent is the ne’er-do-well son of a self-made multi-millionaire.  His father’s will left everything to his sister, including in the will a request that she consider his needs.  Which she has done to the tune of $1,000 per month (call it around $9,000 at today’s price levels).  Lewent has lived in Europe [and claims to have had, simultaneously, three mistresses, which Archie tends not to believe (“I gave him an eye and decided to believe nothing he said.  He wasn’t built for it.” P. 2)].  He has returned to the States following his sister’s death (for her funeral), discovered that her will had language requesting her husband (Theodore Huck) to consider Herman’s needs.

Now he has returned, having received a warning from Huck’s nephew, the Huck seems to be emotionally involved with one of the three women who work for him.  Herman fears…something…possibly that Huck will use his involvement to cut Herman off.  Or possibly that one of them killed his sister to be able to marry Huck.  Wolfe passes the buck to Archie, and Archie, knowing that Wolfe has no interest, but will be able to use Archie’s refusal to accept this case as a future excuse for sloth, reluctantly takes it on.  And, in short order, Herman Lewent is dead in his father’s house.

Archie uses a subterfuge to get Wolfe to venture forth, and Wolfe is able, of course, to think his way to the colution.

“The Zero Clue” is one of my favorites among the novella.  Leo Heller [1], math professor and expert in probability theory, has abandoned academia for what has become a lucrative job solving mysteries for people—for a fee.  Heller has called to ask for an appointment with Wolfe, because he has reason to believe that one of his clients or potential clients has committed a serious crime, and he wants help.  Archie knows Wolfe will never go for it, but he makes a call on Heller anyway, finding his (extremely well soundproofed) office empty, but his waiting room with clients or potential clients, full.  Shortly thereafter, Inspector Cramer arrives at the old brownstone asking what Wolfe was doing for Heller, displaying an envelope with 5 $100 bills, with Wolfe’s name on it.  Wolfe, somewhat impetuously, claims the money and dares Cramer to connect it, or him, to Heller’s death.  Cramer uses the arrangement of pencils found on Heller’s desk—claiming they were spelling out NW.  Wolfe, in order to keep the money and get Cramer off his back, agrees to look into it.  To begin with, he has Cramer bring all the people who were in Heller’s waiting room, and one more who had left as Archie was arriving, and undertakes to investigate.

For a reason I’ll omit, Wolfe has concluded that the number “6” is involved, and his interrogation of the—let’s call them—suspects focuses on that.  And the number 6 does pop up for every one of them.  Until, as a result of his questioning of Karl Busch (Archie describes him as “a Broadway smoothie, third grade), he realizes he was wrong.  Which we, of course, already knew from the novella’s title, although we don’t know what the clue is or what it means.  What I like so much about this story is Wolfe’s realization of his error, and why he recognized it.  Just a nice piece of detection, and a nice insight into Wolfe.

In “This Won’t Kill You,” Pierre Mondor (whom we all remember from Too Many Cooks) is visiting New York (staying with Wolfe), and has expressed a desire to see a baseball game.  The only baseball game available is game 7 of the World Series, with the Giants playing the Red Sox.  The owner of the Giants, a former client, is happy to come up with the tickets, and Archie, Mondor, and Wolfe are off to the Polo Grounds.  The game is a disaster, with a number of the Giants’ best players playing as if they’d been drugged.  Which we soon learn that have been.  The Giants’ owner requests Wolfe’s assistance (which he’s happy to give, as he is able to find something almost tolerable to sit on.  Not that he’s going to make much progress on an investigation while the game in in progress.

In short order, however, Archie discovers the corpse of Giants’ rookie Nick Ferrone and murder takes over.  Archie is, as it happens, in possession of a key piece of information (which he, of course, shares with Wolfe but not with Inspector Hennessey—we’re in the Bronx, not Manhattan, so no Cramer).  I don’t think it’s giving anything away to reveal that gamblers have, in fact, bribed someone to drug the players and make pots of money.  Archie’s info ties into that, and results in his leaving the Polo Grounds and into a confrontation which has the potential for a fairly horrible outcome.  This is another excellent outing in the annals, and Wolfe’s exposition to the Giants’ players and assorted others [2] of a fact he can’t explain is brilliant.

Overall, this is an excellent set of short mysteries; if it’s not my favorite collection of novellas, it’s right up there.

[1] I have always wondered if Heller were a re-working of Pro. Savarese in And Be a Villain, like Heller a math professor with an interest in statistic, which we wonders could be used to solve crimes.
[2] One of the others is Beaky Durkin, a former player now a scout; Ferrone was his discovery.  Every time I read this, I expect Archie of Wolfe to ask him if he knows Fred.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

J. Jefferson Farjeon, Seven Dead


J. Jefferson Farjeon, Seven Dead, 2017
British Library Crime Classics/Poisoned Pen Press
Reprint of Collins (UK) 1939 original
© 1939 Estate of J. Jefferson Farjeon
ISBN 978-0-7123-5688-6

Farjeon was another of the then-prolific and well-regarded authors of mystery fiction who slipped from public view; he published more than 80 books between 1924 and 1955.  Many of these featured Inspector Kendall, a non-Scotland-Yard policeman based in the southeast of England.

In Seven Dead, Ted Lyte breaks into a house he thinks is vacant, hoping to steal enough of something he can fence for enough for a meal.  Instead, he finds seven people, dead in the parlor, the shutters nailed closed.  He stumbles into the police as he’s trying to escape.  And he was seen, unbeknownst to him, by freelance journalist (and yachtsman) Thomas Hazeldean.  Kendall fairly quickly accepts Hazeldean as an innocent bystander.

The cause of death is obscure—the victims were not shot, stabbed, strangled, bludgeoned—which pretty much leaves some kind of poison—and seem to have died about 24 hours before the discovery of the bodies.  The residents of the house, John Fenner and his niece Dora Fenner, are not there (and it is not readily apparent where they are, except that their departure was hasty).  A paining of a young girl has had a bullet shot through it.  And an aged cricket ball is perched upon a glass vase on the mantel.

Kendall (and Hazeldean) discover that it is likely that the Fenners are in Boulogne, and Hazeldean heads off in his yacht to discover what he can there, while Kendall pursues inquiries in England.  From this point, the story proceeds at a brisk pace, with many discoveries, some new mysteries developing, but no resolution.  Eventually, all the principals in the case converge on Boulogne, and the contours of a solution begin to emerge.

And then…

I think the book falls apart.  Roughly the last 50 pages of the book involves a trip taken by Hazeldean and Dora Fenner (while Kendall pursues his unchronicled inquiries), Kendall’s meeting up with them in Africa, and a voyage to a tiny island in the Indian Ocean.  Where we discover a journal written by one member of a group of castaways.  The timeline of the journal and the timeline of the murders are (obviously) related, but just how those timelines intersect is not clear.  And while we are given a solution, the whole thing seems to be pulled more-or-less out of the air.  So what seemed to be a very promising story ended, for me, with an unconvincing thud.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

E.C.R. Lorac, Fire in the Thatch


E.C.R. Lorac, Fire in the Thatch
British Library Crime Classics
Reprint of 1946 original
© Estate of E.C.R. Lorac 2018
ISBN 978-0-712-5260-4

Lorac, as I have noted in previous reviews of her work, is a pseudonym used by Edith Caroline Rivett, who wrote at least 75 mystery novels between 1931 and 1959.  In most of her books, Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald carried out the investigations on behalf of Scotland Yard.  As he does here.

Nicholas Vaughn, invalided out of the British  navy in (presumably) 1945 (or late 1944) has come to a small town in Devonshire in hoped of taking up a tenancy on a property called Little Thatch, which is owned by Col. St. Cyres.  The colonel’s daughter-in-law (June), having taken refuge with St. Cyres and his daughter Anne, while her husband Dennis is serving in the navy.  Off-and-on, a London friend of Junes, Tommy Gressingham comes down from London, perhaps mostly to see June, perhaps mostly in pursuit of his own plans, which involve serious real estate developments.  He’s much more interested in buying the land, and not so interested in leasing.  The colonel, as you might suspect, grants Vaughn the tenancy of the property.  The property is called Little Thatch, largely because of a (badly-in-need of repair) fairly ancient house on the property.

There’s some mystery surrounding Vaughn, who is very much a loner and who, while he is well-enough regarded in the village, makes no close friends.  For one thing, he seems not just content with the life of a farmer—despite his university education (he’s a trained mechanical engineer, as near as I can tell)—but deeply committed to it.  And is is not a Devon native, but rather was born and grew up in the north.  He is, however, quite well enough liked by almost everyone.

Vaughn begins to make progress on the restoration of the house, and also on the revitalization of the land.  It’s not clear how much time elapses, but it has to be a matter of some months.  And then death intervenes.  Little Thatch (the house) burns nearly to the ground, and a body—Vaughn’s, presumably—is found in the wreckage.  The coroner’s jury enters a verdict of accidental death.  And there things would stand, but that Vaughn’s commanding officer intervenes, arguing that Vaughn would never be caught in a house in that way. And he convinces the higher-ups at Scotland Yard to send Macdonald to take a second look.

Vaughn’s death, I will add, somewhat surprised me. I suppose I thought that Gressingham would be the victim, and Vaughn would be the prime suspect.  But there you go.

Macdonald is a thorough, patient, cautious, and diligent investigator; he comes to believe that things are not as they seem.  Gressingham—still hopeful of landing the property, still hanging around—proposes an alternative—that the body is not that of Vaughn, but rather someone killed by Vaughn, who has then skipped out.  Not that he believes this, but Macdonald has to take it seriously.

And so things progress.  Eventually Macdonald puts everything together (and there’s a better than fair chance that you will as well).  What Macdonald finds explains almost everything that we’re interested in knowing, and at least leaves the locals accepting of his findings.  Lorac does an excellent job of making the setting very real (at least for me; her other books I’ve read were set in London, a setting she also handled very nicely).  I tend to like series characters, to have the chance to get to know them, so to speak, and I shall have many more opportunities to see Chief Inspector (he eventually achieves his Superintendency) Macdonald.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

E.C.R. Lorac, Murder By Matchlight


E.C.R. Lorac, Murder By Matchlight
(Edith Caroline Rivett)
Dover re-print 1988; original (U.K.) publication Collins (Crime Club), 1945.
ISBN 978-0-486-25577-4

Lorac was a prolific “golden-age author” of at least 75 mysteries between 1931 and 1959, the majority of which featured Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald.  Macdonald is a mild-mannered investigator, whose approach [at least in the 2 books I have read so far; the other Bats in the Belfry (1937)] seems to be to gain the trust of the people he’s questioning and using his sense of logic and order to sort things out.  There’s little overt violence and whatever reliance there is on “scientific” aspects of investigation is pretty much left to one side.

In this outing, a man (John Ward is the name on his identity card) is killed in a park, during the blackout (it’s WW2, and so none of the park’s lights are on), on a cloudy, moonless night.  In the park, at the same time, are two other men, Bruce Mallaig (who is wandering around, slightly depressed because his fiancé has cancelled a dinner date) and Stanley Clayton (who is out of work, and overheard a telephone call setting a rendezvous between the man making the call—who referred to himself as “Tim” and to the person with whom he was speaking as “Joe” that aroused his curiosity.  The night is describes as so dark that there was virtually no visibility, except for that provided by a match when Ward lights a cigarette.[1]

Macdonald arrives on the scene where Mallaig and Claydon have been detained by a police officer who came in response to Mallaig’s shouts for assistance.  (A doctor who was walking his dog has verified that Ward is dead.)  And the investigation begins.

It leads him to the boarding house at which Ward lived.  Most of the inhabitants are working in one or another form of theater, and are (of course) eccentric.  Ward is quickly established as a ne’er-do-well, who seems to have lived by sponging off others and occasional fiddles, but an interesting one—he fought with the IRA in the 1920s; he attempted to enlist for WW2, but was rejected because of a permanently bad leg, and so on. 

The bulk of the book involved Macdonald’s efforts to confirm (or find holes in) the stories he has been told, and he eventually does.  If the conclusion seems a bit forced (and not, in my opinion, all that well deducible by the reader), it works quite well dramatically.  For an author I’d never heard of until the last couple of months, Lorac has been a pleasant surprise, and I’ll be on the lookout for more.

[1] I don’t entirely buy the complete darkness scenario, though.  I’ve never actually wandered around in that sort of complete darkness, but even outdoors at night with heavy clouds, I’ve always been able to see something.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Robert Goldsborough, The Battered Badge: A Nero Wolfe Mystery


Robert Goldsborough, The Battered Badge
Open Road/The Mysterious Press
© Robert Goldsborough 2018
ISBN 978-1-5040-4910-8
Also available as an ebook

Rex Stout has long been my favorite author of mysteries, and the pair of Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe my favorite fictional detectives.  Archie’s narrative voice is, in my opinion, unmatched, and Wolfe’s persona is at once captivating and intimidating.  So, when Robert Goldsborough first published a “Nero Wolfe” mystery (Murder in E-Minor, 1986) I had serious reservations about the enterprise.  Now, 32 years later (and having purchased and read all 13 of the “Nero Wolfe” mysteries Goldsborough has written), I find all my reservations confirmed and, if anything, strengthened.

I met Mr. Goldsborough in the early 1990s, having had the opportunity (at the invitation of a mutual friend) to have lunch with him.  He was, and I suspect still is, a pleasant, likable man, a good conversationalist, and a true devotee of Stout’s work (which he knows as well as anyone).  But, I must say, his efforts at continuing the saga have ranged from adequate to unfortunate,  The current effort, The Battered Badge, is not the least successful of his efforts [Murder, Stage Left (2017) has that dubious honor].  It is, however, a very disappointing book.

Now I will admit that my disappointment is in large part a reflection of my admiration for Stout’s writing and characterizations.  But even on their own terms, Goldsborough’s recent efforts are disappointing.  It is difficult, though, to read them, think about them, or write about them without comparing them to the originals.

Goldsborough’s (relative) strength is in his plots.  In this book, the director of the Good Government Group, a/k/a GGG (Lester Pierce) is shot in front of his Park Avenue apartment building, in circumstances that strongly suggest (a) a murder-for-hire that (b) might be a result of Pierce’s efforts to goad the New York Police Department into more vigorous efforts to investigate the Mob and disrupt it.  As a consequence of factors surrounding the investigation Inspector Cramer (Wolfe’s long-time rival in the NYPD) has been suspended as head of the Homicide squad.  (Another side note—some of the prepublication publicity for the book suggested that Cramer might be facing disciplinary action.  But nothing in the book really supports such a suggestion.)

As the remnants of the Homicide squad investigate (and fail to make much headway), Wolfe is hired by Pierce’s widow to investigate.  As usual, Archie does the legwork, including preliminary interrogations of the actors in the drama, and Wolfe also meets with them (usually briefly and, as least as I read the book, with little to show for it).  There is the usual gathering of the players and disclosure of the guilty party (in both cases with a twist).  But from the premise to the conclusion is not a particularly well-handled trip.

Without getting into the details of the investigation, I want to focus on what is the single greatest flaw with the book (and with Goldsborough’s work generally).  He gets the characters, and especially their voices, wrong.  The book contains many conversations in which Archie is a major participant (several between Archie and Lon Cohen, a newspaperman with the Gazette; Archie with his permanent flame Lily Rowan; and Archie and staff at GGG, and more).  While it’s established that Archie is glib and not above bantering, almost all these conversations are more banter than substance…and the banter is not even particularly witty or amusing. 

Another feature of Stout’s work involves the confrontations between Wolfe and either Cramer or people he expects to extract information from.  Here, Wolfe’s interrogations are strangely bland (or even pointless—but, at that, a notch above what we got in Murder, Stage Left), and, as extractions, seem mostly unproductive.  And the scenes with Cramer are almost wholly devoid of bite.

The conclusion, when it comes, seemed, at least to me, to be almost entirely ad hoc, based on no deductions (either by Wolfe or by Cramer), on no particular revelations during the climactic scene, but rather by the murderer’s verbal slip and subsequent outburst.  If what we see is supposed to provide us with any reason to believe that a jury would vote for conviction…well, call that another serious difficulty. 

Even leaving aside my respect and affection for the for the originals, assuming I could approach The Battered Badge without its context as a continuation and homage, the investigation and discoveries do not match the setup, and the conclusion was disappointing.  I clearly cannot recommend this as an addition to the Wolfe oeuvre, and I can’t really recommend it on its own merits.  I wish I could do one or the other—or both.  But I can’t.