Monday, July 17, 2017

Alexander Williams, Murder in the WPA

Alexander Williams, Murder in the WPA
Coachwhip Publications © 2017; reprint of 1937 original
ISBN 978-1-61646-415-8

Alexander Williams (who, according to one source was born in 1894 and died in 1952) wrote this and at least three other mysteries [The Hex Murder, The Jinx Theatre Murder (1933), and Death over Newark (1933)].  This is described (at Amazon) as a "golden age" mystery; you can consider it as such if you take as the baseline the hard-drinking, hit-them-over-the-head mystery as "golden age."  Or maybe American "golden age," not British "golden age." 
Murder in the WPA is narrated by James Moore, who has been sent by Works Progress Administration executive Ben Cook to look into the WPA’s operations in an unnamed city.  This assignment has been prompted by a telegram sent by the WPA’s administrator, Commodore Ireton, alleging the presence of communist infiltrators and calling for the suspension of the WPA’s white collar programs (largely in the visual and performing arts, and some others).  (The WPA was established in 1935 and dissolved in 1943.)  Shortly after Moore arrives, Ireton is murdered—strangled—in his office during a demonstration both outside and inside the WPA’s offices.

Moore’s outsider status, and his appointment of acting WPA administrator for the district, makes him a natural to work with the police officer (Detective Lieutenant Pietro Tonelli, who also appears in The Jinx Theatre Murder and Death Over Newark, both, apparently—I have read neither of them—set in New York).  Given the disruption at the time of the murder, it’s difficult to determine immediately a motive, or to identify a small group of suspects.  Within short order, Ireton’s lover is also murdered, in her apartment, again in circumstances that fail to eliminate anyone or to focus suspicion on anyone.

Complicating the situation is the existence of an organization calling itself Four-Square For America (an obviously fascist organization); many of the WPA workers seem to be members.  Another complication is that Ireton’s daughter (Jaze) and one of the people in the theatre section (Larry) are in love, and trying to keep it a secret.

There’s much drinking, a fair number of people bopped on the head (including Moore more than once), and much confusion.  Little in the way of detection occurs, until we have a climactic scene in a farmhouse some distance from the city.  In fact, we discover some of the information relevant to the solution of the murders when Tonelli explains all to Moore at the end of the book.

There’s a fair amount to like in the book.  Williams obviously knew a lot about the organization and operation of the WPA arts programs, and the story is fast-paced and more-or-less in the screwball comedy category of mysteries.  I would not call it a fair-play mystery though.  I’ll probably read the two previous books (The Hex Murder is also available; Tonelli does not appear in it, so I’ll wait on that).  But these are also not going to be keepers.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Hank Philippi Ryan, The Other Woman

Hank Philippi Ryan, The Other Woman
Forge Books; © 2012

This is the first book in a series (so far with five entries) featuring Jane Ryland, and it was quite widely admired:

2013 Mary Higgins Clark Award

Finalist 2012 Agatha Award for Best Novel
Finalist 2013 Anthony Award for Best Mystery
Finalist 2013 Macavity Award for Best Mystery
Finalist 2013 Shamus Award for Best Novel

It probably says more about me than about the book, but I was not all that impressed.

Ryland was a rising television news star in Boston, until the subject of one of her stories (Arthur Vick) sued for libel—and won a $1 million judgment.  Ryland had refused to reveal her source for the story, and the jury chose to believe Vick.  She lost her job in the aftermath, and, as this book opens, is beginning a new job (which, incidentally, is not well defined—newspaper reporters tend to have “beats”—local government, education, neighborhood, crime/police; by inference, Ryland seems to be on a mix of covering politics—a campaign for a US Senate seat—and crime).  Her first assignment is to get an interview with the wife (Moira Lassiter) of one of the candidates (Owen) for the Senate.

Meanwhile, a cop whom Ryland has reluctantly chosen not to pursue a personal relationship with is one of the lead investigators working on what may, or may not, be serial killings.  (Incidentally, for all the media coverage the killings are getting, it seems odd that apparently only two cops are actively working the case.)  And—surprise!—one of the potential suspects is Arthur Vick.

Reverting back to the campaign, a young woman (Keena Wilke) basically talks her way into a more and more important role as a volunteer, while another (or the same?) woman is up to something as Holly Neft.  As we progress through the book, Lassiter’s campaign manager, Rory Maitland, does some fairly surprisingly badly designed things…and Lassiter seems not to realize that Maitland is behaving strangely (Lassiter, it should be noted, is a career politician and a former governor of Massachusetts).  None of these characters seem to me to be well-developed or particularly credible; their actions seem to spring more from the requirements of Ryan’s plot than from their personalities.

Jane Ryland, our lead character, did not make a very positive impression (on me, at any rate).  She starts off being pretty self-pitying (understandably, maybe) and whiny.  She apparently never sleeps or eats.  And the examples we get to read of her reportorial writing are not very compelling.  As an interviewer, she doesn’t ask interesting, probing, or challenging questions.  (Frankly, she never seems to be well-prepared for interviews.)

Finally (the this is almost certainly a SPOILER, so you might want to skip this paragraph), apparently no one knows that Owen Lassiter had been married once before he married Moira, and that he has a son and a daughter from that first marriage.  The man’s a career politician, for god’s sake.  As near as I can make out the timeline, he held elective office during his first marriage.  And everyone has forgotten about it? 

Ryan writes reasonably well, and the conclusion to the book is reasonably well-handled,  But I had a lot of trouble getting to the conclusion.  I’m not sure I’m inclined to read another in the series.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Margery Allingham, Coroner’s Pigdin (Pearls Before Swine in the US)

Margery Allingham, Coroner’s Pigdin (Pearls Before Swine in the US)
Ipso Books, 2015 ebook reissue of 1945 original
© Estate of Margery Allingham 1945

Had you told me there was an Albert Campion story I had not read, I would (a) have laughed and (b) tried to find it immediately.  I ran across a mention of this book (I forget where) and did not recognize the title, or the description of the book.  So I acquired it and read it.

It’s 1944; Campion has returned to London (a stopover on his way home) after an extended undercover assignment, presumably for a British intelligence service.  Stopping by his London flat to bathe before catching a train, he is interrupted by the arrival of his manservant Lugg and Lady Carados.  They have brought a corpse to his flat, in an attempt to disguise the fact that the death actually occurred in the flat of Lady Carados’s son Johnny.  Johnny is to be married in a couple of days to the widow of one of his comrades-in-arms (RAF); he had promised to take care of her.  And the body, we quickly learn, was found in Johnny’s bed. The widow, Susan Shering, also arrives, and shortly thereafter a US Army Lieutenant (Don Evers) also arrived.

So we now have 5 living and 1 dead in Campion’s flat.  And Johnny is apparently on his way.  And he arrives, with /Evangeline (Eve) Snow, an actress and Johnny’s long-time lover, and with Dolly Chivers, a sort of administrative secretary to the Carados family,.

If this sounds like the setup for a farce, well, it does—even with the corpse in the bedroom.  (Actually The Corpse In The Bedroom wouldn’t have been a bad title for the book.)

And, finally, we learn the name of the dead woman—Moppet Lewis, a hanger-on in the crowd around Johnny.

Everyone thinks it’s suicide, but, of course, it’s murder, and the police are shortly to hand.  And Campion, far from taking the train home to wife (Amanda Fitton, who runs a very successful aeronautical engineering company) and son, is stuck with his part in the investigation.

The investigation has its moments, although there’s an extended interruption involving stolen art works, and, while I thought Campion really had very little to do except finally point out where the police were going wrong, the book is quite readable.  Not really a first-rate work, probably really not enough going on for a novel,, but satisfactory. 

(The cover illustration is particularly jarring, as no one was shot or stabbed or bled profusely.)

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ted Allebury, The Twentieth Day of January

Ted Allebury, The Twentieth Day of January
Dover Publications 2017 reprint of 1980 original
© Estate of Ted Allebury
ISBN 978-0-486-81922-8

I decided to purchase and read this book largely because of the back cover copy:

Seemingly out of nowhere, wealthy businessman Logan Powell has become President-elect and is weeks away from assuming the most powerful position in the world…British intelligence agent James MacKay uncovers shocking evidence that suggests something might be terribly wrong with the election.  With the help of a reluctant CIA, MacKay sets out…to discover if the unthinkable has occurred:  Is President-elect Powell actually a puppet of the Soviet Union?

It’s almost as if Allebury had a pipeline to the future.

MacKay, as it turns out, is not the major figure in the investigation; a senior CIA official, Peter Nolan, is.  Allebury (whose best book, in my opinion, is The Other Side of Silence, about the Kim Philby fiasco) has written a readable thriller with an all-too-plausible scenario.  Logan Powell is not, exactly, a puppet of the Soviet Union, but, as we quickly learn, so this does not, I think, reveal anything important, his campaign manager (and Chief-of-Staff designee) Andrew Dempsey is a long-term Soviet agent (dating back to the upheavals in France in 1968).

In the course of finding actual evidence of what has happened, several people die and the CIA uses what many of us might regard as somewhat dodgy investigative (break-ins) and interrogation (potent and dangerous drugs) techniques.  This is a quick (218 pages), generally satisfying read.

As is often the case when an English author undertakes to write a story set in and mostly populated by Americans, there are occasional mis-hits with language.  In this case, he has Americans consistently saying “I shall” do something, when anyone I know would say “I will,” or “I’ll.”  And there are some minor mistakes with Congressional positions.  Those slips do not detract from the overall excellence of the work. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Anthony Rolls, Scarweather

Anthony Rolls, Scarweather
British Library Crime Classics, 2017 reprint of 1934 original
© 2017 Estate of Anthony Rolls
ISBN 978-1-4642-0740-2

John Farringdale (who narrates this tale) and Eric Foster are cousins; Foster has studied to become a doctor, and Farringdale, two years younger, is studying to be a lawyer.  One of Farringdale’s mentors, oddly, is a chemist (with interests in other sciences, including archeology), Frederick Ellingham.  The story begins in the summer of 1913.  Through his membership in the London Archeological Union, Foster makes the acquaintance of a famous chemist and archeologist Tolgen Reisby.  And, as a result of their meeting and mutual interest, Foster is invited to visit Reisby at his home (Scarweather), in a remote part of Scotland.  Foster invites his cousin to come along (in the spring of 1914).

There, they meet Reisby’s much younger wife Helen (she’s in her early 20s; Reisby is, as the story opens, in his late 50s) and their young daughter (Frances).  Everything seems to be splendid, but Foster also seems to be falling in love with Helen (and she, perhaps with him), which is likely to create complications.  Ellingham is also a part of this visit.

Somewhat later, while Foster is there and Farringdale and Ellingham have returned to England, Foster disappears.  The police conclude that he died in a boating accident and his body is lost in the North Sea.  At this point we are maybe 25% through the book.  We do not reach a conclusion until some 13 years later.

However, there is really no suspense.  Anyone who has read even an inconsiderable amount of mystery fiction knows how this is going to end (and Farringdale is continually dropping hints).  So, at least for me, there was little suspense, and little surprise in what had transpired.   Martin Edwards, in his introduction, notes that the author (whose real name is Colwyn Edward Vuillamy) was himself an archeologist of some note.  He compares Vuillamy’s crime fiction (not unfavorably) to that of Francis Iles (Malice Aforethought, among other books).  Personally, I don’t see the comparison—Iles’ books are truly suspenseful and psychologically complex.  This example of Vuillamy’s fiction is neither.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Rex Stout, The Hand in the Glove

Rex Stout, The Hand in the Glove
Crimeline (electronic reprint of 1937 original)
© 1937
ASIN: B004SOQ012

Rex Stout made several stabs at establishing lead characters in mystery novels, besides Nero Wolfe.  He wrote three books featuring Tecumseh Fox [Double for Death (1939); Bad for Business (1940); The Broken Vase (1941), Alphabet Hicks [The Sound of Murder (1941), and Inspector Cramer (although he’s not really the central character) [Red Threads (1939)].  But the first of these was The Hand in the Glove: A Dol Bonner Mystery (1937).  In this instance, even the title suggests that he saw this as possible the first in a series, and Dol Bonner as possible a continuing character.

And in a sense, she was.  She has a part in Bad For Business (although she is depicted less positively), in the novella “Too Many Detectives” [collected in Three for the Chair (1957] and in If Death Ever Slept [1957].  But she never again had a leading role.  In The Hand in the Glove, Bonner has opened a detective agency (with seed money provided by her friend Sheila Raffray, the orphaned daughter of a wealthy man), and the case  develops from her relationship with Raffraty—she is hired by Raffray’s guardian, P. L. Storrs to remove George Leo Ranth (who is the proprietor, I guess we could say, of the League for Occidental Sakti) from his wife’s circle of acquaintances.

This involves Bonner’s travelling to Storr’s house (Birchhaven)[1] in the NYC suburbs.  She arrives to find a cast of characters including Martin Foltz (Raffray’s fiancĂ©), Wolfram de Roode (Foltz’s long-time employee) Len Chisholm (fired as a reporter by The Gazette for writing a story that disturbed Storrs), Steve Zimmerman (a psychology professor with more than a few quirks), Janet Storrs (P.L.’s daughter), Ranth, and Mrs. Storrs.  In short order P.L. Storrs winds up dead, strangled in the rose garden.

The law arrives and begins an investigation—D.A. Daniel Sherwood, Colonel Brissenden of the state police (who turns  up, as I recall, in one of the Wolfe stories), assorted other police—and Inspector Cramer (although why remains a mystery to me).  Bonner has formed an intention to carry out her own investigation, and announces that intention to the police. 

The investigation seems to me to be well-handled on all sides, although not much progress is made.  I think I reveal no secrets by saying that Bonner figures it out, and quite nicely.  All in all the story is nicely set up and fairly plotted and a very good read.

This is right up near the top of the non-Nero Wolfe books that Stout wrote.  For myself, I would happily have read more about Fox the ‘Tec, about Hicks, and, especially, about Dol Bonner.

[1] As I recall, Stout also reuses “Birchhaven” as the name of a client’s estate in In the Best Families, a Nero Wolfe novel published in 1950.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Best of Crime & Detective TV

Max Alan Collins and John Javna
The Critics' Choice:  The Best of Crime & Detective TV (1988)
(OP but readily available from used booksellers)

After Bill Crider mentioned this book on his blog  [Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine (, which is worth reading if only for his reviews and recommendations of obscure, unknown, and underappreciated books--mainly mysteries--and movies), I had to get it, and reading it has been a treat.  It's reminded me of many shows I watched regularly, some I missed, and a few which pre-dated my television-watching days.

Collins and Javna do a really nice job of depicting and assessing the shows (in four major categories--Private Eyes, Police Procedurals, Amateur Sleuths, and Comedy Crimefighters), with a nicely consistent format in each section.  I generally agree with their assessments (of the programs I'm familiar with), and they have a lot of fun with it (so I have too).  Perhaps my favorite line in the book comes in their dissection of The FBI, in which they contrast Efrem Zimbalist's portrayal of FBI guy Lew Erskine with his 77 Sunset Strip persona, Stuart Bailey:  "As a PI, he seemed sophisticated and charming; as a government agent, he came across as the dark side of Ward Cleaver."

I enjoyed being reminded of shows I'd nearly forgotten, such as Ten-Speed and Brown Shoe (Ben Vereen and Jeff Goldblum) and seeing that I'm not the only person who thought that Harry O (David Janssen) and Hec Ramsay (Richard Boone) were remarkably good, under-appreciated shows (and why aren't the Hec Ramsay episodes available on DVD?).

I saw no glaring omissions or errors, although I remember some things differently, only one of which I'll mention.  In their discussion of Remington Steele, a show I think I liked better than they did, they write:  "Following in her father's footsteps, Stephanie Zimbalist made her TV debut as a high-class private detective with her own agency, because of what she perceived as prejudice against woman detectives, Laura Holt hired a handsome male with an English accent (Pierce Brosnan) to play the part of Remington Steel, her bogus boss."  As I remember the show, Brosnan shows up one day claiming to be Remington Steel and basically refusing to leave.  We're given the impression that there's something shady about him...

Great fun, great memories, and a very, very good critical analysis of the subject.