Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Jill Paton Walsh, A Piece of Justice

Jill Paton Walsh, A Piece of Justice
St. Martin’s Press © 1995 Jill Paton Walsh
Out-of-print, but available from used booksellers

The second book featuring Imogen Quy, the resident nurse at St. Agatha’s College at Cambridge University.  Her lodger, Frances Bullion, has been asked to ghost-write the biography of a (dead) mathematician (Gideon Summerfield), whose career consists, really, of one brilliant discovery.  Fran badly needs the job—she wants to finish her doctorate--and a new member of the faculty at St. Agatha’s, Leo Maverack, has contracted to write it, but wants not to.  Fran gets the money, Maverack gets his name on the book.

Meanwhile, Imogen and some friends are preparing to make a quilt to be sold for charity, and we are treated to a discussion of their process.  (Later on, an art historian, whose specialty deals with textiles, presents a rather remarkable lecture on the subject, which might be worth the price of the book.  Both the discussion of quilting and the lecture made me wish for visuals (and this is something that might be possible to do these days, by having a website associated with the book that would allow us to see, as well as read about, these things).

Things quickly become complicated.  Maverack is not the first to have been signed to write the book.  Or the second…he’s the fourth, which is distinctly odd.  And none of the other three seem to be available for consultation; one has certainly died, and the other two are nowhere to be found.  However, it does mean most of the research has been done.  But Fran discovered that, in the detailed chronology of Summerfield’s life, there is a blank—there is no record of what he did in the summer of 1978, and Fran id determined to fill in that blank.

I might note that Prof. Maverack is a biographer…but not in the sense that he writes biographies.  He is a theorist of biographies, and his exposition of his theory of biographies (pp. 31-34) might actually be worth the price of the book.

And things get even more complicated.  Summerfield’s widow gets a court order for the return of all materials that she had provided when the biography was first proposed.

Fran takes off for Wales, where she expects, or hopes, to find an answer to the mystery of the summer of 1978.

Not surprisingly, as this is, after all, a mystery novel, things are both more obscure, more dangerous, and more inter-connected than they appeared at the beginning.  Imogen, of course, gets deeply involved, and in the course of her involvement makes discoveries that are central to all the mysteries.

I enjoyed the first book in this series (The Wyndham Case) quite a lot; this is, I think, even better.  The resolution, when we get there (and this is not a long book) seems almost inevitable, but also almost shocking.  Not only are all the mysteries resolved, but a real injustice is righted.  So I will move on to Book 3 in the series (A Debt of Dishonour) with great anticipation.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Michael Innes, Death At the President’s Lodging

Michael Innes, Death At the President’s Lodging
House of Stratus reprint 2001
© Estate of JIM Stewart 1936 (and renewed)
ISBN this edition: 1-84232-732-1

I’ve read several of Michael Innes’s mysteries featuring John Appleby, but never this one, which was the first to appear.  I don’t recall what brought it to my attention, and I remembered almost nothing of the ones I have read, but good series are hard to find.  And so I bought it and read it.

And I’m not entirely sure.  Appleby is an appealing character, polished, erudite, and just introspective enough to have some depth.  In this, his first case, he is summoned to a small college, St. Anthony’s (not a part of Oxford or Cambridge; Innes, under his own name John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, taught literature at the University of Leeds, the University of Adelaide, and Queen’s University in Belfast before becoming a “fellow” of Christ Church College at Oxford).  There, the President of the College, Dr. Josiah Umpleby, has been murdered; his personal servant/butler (Mr. Slotwiner) and one of the faculty at the college (Mr. Titlow) heard a gunshot from inside Umpleby’s lodgings at about 11 PM.  Upon obtaining a key, they found him on the floor, with a bullet hole in his forehead, and his body encircled by old bones (quite obviously from some archeological expedition).

Umpleby’s relations with his faculty, we discover, are not as cordial as one would like.  And things are complicated by the fact that the murderer apparently entered through the College gardens, access to which was quite limited at night.  It was closes off by gates and only 9 people (the head porter; Umpeyby; and 7 of the faculty) had keys.  And new locks had just been installed, with the keys distributed that day.  So we have a sort-of locked room mystery, but that’s not really the focus of the investigation.

The book proceeds at a very leisurely pace, including what seemed to me to be a wholly unnecessary sub-plot involving a small group of undergraduates (the only students, really, who appear in the book).  Appleby is the only person sent from London to investigate the murder (in this respect, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn books seem much more authentic, as they usually involve a full investigative team); he proceeds by conversing at length with each of the members of the faculty who feature in the book.  (I should note that one of the faculty involved is a mystery novelist writing under a pseudonym.)  The conclusion is, it seems to me, somewhat forced, and not really grounded (as far as I can tell) in anything Appleby has discovered.  And the denouement seems to go on forever.

For all that, it’s well written, and Appleby, as I have said, is an engaging character.  I’ll probably read more of these, but it won’t be a priority.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Jill Paton Walsh, The Wyndham Case

Jill Paton Walsh, The Wyndham Case
St. Martin’s Press
© 1993 Jill Paton Walsh
Available from used booksellers

There’s been a lively discussion on the Lord Peter Wimsey Appreciation Society Facebook page which has touched on the quality of Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Dorothy L. Sayers’s series of novels about Wimsey.  Having read one of Paton Walsh’s mystery novels (The Bad Quarto) some years ago, I acquired all four of them to see how well they have held up.[1]  Having finished The Wyndham Case, I can say that at least the first in the series is quite good.

The title is itself interesting, as the death at the center of the book takes place in a rather special library at Cambridge known as the Wyndham Case, and the investigation into that death is, of course, the Wyndham case.  A young student (Philip Skellow) at St. Agatha’s College, from a decidedly working class background (and as a result treated by many of his fellow students as something of a lesser being) is found one morning on the floor of the Wyndham case, with a serious injury to his skull, having bled to death.  Imogen Quy, the College’s resident nurse, is asked to come to the library; she calls the police, as it is obviously a death by violence,  A friend of hers, Mike Parsons, is a detective on the Cambridge police; he is a member of the team that arrives to investigate the death.

As it happens, this library was founded by a (very large) donation some 300 years earlier.  The books are to remain in the library; they can be read or examined only there; no volume may be loaned out or sold.  And once every 100 years a complete audit of the library must be performed.  If anything is missing, the College loses the endowment and all the books are to be sold.  Also, as it happens, Skellow left a party in the suite of rooms he shares with Jack Taverham (who is from a wealthy family) the night before, and was next seen dead.  (Taverham and Skellow got along very badly.)  And none of the people at the party are willing to talk about it.

Meanwhile, one of Quy’s lodgers, Professor Wylie, returns from a trip to Italy and discovers, or at least thinks, that a very valuable book has been taken from his room.  And apparently one of her other lodgers left the rear door unlocked around the same time.  Or someone picked the lock.

One thing leads to another, and a second death—definitely murder—occurs; a third year pre-med student is found in an ornamental fountain late at night, drowned.  And Taverham has disappeared.

The investigations into all of this are handled well, and the resolution is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying (at least I thought so).  For a first mystery (Paton Walsh had written a number of children’s books and “straight” novels prior), this is a very satisfying read.  The setting is well done, the college atmosphere rings true (as well as one who have never been to Cambridge can tell), and the characters—while not uniformly quite so nice as they might originally appear—are sharply drawn.  Both the Master of St. Agatha’s and his wife are especially well done.

And if you think setting a mystery series in a college of Cambridge University named St. Agatha’s is extremely appropriate, well, all I can say is “You are right.”

[1] Her four books with Imogen Quy are The Wyndham Case (1993); A Piece of Justice (1997)’ Debts of Dishonor (2006; and The Bad Quarto (2007).

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Copycat photoblogging, war memorial edition

Chris has a dyptich of a British war memorial which is stark in its beauty
(  I have a small memorial plaque in a small town in France.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Rex Stout, Homicide Trinity

Rex Stout, Homicide TrinityViking Press, 1962; Bantam reprint, 1993

© 1962 Rex Stout
Three novellas: "Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo;" "Death of a Demon; "Counterfeit for Murder." 

Three of the stronger of the short mysteries, and Hattie Annis, Wolfe's client in "Counterfeit for Murder" is a magnificent achievement.  One thing I liked especially was, when she was asked what she would like for luncheon, she responds:  "How about some lamb kidneys bourguignonne?"  As if, or course, lamb kidneys would be available...and, of course, they are.  A truly nice bit involves  the efforts of a U.S. Treasury agent and Inspector Cramer to gain possession of $10,000 in brand new (in every sense of the word) $20s. The identity of the murderer is not hard to figrue out, though. 

In "Eeny, AMeeny, Murder, Mo," the least of these three, Wolfe gets a spot of barbecue sauce on his tie at lunch, and leaves it on his desk when he leaves for the afternoon orchid session.  While he's up on the roof, a legal secretary at a prestigious law firm arrives with an interesting legal problem--but it involves a divorce case.  Wolfe, on principal, refuses to handle anything dealing with divorce.  But Archie undertakes to talk him into it, and ascends to the greenhouse.  While he's upstairs, the potential client is murdered--strangled with the tie.  There is one aspect of the plot that strikes me as extraordinarily unlikely. 

And in "Death of a Demon," a PR "expert" is murdered and an identical gun winds up in his wife's possession (and, through her, Wolfe's).  The twists with the guns provides the main interest in the plot; the evidence Wolfe can provide about the murderer is somewhat speculative.  But Archie shines as a tough-guy detective.

Rex Stout, Three at Wolfe's Door

Rex Stout, Three at Wolfe’s Door
Viking Press, 1960.  Bantam reprint 1995.
© Rex Stout 1960

Theree novellas, all originally published in 1960:  "Poison ala Carte," "Method Three for Murder," and "The Rodeo Murder."  All three are excellent, but there was one thing about "The Rodeo Murder" that made me wonder.  As Wolfe is about to disclose the murderer, he deals with motive, and addresses Harvey Greve (one of the cowboys in town as a performer for the rodeo; Harvey will return in Death of a Dude):

“Mr. Greve, you told Mr. Panzer that in the past two years you have purchased some three hundred horses, two hundred steers, and a hundred and fifty calves. In behalf of my Dunning.  Is that correct?”

Harvey didn’t look happy either.  “That’s about right, He said.  “That’s just rough figures.”

“From how many people did you buy them?”

“Maybe a hundred maybe more.  I scouted around.”

“You are exposing a man who made you a party to a swindle and who is almost certainly a murderer.  Did he tell you not to divulge the amounts?”

“…and I have the names of three other men who made similar purchases under similar arrangements…”

Now, I know next to nothing about professional rodeos. But if four men were buying livestock in that quantity, we have over 1,000 horses and nearly 1,000 steers and around 600 calves in two years.  Based on a little google research, I’m coming up with around $200-$300 for the steers, $50-75 for the calves, and $100 - $200 for the horses.  So (taking the mid-range values), Greve paid $150,000 for horses, $250,000 for the steers, and $37,500 for the calves—over $400,000 in a 2 year period.  With 3 others presumably doing the same, that’s about $1.2 million in livestock purchases.  Presumably these guys got paid for this (let’s say a 10% commission, around $120,000 in total).  And the promoter presumably marked the animals up enough not just to make a reasonable profit, but an unreasonable one.

All of that’s well and good.  But we have 4,000 horses, 4,000 steers, and 2,400 calves…over two years…for rodeos?  And presumably all (or mostly) sold to a NYC theatrical promoter?  Color me skeptical.  Surely he had lawyers.  Surely he had people who could talk to people.  What in god’s name did he do with all the damned animals?

Monday, February 19, 2018

E. C.R Lorac, Bats In The Belfry: A London Mystery, an entry in the British Crime Classics Series

E. C.R Lorac, Bats In The Belfry: A London Mystery
British Library Crime Classics 2018
© 2018 The Estate of E.C.R. Lorac
Also available as an ebook

Martin Edwards, who writes the introductions to the books in this series of reprints, sometimes (it seems to me) overstates the virtues both of the particular book and of the author.  [The one “Sgt. Cuff” book, by Gil North (Sgt. Cuff Stands Firm), I read is a good example of that.]  In this case, he writes:  “…this particular novel seems to have aroused little attention, either on first publication, or subsequently, despite its quality,” citing both the strengths of the plot and the fine descriptions of tits settings (mostly in London).  If anything, I think he undersells the virtues of Bats In The Belfry.

The cast of characters, while not extensive—only 7 or 8 have more than walk-on roles—is excellently depicted.  All of them are distinct personalities and have distinct voices.  These are members or, or close acquaintances of the novelist Bruce Attletton and his wife, the acclaimed actress Sybilla Attleton  The Scotland Yard detective, Chief Inspector Macdonald , is a low key, thorough, diligent sleuth, showing  both intelligence and imagination in his investigation.  The story opens with the aftermath of a funeral, in which Bruce’s ward (it’s about the only real cliché in the book—the ward whose life is controlled by her guardian) Elizabeth Leigh mentions the “murder party” she’s to attend, at which everyone has to concoct a plan to dispose of the corpse of the person you have just murdered—in a way that keeps you from suspicion.

And we go on from there,

Bruce has plans to go to Paris for a week or so, and one of the circle of friends in the book, Neil Rockingham, is making a separate trip there as well.  And Bruce disappears. 

We discover than a shady character named Debrette has been trying to blackmail Bruce.  Debrette has rented an old church that is about to be torn down as a sculptor’s studio.  Rockingham and Robert Grenville (journalist and suitor of Elizabeth) attempt to track Debrette down.  But he disappears.

And if anything, the complexities increase from here.  Lorac sets this all up with a deft touch, and Inspector Macdonald’s efforts to bring clarity—and an arrest—are well described and seem, in sum, quite reasonable.  By the end, I had little idea who the murderer was, but Macdonald’s explanation ties everything together nicely.  (One minor quibble I had was with the book’s title…we get the belfry alright, but not—unless I missed them—the bats.)

I’ll be on the lookout by more Lorac books (who was, in her private life Edith Caroline Rivette life).