Sunday, August 20, 2017

Bill Crider, Dead, To Begin With

Bill Crider, Dead, To Begin With
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-07853-7
Also available as an ebook


Jake Marley, who has been a recluse for decades (since shortly after his younger sister died in an automobile accident, has recently purchased the old, abandoned, and decrepit opera house in Clearview.  He intends to renovate it, and, for the first event, has commissioned a version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to be set in Texas.   And then he is found--dead--inside the opera house, by Aubrey Hamilton (a local realtor who worked with Marley on his purchase of the opera house.

Although it looks like Marley has fallen from a catwalk, Sheriff Dan Rhodes has his doubts.

Of course, that’s not all that’s going on in Blacklin County, Texas.  For one thing, Elaine Tunstall has gone off her meds and is threatening to inflict serious damage (with a sledgehammer) on The Beauty Shack, where she got what she regards as a bad haircut.  And we have a case of disputed possession of an item at a garage sale, for another.

But Marley’s death is the main event.  The question is, why, if it is murder, anyone would want to murder an extremely wealthy recluse who has come out of seclusion with plans to spend a lot of money to restore the opera house?

Another question is why, in his will, he specifies that he wants the Sheriff to be present at the first performance of the play.  More, why has he named four of his fellow high school students to four specific roles in the play (Scrooge, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come)?  Why will he be playing (of course) the ghost of Jacob Marley?  How, is at all, is his sister’s death related to all this?

Perhaps more than usual, the town of Clearview is a character in this episode of the series.  Its part is, more or less, that of the aging and declining world that was in a world in which it may no longer has a role.

And there may be ghosts.  So C.P. (Seepy) Benton, math professor at the community college, and Harry Harris, English professor (and designated author of the play Marley wanted written), as Clearwater Paranormal Investigations, crash the investigation/

Rhodes pursues his investigation in his usual way, asking questions, stirring up (in this case) decades-old memories, and provoking responses from all the folks concerned.  I was pleased that Rhodes’ wife Ivy has a larger than usual role in the book, as a participant in the investigation.  And Rhodes’ dogs, Yancey and Speedo, are not just doing their doggie thing, they make a contribution to fighting crime.

Crider’s been doing this for a while (this is the 24th book in the series; the first one—Too Late to Die—was published in 1986, and, as in any long-running series, there are commonalities among the tales.  But that doesn’t mean it’s all become formulaic.  The plot here is quite intricate, and the events, from Marley’s emergence from seclusion to the opera house rehab and play to the ultimate solution raise interesting questions about motive, about community, and about justice.  Crider is at the top of his form here, in one of the best books in a fine series.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

E.J. Copperman, Dog Dish of Doom

E.J. Copperman, Dog Dish of Doom
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-08427-9
Also available as an ebook


The first in a projected series featuring Kay Powell (an entertainerturned lawyer turned talent agent—she represents animals) and her parents (Jay Powell & Eleanor Ray); as a trio, they played resort hotels as Jay, Kay, and El until Kay broke up the act by going semi-straight.  Her parents forged ahead as a double act on cruise ships.

Kay’s office in in New York and she lives in New Jersey with her two dogs, Steve and Eydie.  Her newest client is Bruno, who’s up for the part of Sandy in a revival of “Annie,” slated to replace the current performer (Horatio).  Bruno is a large, shaggy sweetheart of a dog and a natural performer, of indeterminate breeding.  His owners (Trent and Louise Barclay) are something of a problem at the audition, but that gets partly resolved when Trent is murdered later late that night.

Kay sort of tries to stay out of things, but the detective in charge of the investigation pretty much coerces her into becoming a CI (confidential informant), because she knows both the people involved and the environment in which they work.  And in short order things get complicated.  Someone wants Bruno, and is apparently willing to go to great lengths to get him.  But what’s going on?  Why would anyone want a mutt?  Is this related to Trent’s murder or not?  Why is the Les the director’s assistant (Akra) acting so strangely?

In the end, of course, everything becomes clear, Bruno is saved, and justice is done.  (And, given when I was reading the book, I sort of needed that.)

Kay’s narrative voice is very good, and her parents are delightful (El has a great response early on when Kay says “Mom, I don’t think you’re getting exactly what I’m risking here;”Jay is constantly playing a part).  Copperman does the settings, both in the city and in Jersey, very, very well.  And sneaks in a reference that made me smile.  I’m assuming that Jay and El will manage to find their way to the NY/NJ area in subsequent adventures (I’ll miss them if they’re not there).  And I’m hoping Kay’s assistand in the agenting business, Consuela, and Consuela’s son Dee, will be part of the ensemble (with more to do.

This is probably going to get tagged as a “cozy,” and maybe it is.  But it’s also pretty tough underneath.  I think you’ll enjoy this installment; I know I’m already looking forward to #2.

 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Copycat Photoblogging: Memoies of WW2

Ingrid Robeyns (http://crookedtimber.org/2017/08/12/sunday-photoblogging-never-forget/#comments) reminds us that we should never forget the mass deaths of World War II.  I'd agree.

(May 2000)

Friday, August 4, 2017

George Bellairs, Death of a Busybody

George Bellairs, Death of a Busybody
British Library Crime Classics © 1942 George Bellairs
Reprinted 2016
ISBN 978-0=7123-5644-2


Bellairs was a second- or third-tier writer of mystery novels in what we now call the “golden age.”  The English version of this encompassed members of the various police forces (often a Scotland Yard detective working with a local police unit, as in the case of this book) and “gifted amateurs,” often aristocratic (Campion, Wimsey), but not always (Marple).  He was also fairly prolific, having written 58 books featuring Superintendent Thomas Littlejohn between 1941 and 1980.  Unfortunately, this is a pretty unrelievedly bad book.

The “busybody” of the title is Ethel Tither, a middle-aged spinster in a small village, who wages a one-woman war against immorality, directly confronting those who offend her, urging religious tracts upon them, and insisting that they repent.  Her body is discovered in the septic system of the vicar’s residence, where she had been placed within a very short window, and in which she drowned. 

Littlejohn quickly discovers that Tither had recently—the day before her murder—written a new will (without consulting her solicitor).  What’s not clear is whether the new will—which alters the primary legatee from a cousin to an organization based in London and having as its stated purpose rescuing poor women from a life of degradation—matters.  The investigation does not focus on any particular individual, or small group, mostly because Littlejohn doesn’t learn much of anything pertinent until near the end (and then mostly because people just tell him things).  The real detective work is done in London and its environs, by his Scotland Yard-based assistant Sgt. Cromwell.

Almost all the characters (including the local vicar, the village constable, and Sgt. Cromwell, but not including Littlejohn) have minor (Cromwell’s identification with the Lord Protector) or major (the vicar’s 1,000+page treatise on bee-keeping) eccentricities.  And we have the usual run of “cute” names-the vicar is Mr. Claplady, for example.

This is the third of his Littlejohn books I’ve read, and the characterizations of our protagonist have been fairly inconsistent.  In this instance, he spends a lot of time knocking back the odd glass of beer, making notes, walking around the neighborhood…but remarkably little actually detecting.  The book shares one feature with the other Bellairs books I’ve read—an annoying use of dialect in the conversations Littlejohn has with the locals; the use of dialect seems mostly designed to point out how unsophisticated, or backward, or stupid the people are.  And it extends to using spellings (e.g., “wuz”) in which (as far as I can tell) the pronunciation is the same in the dialect and standard presentation of the words.

Many of the books in the British Library Crime Classics series are actual classics or are worth reading even though they are not classics.  This book is neither.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

John Bude, The Cheltenham Square Murder

John Bude, The Cheltenham Square Murder
British Library Crime Classic, 2016 reprint of 1937 original
© 2016 Estate of John Bude
ISBN 978-1-4642-0669-6


John Bude is a pseudonym of Ernest Carpenter Elmore, who published 36 books (30 as Bude) between 1935 and 1957 (the year of his death).  Superintendent William Meredith appears in 23 of the books, including this one.

It’s a bizarre and obscure crime.  There’s a square on which 10 homes are located, mostly in the English style—abutting each other, but separate structures.  While things seem fairly serene on the surface, emotions seethe beneath, and the book opens with some hints at these underground issues. 

Captain Cotton, employed as a car salesman (and continuing to be referred to with the rank he held 20 years earlier in the Great War, has entered into an affair with one of the residents of the square (Isobel West, wife of Arthur West, who works in a local bank).  One evening, Cotton drops in on Edward Buller, a semi-retired stockbroker.  And, while seated in Buller’s second floor study, with only the back of his head visible above the back of the chair,h aving a drink and a talk about Cotton’s recent inheritance, Cotton is shot, through the open window.  By an arrow.  Loosed, as we shall discover by a 6’ long bow.  And several residents of the square are members of an archery club.

Meredith, who is in Cheltenham visiting a friend, is asked, unofficially, to assist the local police Inspector Long.

Their investigation takes a number of turns, some down blind alleys, before reaching a conclusion.  One thing, though, which seemed obvious to me, apparently does not occur to the police until quite late in the game.

I’d call this a workmanlike effort, but not a classic.  Meredith and Long rather quickly conclude that the murder must be one of the people living in the square, although it’s not clear why.  Cotton’s background remains murky for longer than (it seemed to me) it would have in a real investigation.  And, as I have already suggested, they miss a point that seems both obvious and important.  I’ve read three of four of Bude’s other books, and this one is not up to the others.  Solid, readable, but a little labored and plodding.  If you have not read anything by Bude before, I’d start with Death on the Riviera or The Lake District Murder (his first book).

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman
British Library Crime Classics 2015 reprint of © 1934 original
ISBN 978-1-4642-0482-1


Another in the ongoing reprints of more-or-less forgotten authors and books.  I certainly had never heard of Sprigg before, and on the evidence of this book, I suspect I’d be interested in giving one or more of his 7 other mysteries a look--and it looks as if I'll be able to,  His Fatality In Fleet Street is available both in print and as an ebook.  (In his introduction to this volume, Marin Edwards notes that Sprigg wrote “a Marxist critique of poetry,” which was publiched posthumously.  (Sprigg died in the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, fighting for theRepublican forces.)

He also had a background in aviation, which certainly shows in this book, much of which takes place in a flying club somewhere in England.  The principal victim (ex-Major George Furnace)is a famous aviator who is working as an instructor at the Baston Aero Club; for no apparent reason, the plane he has taken up for a morning flight goes into a dive and spins into the ground.  An Anglican Bishop from Australia (Edwin Marriott) notices something odd about the corpse (Marriott having had a medical course to help prepare him for his rural Bishopric)—rigor mortis appears to have passed off extremely quickly (or else Furnace did not die when he apparently did).  And so an investigation into Furnace’s likely murder begins.

Sprigg has assembled an interesting cast of characters, including a local police Inspector (Creighton) and a Scotland Yard Inspector (Bray) who wind up working closely together to solve the mystery.  Creighton takes the case to Scotland Yard because, having discovered that Furnace had recently received large payments unrelated to his work, he also discovered that Furnace had taken a white powder to a local chemist for an analysis—and it was cocaine.

As Creughton and Bray pursue the investigation, the timing and cause of Furnace’s death become more mysterious, and the structure and operation of the cocaine  of the cocaine operation become increasingly central to their efforts.

This was, it appears, Sprigg’s second or third mystery(Edwards mentions two other titles, The Perfect Alibi and Crime In Kennsington, the latter of which was Sprigg’s first mystery).  As such, it has some rough spots, and the denouement is a bit perfunctory.  There are several very “stock” characters who don’t add much to the story, but the story is generally well told, and all the pieced are nicely fit together by the Inspectors.  The characterizations are not deep—no one stands out all that much—but it is an enjoyable book.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

One by Mignon Eberhart, another by Mary Roberts Rinehart


Mignon G. Enerhart, Postmark Murder
Open Road 2012 r-reprint of © 1955, 1956

I was scrolling through something recently, and ran across some commentary about Mignon Eberhart, a fairly popular author of what would now (I think) generally be regarded as “cozy” mysteries (52 of them between 1929 and 1988).  And I realized I had never read anything she wrote.  Whatever I ran across mentioned this book (Postmark Murder), which is available as a ebook (as is much of her work), and I thought I’d give it a shot.

The story is set shortly after World War II.  Three people (Doris Stanley, Charlie Stedman, and Laura March) are trustees under the will of Conrad Stanley (Doris is his widow; Charlie, a close friend and business associate; and Laura, the daughter of a close friend; Matt Cosden was Conrad’s lawyer).  One peculiarity of the will is that half of the estate is being held in trust for a cousin Conrad had never met, Conrad Stanislowsky, who was known to have been living in Poland, but who has apparently disappeared.  And the trust is to be wound up three years after his death, with 1/3 of the residual of his estate going to each trustee.  As it happens, Matt discovers a that the Polish Conrad had a daughter, who was in an orphanage in Vienna.  As the book opens, Matt is returning from Vienna with the daughter, Jonny. 

(I suppose I should note that Laura is deeply in love with Matt, who, before Doris married Conrad Stanley, was engaged to Doris.)

So now there is a twist.  If the legatee—and I wish they were not both names Conrad—fails to show up, does the residual estate devolve upon Jonny (who is, for the time being, living with and being cared for by Laura)?

And a second twist:  Shortly before Christmas, a man shows up at Laura’s apartment claiming to be Conrad Stanislowsky and wanting to see his daughter.  He catches a brief glimpse of her, but Laura refuses to allow any contact until he proves who he is.  And he leaves.

A strange woman (calling herself Maria Brown) calls Laura and tells her to come to an address in the Polish section of Chicago (the Pilsen neighborhood, for those of you to whom that will mean something).  Laura (disregarding the lessons of thousands of mystery novels) goes, taking Jonny with her.  She briefly encounters Maria, enters th boarding house, and finds the man who called himself Conrad Stanislowsky dead.  (Of course.) 

The remainder of the book follows (at second hand, actually) the police investigation of the murder.  Laura is a suspect, as are the other 2 trustees.  And Matt is also involved.

The set-up is fairly interesting, but following the progress of the investigation is not handled well, as we really only see it first-hand when Laura is being questioned.  And the denouement was, to me, even less well-handled.  Only Laura is particularly well-developed as a character; the city of Chicago, however, does make itself felt pretty realistically.

On the basis of this experience, I can say both that I can understand Eberhart’s populatiry and doubt that I’ll read another—unless I read a very strong recommendation for a specific book

 

Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Man in Lower Ten
Open Road Media, 2014 (Originally published, 1906, and in the public domain)

Another author by whom I had previously read nothing, one whose reputation today is not as high as it was when she was active (27 novels and a huge number of sorts between 1908 and 1952)

A youngish lawyer, in a partnership in Washington, Lawrence Blakely, ha to travel to Pittsburgh, to take the deposition of a man involved in a counterfeiting situation.  (His partner, Ritchey McNight, pleads he necessity of seeing the young woman he has recently fallen for.)  The trip to Pittsburgh goes smoothly, the deposition is taken, and Blakely boards the train for the return journey to D.C.  This is where things go pear-shaped.

On the return trip, Blakeley assists a fellow passenger in buying a ticket (making sure that she gets a lower berth—11C); he has 10C.  That night, hot and uncomfortable, Blakeley can’s sleep, so he gets up and, in his pajamas and robe, goes to have a smoke.  When he returns, there is someone else asleep-snoring loudly—in lower 10.  On the advice of one of the train staff, he agrees to move across the corridor to 9C—which is probably where the guy in 10C was probably supposed to be.  Later that night, there’s a crash, the man in 10C is discovered dead—not from the crash, but stabbed, the documents Blakeley had been carrying have vanished (as have his clothes).  He’s forced to dress in the clothes of whoever it was who had booked 9C (and they fit none too well).  Subsequently, he and a young lady (Allison East) leave the train; they both have reason to be concerned about an investigation into the death (Blakeley is an obvious suspect, of course).

The set-up is not bad, and has been used over and over again in mysteries set on trains.  But the “investigation” of the murder is, even for the early 20th century, essentially non-existent, and toe “solution” consists of one party who is guilty of one thing dumping responsibility for the murder elsewhere. 

So much for my introduction to MRR.