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 (http://billcrider.blogspot.com/), 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.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Miles Burton, Death in the Tunnel

Miles Burton, Death In the Tunnel
British Library Crime Classics 2016
Reprint of 1936 Edition
© 2016 Estate of Cecil Street
ISBN 978-0-7123-5641-1

Miles Burton is one of the pseudonyms of Cecil John Charles Street; John Rhode is his other prominent authorial identity.  The books written as Miles Burton generally feature Inspector Henry Arnold and Desmond Merrion (an intelligence agent turned amateur sleuth).  In this book (the 12th of 14 books published as Burton between 1930 and 1936), Inspector Arnold is called  upon to investigate the death (suicide or murder) of a prominent, semi-retired financier, Sir Wilifred Saxonby.  He was shot on a train, in a fist-class compartment, as the train was passing through a 2-mile-long tunnel.

Among the oddities of the event:  Saxonby had paid a conductor to keep any other passengers ou of his compartment.  In addition, the train slowed almost to a stop (at the location of a ventilation shaft) because the engineer saw a flashing red light; before the train stopped, the light turned green…the oddity is that there were no workers, and no permanent signal light, in the tunnel. 

It seems a fairly straightforward case of suicide, but Arnold can find no reason why Saxonby would have killed himself.  As the investigation proceeds, he learns that the Saxonby had been the chairman of a private bank (now semi-retired), and that the other directors (his son, his daughter, and his former chief assistant, Mr. Torrance) were all out of London on the day of his death—at his urging.  And the former chief clerk of the bank appears to be acting strangely.  Arnold calls on his friend Merrion for advice and assistance.  And things become quite complicated.

I don’t think the book, in the end, works all that well.  It is murder, of course, but it such a complicated, contrived murder plot that any one of a dozen events could have kept the murder from being carried out.  For example, a tow-truck that features prominently, has apparently been driven by two of the conspirators, neither of whom seems to have a background that includes driving large, awkward trucks.  And this one is old—and not in great condition; they are lucky it didn’t break down.  Another example—the caretaker at Saxonby’s son’s estate receives a letter (apparently from Saxonby’s daughter) asking him to go to Norwich to buy some plants for the son’s estate—a trip that will keep him away for the entire day of the murder.  The letter arrives the day before the murder—what if it had been delayed?  Or what if the caretaker had been ill?

A third example…Saxonby has taken some actions that lead directly to the murder—but these actions would also have left him vulnerable to blackmail.  Fourth, the actions taken by Saxonby involve the opening of a bank account—at a different bank—in the amount of ₤50,000—about $2 million at today’s values—which is withdrawn through cashing 2 checks, each for ₤25,000.  First of all, it’s quite the bank that could cash two checks that large without notice (or question).  And that much cash would make a fairly large package (unless it was all in ₤100 notes—and then the bank would maintain a record of the serial numbers of the notes).

There are so many moving parts here that having everything go smoothly seems implausible, at least to me. 

I must also say that Arnold is not depicted as a particularly brilliant example of a Scotland Yard detective; all the clever bits are done by Merrion.

This is the third or fourth book by Street (Burton; Rhode) I’ve read, and it is by far the least successful.  According to the back cover copy on this edition, he wrote “approximately 140 detective novels” between 1925 and 1961—an average of 4 per year—and 44 in the 12 years from 1925 through 1936.  (As an contrast, Agatha Christie wrote 14—including collections of short stories—in her first 12 years as a published author—1920-1931).  He was clearly not putting a lot of thought into any individual book and, in this case, I think it shows.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

George Ballairs and Freeman Wills Crofts: Two "Golden Age" Mysteries


George Bellairs, The Dead Shall Be Raised
British Library Crime Classics 2016 reprint of 1942 Original
© 1942, 2016 George Bellairs
ISBN 978-0=7123-5652-7

Freeman Wills Crofts,
Mystery in the Channel
British Library Crime Classics 2016 reprint of 1931 Original
© Estate of Freeman Wills Crofts 2016
ISBN 978-0-7123-5651-0

I periodically buy a batch of British Library Crime Classics reprints of “golden age” British mystery writers, and these two are from the most recent batch.  In his introduction to The Dead Shall Be Raised, Martin Edwards refers to Bellairs’ “quiet wit” and to the “brisk pace” of the book.  This is the second mystery featuring Inspector Thomas Littlejohn, and Edwards comments on Bellairs’ overall approach to his task as author:

The murder mystery plots are competently put together, but Bellairs was not aiming to write complex puzzles of the kind so fashionable during “the Golden Age of Murder” between the two world wars.  At a time of national crisis, he concentrated on producing mysteries that would distract his readers from the horrors or war; his books are as notable for their humor and humanity as they are for their plots…his harshest words are reserved for people who exploit others.  His brisk characterisations suggest an acute observer of human nature.

Bellairs would produce 59 books, in which 54 of which Littlejohn is the main character, during a 39 year career (1941-1980) which Edwards characterizes as that of “a ‘mid-list’ writer of the mid-twentieth century, an author who was never a best-seller, but who for half a lifetime worked to entertain his reader.”

Freeman Wills Crofts, on the other hand, was very definitely a best-selling author (at least among writers of mystery fiction. Mystery in the Channel’s detective is Inspector Joseph French, who appears in 32 books between 1925 and 1957 (and Crofts also wrote 9 non-series books).  Mystery in the Channel is the 7th Inspector French book.  Of Crofts, Martin writes (in the introduction to this reprint)

Detective stories written during “the Golden Age of Murder” between the two world wars have long been stereotypes…as dry intellectual puzzles which paid little heed to the real world.  The truth is rather different, and is more complicated and interesting.  Crofts’ work is a case in point.  As a writer, he seldom indulged in literary flourishes, and this helps to explain why his books have often been dismissed as ‘humdrum’…his practical turn of mind proved invaluable when it came to creating ingenious murder mysteries—and describing how patient detective work could solve them.

It’s probably unfair to compare these two books, as they differ in setting, in the issues that arise in pursuit of a solution to the mysteries, and in the contemporary and retrospective standing of their authors.  But having read them back-to-back, I obviously did find myself making comparisons.

In The Dead Shall Be Raised, we begin with a startling discovery in 1941—a man’s body and a shotgun are uncovered by workmen.  The body is that of Enoch Sykes, who disappeared in 1917, at the time the dead body of his close friend (and rival for the affections of a young woman), Jerry Trickett was discovered on the moor.  The assumption was, obviously, that Sykes had shot Trickett in jealous rage (both men were shown at the inquest to have been drunk) and then fled the scene.  The likeliest outcome was believed to be that Sykes enlisted, and was subsequently killed, in the Great War.  Now, it’s obvious that there are problems with that scenario.

By happenstance, Scotland Yard’s Thomas Littlejohn has come for a weekend visit (in the west England town in which the story is set) with his wife, who has been evacuated from London for the time being.  He is quickly co-opted into the investigation.  There are obvious difficulties in re-opening an investigation nearly a quarter of a century later—people have died, or moved away; those still alive and on the scene may have forgotten much of what happened.  But Littlejohn and the local Superintendent (Haworth) plunge ahead.  Oddly, almost everyone is still alive and they all seem to have very clear memories of the events.

The investigation is well-handled, although some of the interviews seem to me to be perfunctory.  And, given the importance of both of the dead men’s employment (they were co-workers in what is described as a “foundry”), their workplaces are only sketchily (and inadequately) described—they are more pieces of background about which the author was not well-informed, and which he did not bother to inform himself about.  The solution to the mystery comes by way of two separate confessions, neither of which, to my mind, seem particularly plausible or in character.  Both of the people who make confessions conveniently die of heart attacks, sparing us of the need to have a trial.

So it was a good setup handled only adequately.  Added to that was what was (for me, and I think this would generally be true for readers today) way too much use of dialect (and variant phonetic spellings designed to mark people’s speech as dialect).  I could see this as a decent early work by an author who would need to make progress to be able to continue—but if this was the standard of his work, then his actual lengthy career would be, for me, a surprise.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Crofts’ tale is very different, and very differently handled.  A yacht is found adrift (by the crew of a passenger boat) between England and France (near Folkstone), with two bodies and an indication—from bloodstains—of a third person having been on board.  We rapidly discover that the two dead men are the lead partners in a London banking firm, and that the firm is facing insolvency (given that the story is set in 1930, this would strike readers of the book as all too plausible).  Apparently ₤1.5 million is missing (think of that as about $60 million today).   The local police turn the case over to Scotland Yard as quickly as possible, both because the bodies were found, and murders almost certainly occurred—outside the territory of the locals, and because the background to, and motive for, the murders is most likely to be found in London.

Crofts handles the financial aspects of the case fairly adroitly; he clearly took pains to understand how a privately owned (partnership) financial house would operate; how bank notes were circulated and handled [banks, for example, made a note of the serial numbers of “large” bills--₤5, ₤10, ₤20, ₤100 notes—the “equivalent values” of those today would have been $200 (for the ₤5 note) to $4,000 (for the ₤100 note), and both who “paid” those  bank notes into the bank and to whom they were “paid out.”]  Inspector French conducts thorough interrogations of all the parties involved, and his interactions with other officers at Scotland Yard, and with his superiors, are well handled.  And the investigation keeps running into what appear to be dead ends.  But French persists, and we are kept privy to almost all his thoughts.  The denouement seemed a bit forced—not the solution, but the events surrounding the arrest of the guilty party.

Crofts is not s flashy writer—no bursts of eloquence or insight into human nature (as one might get from Hammett or Chandler); no action-filled scenes or chases—but he does what he does quite well—he tells the story of a professional police detective methodically investigating a very tangled set of events.  And, for my tastes, there’s more subtle humor in Crofts’ writing than in Bellairs’.  It is, in the end, fairly clear to me why one of these authors is still regarded as a major figure in the genre, and the other one is, well, not.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Bill Crider, Eight Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Bill Crider, Eight Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
A Gordian Knot Production/Crossroads Press
(c) 2017 Bill Crider


Bill Crider is probably best known for his Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, 25 or so books about a contemporary law officer in a small Texas town, a series which I recommend without reservation.  But beyond that he is a versatile author of mystery (a PI series, among other books; 2 series of "academic" mysteries), western, and horror novels.  He has also written numerous short stories, also in several genres.   This book consists of 8 Sherlock Holmes mysteries, published between 1987 and 2009 and offered here as a collection for the first time.  It takes considerable nerve to write a "traditional" Holmes story, with the setting at 221B Baker Street, narrated by Watson, and involving a Victorian world that Conan Doyle presented with extraordinary panache.  What we have here are 8 stories that succeed in taking us into that world almost seamlessly.  Crider has nailed Watson's narrative voice (as many have failed to do) and the setting extraordinarily well.  While several of the stories have aspects of the supernatural, rest assured that this is Holmes at work, and he deftly brings us back to reality.  I have read a lot of attempts at Holmes stories, and these come as close as it is possible to come to the originals, in tone and in execution.  I'm not going to discuss the individual stories, but will note that in four we have appearances by real people used for fictional purposes and that one is an off-shoot of a famous tale  by Dickens.  If you are a fan of Holmes and Watson, you should take this opportunity to re-visit their world.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Photo 2


And this is Loryne in front of the Sherlock Holmes Museum in 2007.

Photo


This is a little dated (2002), but I still mostly look like myself.



 


Saturday, May 27, 2017

How much is that?

One of the things I tend to do is to adjust mentally any prices or incomes in a mystery to the "present-equivalent." And I just read (oddly enough for the first time) Agatha Christie's Death in the Clouds (also published as Death in the Air), which was published in 1938 (and presumably written in 1937). As a part of the story, Poirot discusses making a 500 pound contribution to an expedition being planned by a father-and-son team of archeologists.

So how much is that?

Well,... for starters, that would have been about $2,500 in 1937 at the exchange rate between the dollar and the pound in 1937, or about twice the average income for a male worker employed full-time, full year. So we can adjust that wo ways.

First, according to the CPI, prices are about 17 (16.67) times as high today as in 1937. Su a simple inflation adjustment says that's about $45,000.

Or, we could ask, what's the average annual income for an adult male worker in the US who's employed full-time, full-year now? The answer is about $900 a week, or nearly $47,000. But Poirot was talking about a contribution equal to TWICE the average annual income in 1937, or $94,000.
So either way, Hercule must have had a healthy bank balance to casually consider offering that sore of a contribution. Healthier than mine, for sure.

(Incidentally, he did make the contribution.)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

E.J. Copperman, Edited Out


E.J. Copperman, Edited Out
Crooked Lane © 2017 E.J. Copperman
ISBN 978-1-68331-130-0

In the second outing of the Mysterious Detective series, Rachel Goldman (mid-list author of mystery novels) has found herself stuck on her latest book.  Her series features Duffy Madison, a free-lance consultant to police departments in missing persons cases, and recently (see Written Off) a real, live Duffy Madison has shown up, claiming that he has no recollection of anything before about 5 years earlier (when her series debuted).  Her problem is that the living Duffy seems to be disrupting her thinking about the fictional one.

And when she calls Duffy (to try to clear her mind, he immediately asks to help him try to track something down (in Poughkeepsie) which might yield a clue to who he really is.  Or was.  The something involves the disappearance of one Damien Moseley, who would be about the same age as Duffy, and whom Duffy believes might be who he was before.  Complications immediately ensue.  And whom Duffy believes is dead, based on his discovery of a 5-year-old cold case death investigation.

Duffy uncovers information that leads him to believe that Damien is dead, probably murdered…five years ago.  There is (it happens) a Duffy Madison who was apparently in the same high school graduating class as Damien.  THAT Duffy was apparently a member of the Classics Club, but his picture is not in the yearbook.  And that’s just the beginning.  Rachel, of course, puts aside her writing (which was not going well, although throughout the investigation she continues to try to hammer out her 1,000 words a day) and accompanies Duffy (or is it Damien?) from the wilds of New Jersey to New York. 

Along the way, they discover that Damien had married, had apparently lived (if only briefly with a woman (also in the same high school class who has (also) disappeared) in a condo owned by Damien’s mother. 

The pace of the book accelerates considerably as their investigation proceeds, and the conclusion is neatly handled. 

This is a book that should probably be read only after you read Written Off, although there’s enough background provided that it’s not necessary.  And I think you should read Edited Out.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Loren Estleman, Nearly Nero


Loren Estelman, Nearly Nero:  The Adventures of Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Nero Wolfe
Gallery Books.  © 2017 Loren Estelman

Eight (unless I miscounted) previously published stories about the detection exploits of Claudius Lyon, narrated by his assistant, Arnie Woodbine.  Lyon (who inherited a fortune) has fashioned himself in in the image of Nero Wolfe, including his on private (but non-live-in) chef, Gus.  He grows tomatoes (having a brown thumb), unassisted.  And he completes the household by hiring Arnie Woodbine (sounds a lot like Archie Goodwin is you slur your speech and say it quickly).  (He does not live in Manhattan, but on Avenue J in Brooklyn.)  Lyon takes no pay for his efforts (he’s not licensed, and the bunco squad detective at the local precinct would love to bust him).  In this world, I should note, Nero Wolfe is a real PI, not a fictional character.

Arnie is a con man recently out of prison, and serves as our narrator.  The writing is smooth (I would not have expected anything less of Estelman), but the “cases” are rather thin, and  the solutions (which were all fairly obvious) seemed to less from deduction or from Arnie’s leg work (which was, in any case, largely confined to finding creative ways to supplement his salary) than from coincidence and leaps of intuition.

As an aficionado of the Wolfean world, I found the collection barely worth the time.  A reader who is not already a fan of Nero and Archie and the gang will probably not find this to be a particularly rewarding was to spend a few hours.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Dodge City...and the Great War

Tom Clavin, Dodge City:  Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West
St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN: 978-1-1250-07148-4


Clavin’s simultaneous biography of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson has been fairly widely praised.  I thought it was a generally well-researched but hardly gripping story of the ten year period in which the west went from (mostly) wild to (generally) tame.  Wyatt and Bat are pretty compelling characters on whom to hang the tale, and one of the most compelling parts of their story is how young (Wyatt was 25 and Bat was not yet 20 when the story begins, in 1873) the protagonists were.  Indeed, it’s amazing how young most of the main characters—good (Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren—Wyatt’s brothers; and Jim, Bat’s brother; Doc Holliday) and bad (Billy the Kid, Johnny Ringo, and many others, including the Clancy clan) were.  And the longevity of many of them (Wyatt lived until he was nearly 71; Bat died a month shy of 68; m more than a few of the other people in the tale lived into their 80s and 90s), given the times, is pretty remarkable.

 In my opinion, Clavin has two difficulties he has to overcome.  The first is that there is little real suspense; we know that Wyatt and Bat lived long lives and that their antagonists generally did not.  So every time Clavin relates one of the dangerous incidents in their lives, we know that they are going to get through it basically unharmed.  The second is the difficulty he has in really making clear the personalities and motives of the two men on whom he focuses.  While there has been a lot written about both of them, it seems to me that (at least based on Clavin’s use of his source material) no one really provided a psychological portrait of either man.  (This is, in general, an advantage for fiction—the author has control over the characters’ inner and outer lives.)

One of the lessors that I took away from the book, and one I have to re-learn every time I read a detailed piece of history from before the 20th century, is how mobile at least some portion of the population was, given how difficult travel was.  Just in the 10 period covered in the main part of Clavin’s book, Wyatt (as on example) moves from where he was born (in Illinois), grew up in Iowa, moved to Kansas, and moved around between Dodge and the Dakotas, Texas, and Arizona without really putting down roots anywhere.  After his Dodge City days, he prospected for gold in Alaska, did numerous things in California (where he finally mostly settled down after age 50 or so.  Just as one example of the difficulties of this sort of life:  It’s 900 miles from Dodge to Tombstone.  Google Maps tells me I can drive that in 13 hours.  For Wyatt, on horseback and pushing, that would take at least a month; in a wagon, even longer.  Even by train, it would be at least a week-long trip.  (This book, by the way, would really benefit from having some maps.)

If you aren’t familiar with the lives and times of Wyatt and Bat, Clavin’s book will help you understand the rimes.  I’m less sure that it helps us understand their lives.

John Gardner, The Secret Generations [© 1985]
eBook Publication by Endeavor Press

The Railton family—the main actors in John Gardner’s “Secrets” trilogy—have been insiders in English military and governing structures for generations.  In The Secret Generations, we follow three generations of Railtons from 1910 to 1920 and see how their lives were radically changed by the Great War—and how they contributed to t hose changes as they participate in the war.  Gardner is obviously telling a vast story here, and he has a vast cast of characters with which to do it.  (So vast, in fact, that I felt that the book needed either a list of principal characters, or a genealogy of the Railtons, or both).  In this book, we begin with three generations of the family—beginning with Giles (who must have been born in the 1840s), the middle generation (Charles and Andrew, presumably born in the 1865-1870 period), and the third generation (dating from around 1890, and the fourth generation arrives in stages throughout the book.

Giles is in many ways the focus of the book, and he is an insider (in many ways) in British intelligence.  His actions affect the lives of his family and have the possibility of affecting the Empire.  (“Real” people show up—Churchill, Lloyd George, Roger Casement—if only briefly.)  The plot focuses on German efforts at intelligence-gathering (and sabotage) in England and English efforts to obtain information on German initiatives, largely on the battlefield. 

I found the first half of the book something of a slog, partly because Gardner had to establish the family (so progress on the events that become important in the second half occurs only slowly), but the pace picks up considerably in the second half.  Gardner obviously knows the Great War’s history well, and the limited number of battle scenes evoke it in dramatic fashion.  I thought the extended coda was perhaps a bit more than we needed, but it does at least lead us into the second book in the trilogy---Secret Houses—which I am looking forward to.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Christianna Brand, Fog of Doubt

Christianna Brand, Fog of Doubt
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road © 1953; this edition 2011
ASIN: B005XE5BDE


This is the story of an English family, with complications.  The principals are Thomas and Matilda Evans, a married couple with a small child; Rosie, Thomas’s (20-years-younger than he) sister (and recently returned to England from a school in Switzerland); Thomas’s grandmother; Melissa, Thomas’s secretary and family servant; Tedward (Thomas Edwards), Thomas’s partner in his medical practice; assorted acquaintances; and Inspector Cockrill (Cockie). Known to the family from earlier goings-on.  Oh, and Matilda’s one-time lover, Raoul Vernet, who has come to London for the purpose of communicating something important to her.

Rosie, who is (it seems) in her late teens, and pregnant.  She’s trying to find someone, almost anyone, to have an abortion.  Among the people she approaches is Tedward, who has conceived a hopeless passion for her.  Rosie manages to tell everyone a different story about how, and by whom, she became pregnant.  When she finally pitches up at Tedward’s home (and office), abut 9 PM, with one of London’s famous fogs rapidly making visibility essentially zero., she tells him a story suggesting that Raoul is the man.  While she’s there, the phone rings, and Rosie answers.  It’s Raoul, urgently asking for medical care; he has been assaulted and is at the Evans’ house.

Tedward gets the car out, and, on the way, manages to get lost in the fog.  When they arrive, Raoul is dead (in the hallway, clutching the phone, which has been pulled from the wall).  He has been battered by a blunt object (which turns out to be a mastoid mallet, a medical instrument).  As Rosie and Tedward arrive, Matilda is coming down from having helped her grandmother-in-law to bed and getting her own child down for the night; she has seen and heard nothing.

A London police superintendent investigates, the family calls Cockie to help them find out what’s happened.  Eventually the London cop arrests Thomas, but releases him in order to arrest Tedward.  Roughly the last third of the book is given over to an account of Tedward’s trial.

Brand wrote an interesting introduction (for the late 1970s republication), in which she talks about the background to the story, why she still likes it a lot, and says it is her favorite of all her books.  Personally, I found the Evans family pretty uninteresting and large stretches of the book seems like filler.  But the mystery and its investigation are nicely handled, and the conclusion does come as something of a surprise—although everything I as a reader needed to know is there in plain sight.  Not an outstanding piece of work, but a reasonable and generally satisfying read.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Bill Crider, Piano Man (A Short Story)


Bill Crider, Piano Man
Brash Books © 2014 by Bill Crider
ISBN:  3-978-1941-2982-99

Our narrator is a piano player in the Bad Dog Saloon in a settlement (it might be too much to call it a town) near Fort Laramie.  The story of how he became a piano player, and wound up in the Bad Dog is quickly and well told.  And things become both interesting, and potentially disastrous, when “a man named Morgan” got involved in a poker game with the owner of the saloon—and put his 15-year-old daughter up as his stake on a hand.  He lost, of course.

The remainder of the story involves the Piano Man’s reactions to this event, and Morgan’s efforts to reclaim his daughter.  And the longer this takes, the more violent things get.

This was, for me, something different by Crider; I have basically not read his westerns, having instead been a devoted reader of his PI books (Truman Smith and others), his college mysteries (the Carl Burns and Sally Good books), and his long-running series featuring Sheriff Dan Rhodes.  Crider writes very well, and if the conclusion holds less in the way of surprise that it might, this is a good, solid, and disturbing read.  Worth the time (and money) to seek out.

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair




Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair
A Tom Doherty & Associated Book/Forge © 2014The Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
eISBN: 987-1-4299-9723-2

The third book featuring Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon finds Quincannon in Chinatown to find, and return to his home, James Scarlett, an attorney who has been doing a lot of work for one of the tongs in Chinatown.  Meanwhile Carpenter, who has been spending a fair amount of time with Carson Montgomery (a mining engineer), and who is now wondering where the relationship might be going, has accepted a job from the widow of Ruben Blanchford, who had been a financier in life—his body has been stolen, and the thieves are asking for $75,000 for its return.

Things go awry quite quickly for Quincannon—he finds Scarlett quickly enough (in a Chinatown opium den), but Scarlett is shot (and killed) while Quincannon is taking him home.  The police are concerned that this might trigger a gang war in Chinatown; Quincannon concurs, but suggests restraint.  His concern is who killed Scarlett (and nearly killed him), and why.  To discover that, he needs some time, to search Scarlett’s office and to probe the situation in Chinatown.  And, as he discovers, there is also a body missing in Chinatown.

Carpenter, in her case, finds what appears to  be an impossible theft of Blanchford’s body from the family crypt—nothing has been obviously disturbed, and the crypt was (apparently) continuously locked.  The only anomalous fact is that the preparation of the body for interment was handled by a third-rate mortician.

And in the background, “Sherlock Holmes” (an Englishman who either is Holmes or is using his name and reputation) seems to be investigating Carson Montgomery.

Muller and Pronzini do an excellent job of establishing their characters and bringing San Francisco in the 1890s to life.  Chinatown, in many ways, dominates the book, and the social/economic/political structure of Chinatown and of the rest of the city are perfectly done (at least so it seems to me.  Both Carpenter and Quincannon pursue their investigations professionally and according to their characters as they have been established in the first two books.  And if the reader does not learn everything that either of them learns in the course of their investigations, that’s a minor departure from the ideal of the “fair play” mystery.

All three of the Carpenter/Quincannon books are well worth  your time, and thie might be the best of the three.

As an aside (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Opium_War), the issue of opium use among the Chinese is an important issue in the relationships between the Western countries and China, and between the immigrant and the Anglo population in SF.  It’s important to remember that opium was introduced to China by English and French merchants seeking to find something that they could sell profitably to a large Chinese market that had little use for European goods.  (At the same time, Europe was buying huge quantities of things, from tea to spices to silks, from China.)  The Second Opium War (1856-1860) resulted in China being forced to accept a very punitive peace treaty, and yield considerable control of its internal affairs to France and England.  Two important aspects of the treaty is that trade in opium was made legal, and was under European control, and that British ships had a monopoly on the transportation of Chinese as “indentured” workers (but, in reality, virtually as slaves) to the Americas.  William Gladstone, who served off and on as Prime Minister of England in the late 19th century denounced the opium trade as "a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace".[