Saturday, July 4, 2020

Rex Stout, Over My Dead Body

Rex Stout, Over My Dead Body
© Rex Stout 1940.  Renewed 1968.
ISBN-13: 978-0553231168

Every time I have read Over My Dead Body, I have wondered about the economic/financial status of the Balkan states.  This time, I did something about it.  I found an interesting (well, to me, anyway) research paper by Kiril Kossev (University of Oxford), “Finance and Development in Southeast Europe  in the Interwar Period” (  Among other things, I learned that Yugoslavia ran a large and persistent foreign trade deficit in the inter-war period (1920-1940) and that Yugoslavia borrowed $140 million from western nations (between 1919 and 1932 (today’s equivalent would b3 $3.5 trillion), the U.S being by far the largest lender.  Yugoslavia continued to borrow heavily between 1923 and 1938 (France and the U.S. were the largest lenders). 

So the stakes were large.  And obtaining ongoing financial support from the U.S. was of vital importance to the governments and to the economy of the Balkans.  And given what we know, in general, about the politics (read your Eric Ambler) of the region, informal diplomacy, intrigue, and even murder seem to be very real possibilities.

In OMDB, Stout brings together two young women (Neya Tormic and Carla Lovchen), an English intelligence officer (Percy Ludlow), and a German financier (and Nazi, Rudolph Faber).  Tormic claims to be Wolfe’s adoptive daughter (and has documents to back up her claim).  There’s also a fashioon designer (Madame Zorka), a father-and-son pair of international financier, and a lovely young woman who seems to send a fair amount of time unclothed.  Tormic and Lovchen are working—somewhat illegally—at a fencing and dance studio, where Ludlow and Faber are clients.  Tormic is accused of stealing a package of diaonds from another patron, and seeks Wolfe’s help.

In fairly short order, Ludlow is murdered (with an epee, which, without modification, would have been incapable of inflicting a fatal wound).  And she is now dependent on Wolfe to protect her from a murder charge.  And an FBI agent shows up to ask Wolfe if he has accepted a commission from a foreign government (which he would be required to report).  Inspector Cramer is getting less than enthusiastic support from his superiors, and basically turns things over to Wolfe.

Obviously things get complicated.

OMDB is the most political of all the novels (in my opinion), from start to finish.*(Spoiler alert for the footnote.)  And watching Wolfe have to come to terms with the existence—and, even more, the presence—of his adopted daughter also make this perhaps the most personal story as well.  One of the best, in my opinion, and one that can be read multiple times without becoming stale. 

*(In the other three heavily political books—The Silent Speaker, The Doorbell Rang, and A Family Affair), the political issues turn out to be germane to the story, but not necessarily to the murders).

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Hall-Mills Murders (1922) nd Richard Lockridge's Preach No More (1971)

Richard Lockridge, Preach No MoreCopyright (C) 1971 Richard Lockridge

I have just finished reading Preach No More, by Richard Lockridge (1971), and the book reminded me of a real murder, the Hall-Mills murders, in 1922, which are described (wikipedia) this way:

The Hall–Mills murder case involved an Episcopal priest and a member of his choir with whom he was having an affair, both of whom were murdered on September 14, 1922, in Somerset, New Jersey. The priest's wife and her brothers were accused of committing the murders, but were acquitted in a 1926 trial. In the history of journalism, the case is largely remembered for the vast extent of newspaper coverage it received nationwide; it has been regarded as an example of a media circus. It would take the Lindbergh kidnapping trial in the 1930s to eclipse the high profile of the Hall-Mills murder.

And this reminded me of William Kunstler’s book, The Hall-Mills Murder Case: The Minister and the Choir Singer (1964).  The New York Times devoted a long article to it (February 2, 1964;  I have not read Kunstler’s book, which I first learned of from a throw-away passage in A Right to Die, (one of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout).  I have read the Times article.

At this point, I should warn you that I am about to discuss Preach No More in depth, and will (almost inevitably) include aspects of the book’s plot that are spoilers.  So if anyone reading this plans to read the book, you have been warned.

The essentials of the real-life murder and the fictional one are similar (but not identical).  Edward Wheeler Hall was an Episcopal priest and Eleanor Mills, who was married to the church sexton, was a member of the choir.  Their bodies were found in an isolated location, with love letters written by Mills scattered over the body.  It took a Hearst-led press campaign to convince the authorities to file murder charges against Hall’s wife Frances and her brothers, Henry and Willie Stevens.  After a lengthy trial and a brief consideration b y the jury, all three were found not guilty.

In Lockridge’s book (which is fiction, rather than fact), a fundamentalist preacher from Arkansas (Jonathan Prentiss), has come to New York for a series of “meeting at Madison Square Garden, accompanied by his wife, his chief assistant, Rev. Higgs, his choir director, the core members of the choir (most of whom are hired locally), and others.  Prentiss’s ministry is carried out largely through large “revival”-style meetings in large cities.  The meetings are highly scripted and choreographed, but center on his sermons (and he is called the Voice for the power and range of his speaking).

Prentiss prepares for his events by arriving a week or two in advance of his staff, to roam the city, observing in particular what he (and, again, his staff) regards as evidence of the depravity of life in America’s major cities.  He also, we learn (and what is, it seems, not known by his staff, or by his wife), strikes up an acquaintance of a young woman to serve as his guide to the city (and, it seems, for other forms of companionship.  The mission’s photographer, who arrives with the rest of the performers, then assembles a movie/collage depicting the evils of which Prentisss will preach.  And, as you will surmise from this being a mystery novel and from the title, Prentiss does not live to complete his planned two-week series of meetings in New York.  Neither does his guide to the depravity of New York survive to sing past opening night.

Obviously, Lockridge’s version of the relationship between a minister and a choir girl differs from the reality of Kunstler’s history.  And Lockridge’s book ends with the arrest of the presumably guilty party.  And I can’t help but think that Lockridge knew of the Hall-Mills case (especially since Kunstler’s book was fairly recent, and the murders were even in the 1960s very well known), and that he based the murders, and the motives, on a more than 40 year old story.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Rex Stout, Some Buried Caesar

Rex Stout, Some Buried Caesar
© Copyright 1938 Rex Stout Copyright renewed 1967
This edition by Bantam Mystery, 1994

This is one of my favorites in the Wolfe Saga, partly because it’s one of the few in which I could keep up with Wolfe from the very beginning.  And also because it has Wolfe heading to upstate New York, to exhibit orchids at the North Atlantic Exposition, in Crowfield.  What has driven Wolfe to such an extremity if the behavior of another orchid grower, one Charles E. Shanks, who, Archie tells us, has refused to trade albinos with Wolfe and has refused to exhibit at the (New York) Metropolitan Orchid show.

Just before arriving at Crowfield, the Heron blows a tire and it crashes (with substantial damage).  Wolfe and Goodwin set off across a fenced pasture, where they are confronted by a very territorial bull.  This leads to Wolfe being perched atop a boulder as Archie fails in an attempt to lure the bull away.  Wolfe is soon rescued, however, by a young woman (Caroline Pratt) in her car.  Wolfe and Archie are taken to the Pratt home, where they meet Tom Pratt, the founder and owner of a chain of low-end restaurants (I keep thinking Howard Johnson, but that could be way off).  Ah—at the pasture, Archie meets Lily Rowan.

Pratt expounds to Wolfe on the value of publicity, explaining that he has purchased the bull in the pasture, Hickory Caesar Grindon, from a dairy farmer (Monte McMillan) whose best bull it was, for $45,000 (about $350,000 today).  (McMillan agreed to the sale because he lost most of his cattle to anthrax.)  And Pratt intends to slaughter the bull, barbecue it, and feed it to gourmets, rich people, and, of course, reporters and public relations people.  The local defenders of the sanctity of the breed descend on Pratt, to buy the bull and prevent him the atrocity.  Pratt refuses, and McMillan, who has has arrived with the refuses to cooperate with the would-be preservers of the breed.  They are followed almost immediately by Clyde Osgood, the son of one of the local gentry—perhaps it’s better to say, the luminary of the local gentry.  He’s accompanied by sister Nancy and a fish-out-of-water Howard Bronson (a hustler from NYC).  Clyde proposes a bet with Pratt--$10,000 even that he will not barbecue Hickory Caesar Grindon.

The bet is made, Archie is recruited for guard duty that night (Wolfe offered his services, and they get to stay in the Pratt home instead of a second-rate hotel).  While on guard duty, Lily shows up, one thing leads to another, when strange noises disturb the night.  Archie investigates, and finds Clyde Osgood, dead and bloody, with a blood-smeared bull nearby.  And the first time I read the book, at this point I knew who murdered Clyde, and why.  The problem, of course, becomes how to prove it, despite what could be a development that could make proving it impossible.  In the course of the investigation, there’s another murder, Archie gets arrested, and has some fun with the local law enforcement establishment.

Wolfe does find a path to a resolution, with the help pf Lily, and the ending is even, to a large degree, morally and emotionally satisfying.  For me, this is one of Stout’s top 10.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Robert Goldsborough, Archie Goes Home

Robert Goldsborough, Archie Goes Home
Copyright © 2020 Robert Goldsborough
Open Road Integrated Media

I approached Archie Goes Home with a good deal of trepidation.  While I am a major fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books (I’ve read them all multiple times, and am reading my way through the books again), I’ve never thought that Goldsborough has managed to emulate the voices of his characters—especially Archie Goodwin (out narrator) and Nero Wolfe.  I have also generally found his plots to be less than captivating.  But this may be a new low.  And a major part of that is Goldsborough’s writing (although the plot is not all that great either).

The book opens with Archie receiving a phone call from his Aunt Edna, calling him from the small town in which he grew up.  Edna wants his to know that the retired president and principal owner of the Farmer’s State Bank and Trust, Logan Mulgrew, has been found dead in his home.., apparently a suicide.  Edna, however, and a reporter/columnist Verna Kay Padgett for the local newspaper (the Trumpet) are convinced it’s murder.  Edna wants Archie to come and look into it.

And of course, he does.  As it happens there are a number of people who might have been perfectly happy to see Mulgrew dead, and might have helped him along.  There’s the man who started a competing bank (about which Mulgrew started a rumor that the new bank was undercapitalized and sure to fail), which did fail after he lost almost all his depositors.  There’s the dairy farmer many of whose cattle died, and n whose loan Mulgrew foreclosed.  (The reporter describes this to Archie as being deaths from “some sort of cow disease.)  There’s the woman who served as a home health care worker for Mulgrew’s wife, who was widely suspected of having an affair with him, and who moved to Charleston, WV.  And the father of one of the bank’s employees who, it is widely believed, was raped (referred to as sexual assault in the book), became pregnant, and left town to get an abortion (and is currently working in Cleveland. 

But the scene of the crime is, or at least seems to be, completely compatible with suicide—Mulgrew was found lying on a sofa, with what is likely the weapon next to him, with a bullet hole in his forehead, and his fingerprints—and no others—on the gun.  (No mention is made of the dermal residue test (a/k/s the GSR) to determine whether someone has fired a gun, although the test was in use as early as 1933 ( 

At this point, I took a break, because I had some things to consider; some of these are substantive, some deal with Goldsborough’s writing.

First, making telephone calls (which we used to call “long-distance”) between rural Ohio and NYC seems way too easy.  Having checked, I discovered that the “area code” system of designating places when makes a long-distance call originated in 1947.  So no problem?  Well, no, problem.  To make or receive a direct-dial l.d. call, the phone systems in both the originating location and the location being called needed the correct switching equipment.  Which was expensive, so smaller cities and towns needed the intervention of an operator both to make and to receive a call.  As late as 1969, when I was in college in the small town of Greencastle, Indiana, I could not make a call to my parents—in Indianapolis—without operator assistance.  Indy had the equipment; G’castle did not.

Second, as noted above, it’s not clear whether a GSR was performed, so the evidence for Mulgrew having fired the fatal shot is perhaps weak.  The police did test for fingerprints on the gun, and found only Mulgrew’s prints, so, there’s that at least.

Third, no reporter working on a small-town newspaper in the 1950s would have referred to the deaths of an entire herd of cows as “some sort of cow disease.”  Knowing what that disease was would have been very important for other farmers, and, fortunately for them, one of the best veterinary science schools in the country—Ohio State University—was just up the road.  Not identifying the disease would be a serious problem for other farmers, and a serious oversight for the local newspaper.

Fourth (and this is mostly a matter of Goldsborough’s style), we are treated with three discussions of possible murderers that are nearly identical.  Here’s one example:

“…Mulgrew spread the word far and wide that the new bamk was undercapitalized and that anyone who put money in it was in danger of losing everything..” (p. 24)

“…starting rumors that it was undercapitalized, and that depositors were likely to lose every cent they deposited…”(p. 44)

“…rumormongering on the part of Logan Mulgrew…the new bank was undercapitalized…” (p. 144)

Fifth, while Goldsborough refers to actual cities in Ohio (and West Virginia—Charleston)—Columbus, Steubenville, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Warrick—and at least one fictional town—Selkirk—he does mention the name of Archie’s home town.  Late in the book we are able to infer that it’s Chillicothe.  Related to this, Archie and Saul Panzer refer to the small towns as “burgs.”  This might be plausible for Saul, a life-long New Yorker, it’s not for Archie.  In my experience, people who describe towns as “burgs” mean it in a derogatory sense.  And Archie, who grew up there, would almost certainly not use a derogatory term to describe it. 

Each bit of that is trivial, but it adds up to one thing after another that took me out of the story and made me conscious of the writing instead.

And Archie’s investigation seems to be accomplishing nothing.  Almost everyone he talks to agrees that Mulgrew was a nasty piece of work, but he really makes no progress.  A lot of people may have motive.  But he does not conclusively establish opportunity for anyone.  I did, however, form a very definite opinion about one of the people with whom Archie speaks.  About a third of the way through the book, the way Goldsborough writes about that character changed rather abruptly—from treating the character as a pleasant, likeable person to one who is abrupt and whiny.

The major twist in the story is that Wolfe shows up, having been driven to Ohio by Saul Panzer.  He announces his intention to solve the murder, if it is a murder, and return (with Archie following) as quickly as possible.  Archie reports to him in detain (and, while I was afraid Goldsborough was about to recapitulate Archie’s conversations with his suspects, we were spared that).  And there is basically no additional investigation after that.  There’s the ritual gathering of the suspects in Archie’s mother’s living room, and Wolfe announces his conclusion.  Which is based on two people having attended the same university at the same time and having used the same expression in a conversation with Archie.  Yep, that was it.

I have not been a fan of Goldsborough’s attempts at continuing the series.  Some of the early books were adequate, some were not.  But the more recent efforts have been lowering the bar, so to speak.  And this one still fails to clear even the lowered bar.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Steven F. Havill, Less Than a Moment

Steven F. Havill, Less Than a Moment
Copyright © 2020 Steven F, Havill
Poisoned Pen Press
ISBN 13:  978-1-4926-9909-5

The 24th entry in Havill’s Posada County series maintains the high standard he has set since the first book, Heartshot (1991).  The cast has evolved, and aged, pretty much in real time, since the early books (in which the lead character was Bill Gastner, the undersheriff, at the time; he’s now retired and in his 80s).  In the recent books, the narratives have been carried by Estelle Reyes-Guzman (the current undersheriff) and Bobby Torres (the sheriff).  We open with Torres’s nephew, Quentin Torres having been arrested—for the third time—for DUI.  And the offices of the local newspaper, the Posadas Register, get shot up late at night, with the managing editor and the young ace reported being injured.

Quentin (to keep identities straight, I’ll refer to him by his first name and to his uncle by their surname) is handsome, smart, and (obviously) has a drinking problem.  He’s hoping to get a job with the Night Zone, the largest local employer—a combination astronomical research facility and tourist attraction.  The DUIs, of course, do him no favors.  And as an added attraction, Kyle and Lydia Thompson have arrived in New Mexico with a boatload of money and an interest in doing a real estate development in Posadas County.  This could make things difficult for the Night Zone’s research activities—the lack of ambient lighting at night makes the job a lot easier.

There are, of course, side plots.  Estelle’s extremely talented son Francisco (he’s a pianist) and his equally talented wife Angie (a cellist) are in town building a home/music studio and on their way to Hawaii for a concert/recording session.  Gastner is on the trail of a pistol—from the 1880s—which was sold to someone long, long ago in New Mexico; Gastner found the gun some time ago and is interested in tracing its existence, and why it wound up semi-buried in the sand.  Because good guns were expensive in the 1880s, often costing a month’s wages or more.  (Think of that as $3500 for a handgun today. [1]

The pace of the book is fairly leisurely, but it picks up speed when Kyle Thompson’s body is found at the base of a mesa; the condition of the body indicates (even I realized this as the investigation opens) that it was not a case of Thompson tripping or slipping from the top—either he jumped (and the indications are that he would have needed a running start, and he had a badly injured ankle) or very forcibly pushed.

So we have both a whydunit (was it personal, or was it related to the property development plans the Thompsons had?) and a whodunit…and who depends, clearly, on the why.  It’s hard for Reyes-Guzman and Torres to get a handle on the case, and they seem to be making very little progress.  But (in what I think is the only weakness, although I also think that it can be seen as an outgrowth and consequence of what else was going on) they do finally discover why, and who.  

I can’t recommend this series highly enough; if you haven’t read any of it and you are a mystery fan, you should give it a shot.  While there’s a case for starting at the beginning, I think you can read the books as stand-alones without any loss.  So start with Less Than a Moment or start with any of the others, it’ll be worth your reading time.

[1] This website indicates that extremely high end handguns these days sell for between $900 and $1600.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Rex Stout, Too Many Cooks

Rex Stout, Too Many Cooks
© Rex Stout 1938; renewed 1966
Bantam Books 1993
ISBN 0-553-27290-X

Nero Wolfe, accompanied by Archie Goodwin, leaves New York, traveling by train to the Kahawha Spa (a fairly thinly disguised Greenbrier Resort) in West Virginia.  They are heading for the quadrennial gathering of Les Quinze Maitres, 15 of the world’s greatest chefs.  And Wolfe is to address the group on the contributions of America to haute cuisine.  In fact, one of the delights, for me, is the menu for the American Dinner; it includes a dish named “Avocado Todhunter.  Todhunter is Rex Stout’s middle name, and his mother’s maiden name.  I just love that little touch.  But Wolfe’s real purpose in making the trip is to convince Jerome Berin to let him have a sausage recipe.  And, unsurprisingly, murder intervenes.

Philip Lazio, also of ot the famed chefs, and the chef de cuisine at the Hotel Churchill in New York, will be murdered.  Berin has this to say about Lazio:

Lazio is worthy of being cut into small pieces and fed to pigs!—But n, that would render the hams inedible.  Merely cut into pieces and buried.  I tell you, I have known Lazio many years.  He is maybe a Turk?  No one knows.  No one knows  his name.  He stole the secrets of Rognons aux Montagnes in 1920 from my friend Zelota of Tarragona and claimed the creation.  Zelota will kill him; he has said so.  He has stolen many other things.  He was elected to Les Quinze Maitres in 1927 in spite of my violent protest.  His young wife—have you seen her?  She is Dina, the daughter of Domenico Rossi of the Empire CafĂ© in London; I have held her many times on this knee…As you no doubt know, your friend Vuckcic married her, and Lazio stole her from Vukcic.  Vukcic will kill him, undoubtedly, but he waits too long.  He is a snake, a dog, he crawls in slime!  You know Leon Blanc, our beloved Leon?  You know he is now stagnant in  sn sffair of no reputation called the Willow Cub in a town by the name of Boston?  You know that for years your Hotel Churchill in New York was distinguished by his presence as chef de cuisine?  You know that Lazio stole the position from him by insinuation, by lies, by ! chicanery, stole it.  Our dear Leon will kill him!  Positively!  Justice demands it!...I will kill him myself…He has stolen from everyone.  God apparently created him to steal, let God defend him..

And, eventually, we learn that Lazio has stolen from Berin, stolen saucisse minuit, apparently his masterpiece—and, of course, the dish for which Wolfe seeks the recipe.  This leads to some coolness between the chef and the detective.

And, of course, Lazio is murdered.  But before that happens, Dina Lazio tries to induce Wolfe to investigate the possibility that someone has tried to poison her husband, by substituting arsenic for sugar for Lazio’s use in making a salad dressing.  Wolfe declines to take the case.  And also before Lazio is murdered, the chefs engage in a tasting challenge.  As Wolfe describes it to Archie:

The cook will roast squabs and Mr. Lazio, who has volunteered for the function, will make a quantity of Sauce Printemps.  That sauce contains nine seasonings besides salt: cayenne, celery, shallots, chives, chervil, tarragon, peppercorn, thyme, and parsley.  Nine dishes will be prepared and each will lack one of the seasonings, a different one…The gathering will be in the parlor and each will go to the dining room, singly, to prevent discussion, taste the sauces on bits of squab, and record which dish lacks chives, which peppercorns, and so on.  I believe has wagered on an average of eighty percent correct…

At one point during the tasting, Vukcic is delayed (by his ex-wife) when his turn comes (he was to follow Berin).  And when Vukcic does take his turn, Lazio is not in the tasting room.  Nor is he there for the final three—with Wolfe going last.  And Wolfe becomes curious about Lazio’s absence, and, looking behind a screen, finds him, dead, with a knife in his back.

The investigation reveals that Berin got only 2 of the missing ingredients right, whereas the others averaged better than 80% (Wolfe missed 2 of them).  And Berin’s animosity toward Lazio seems to the sheriff and the prosecuting attorney sufficient to arrest Berin.  Wolfe becomes involved, and eventually identifies the actual culprit.

Despite the time I have spent on this, Too Many Cooks is not one of my favorites in the Wolfe canon.  The story is nicely handled, and the characters are well done and convincing.  What is not convincing is Wolfe’s explanation of who the murderer is.  It involves someone dressing up in the waiters’ Kanawah Spa livery, disguising his appearance with black face, entering the tasting room during the time Vukcic has been detained, and stabbing Lazio with one of the knives available for slicing the squab.  What has to happen for this to work?

First, Vukcic has to be detained. Second, the tasting has to be situated in a room with exterior doors.  Third, the murder has to know about the tasting and to get from wherever he was to the dining room at the appropriate time [1] without anyone seeing him close-up (black face would be pretty obvious).  Fourth, Lazio has to go along with the murderer’s explanation of his presence.  Fifth, the screen behind which the body is hidden has to do a remarkably good job of concealment.  Sixth, none of the kitchen staff has to enter the dining room at an awkward moment.  And, in fact, the murderer is seen by three people, one of whom realizes that he is wearing blackface.   That’s lot of moving parts.  
Aside from the denouement, however, it’s a good read.  Seeing Wolfe in a very uncomfortable environment (for him) was nice.  And the discussions and descriptions food were enticing.  

[1] This is the easiest part of it, by the way.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Colin Conway, Cozy Up To Death

Colin Conway, Cozy Up To Death
© Colin Conway 2020
Original Ink Press/High Speed Creative LLC

Beau Smith, formerly a member of a motorcycle club/gang, has entered the witness protection program; he has a new name (Brody Steele) and a new job.  He’s going to be the owner of a mystery bookstore in the very small town of Pleasant Valley [1], Maine.  His cover story is that he bought it, sight unseen, from a lawyer who was selling it for its previous owner, over the internet.  Which seems to be a bit of a stretch—and, of course, there’s more going on than this. 

Steele (nee Smith) is a fairly complicated guy (among other things, he knits to relieve stress), but he begins, fairly quickly to become at least modestly comfortable in Pleasant Valley.  And he meets Daphne Winterbourne, with whom he is almost immediately smitten.  A sort of running joke throughout the book is the bookstore’s cat, which has about as many names as there are patrons of the store.  There’s also a mafia kingpin, his somewhat slutty wife, and her teenage daughter.  And a local cop who seems to be around mostly for comic relief.

Probably unsurprisingly, given the title, we’re trying to blend a cozy mystery with a sort-of-hard-boiled protagonist.  And it is, for me, something of a stretch.  The new girlfriend (Daphne) doesn’t seen fully imagined (and is, at the beginning of the book portrayed as something os a space cadet).  For that matter, the town seems to have been assembled from central casting rather than being a plausible creation of a real town.  And the ending, while sufficiently boiled, struck me as unsatisfactory.

This is the first in a series (to date) of 3 books (Cozy Up To Murder and Cozy Up To Blood; all three have been published in 2020).  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Beau Smith burns through two more new identities in the second and third books in the series.  But I don’t think I’ll be along for the ride.

[1] I, of course, immediately had The Monkees’ song “Pleasant Valley Sunday” running through my head (