Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Rex Stout, The Hand in the Glove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Best of Crime & Detective TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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