Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 23, 2017

One by Mignon Eberhart, another by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

So much for my introduction to MRR.

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.