Saturday, March 31, 2018

Rex Stout, Trouble In Triplicate

Rex Stout, Trouble In Triplicate
Original book publication, Viking (1949)
This edition, Bantam Crime Line (1993)
© 1945; 1946; 1947

Rex Stout’s use of the novella format is almost unique (or so it seems to me).  I can find no evidence, for example, that Ross Macdonald (the creator of Lew Archer), whose first PI novel was published in the same year as this collection, ever wrote any novellas (although he did write some Archer short stories, collected in 1977’s The Archer Files: Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator).  John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee) wrote at least 2 stand-alone novellas [collected in Border Town Girl in 1956) and published 2 collections of short stories [Good Old Stuff (1982) and More Good Old Stuff (1984)].  Stout published no Wolfe short stories (that I know of), but there are at least 42 Nero Wolfe novellas in 14 collections.

The stories in this collection (“Before I Die,” “Help Wanted Male,” and “Instead of Evidence”   were published immediately after World War II, and in all three there are references to the war and its aftermath.  Stout served, in his youth, in the U.S. Navy, but never in a combat situation; nonetheless, his writing reflects some sensitivity to the effects of war on those who fight it, as this exchange in “Instead of Evidence” indicates:

Goodwin:  “Don’t get excited.”
Joe Groll, foreman at the business involved:  “That’s right…I must remember that, not to get excited.  Everybody is very thoughtful.  They put you in uniform and tach you what every young man ought to know and take you across the ocean into the middle of hell, bombs, bullet, flame-throwers, your friends die right against you and bleed down your neck, and after two years they bring you home and turn you loose and tell you now remember don’t get excites.”

All three of these are first-rate Stout (and Wolfe).

In “Before I Die,” Daazzy Perrit, a gangster, wants Wolfe to pull a blackmailer off his back.  The problem is complicated by the fact that he has set her up to impersonate his daughter.  And, murders intervene.  Wolfe’s suspicions are aroused, and he sets a trap for the person he suspects. And it’s easy to miss (I’ve always felt somewhat smug about noticing it the first time I read it.)  There’s a lot of shooting in this story, especially at the climax (and in the old brownstone).

Ben Jensen, a newspaper publisher, who (apparently with some reluctance to miss out of a publishing coup) receives a death threat in “Help Wanted Male,” and seeks Wolfes help.  Which he does not get.  But when Jensen is swiftly and efficiently killed, and Wolfe receives his own death threat, he takes action.  (Archie has an appointment in DC to try to talk his way into somewhat more active military service than his mostly honorary rank of Major.  Incidentally, this indicated that this story is set before “Before I Die,” although it was published after it.)  Part of Wolfe’s strategy is to hire a body double until he can figure out what’s going on.  Believe it or not, the disarrangement of some household furniture is crucial to the solution.

“Instead of Evidence” is firmly after the war; Archie is a civilian again.  Wolfe is hired by Eugene Poor and his wife Martha to provide specific information to the police if Poos s murdered—and with a putative murderer specified.  Wolfe takes the case, as it seems to be an easy $5000 (the equivalent of about $50,000 these days).  Of course, Poor is killed—in a way that seems to me to be unique.  Wolfe fulfills his end of the bargain, providing all the information ha has been given to Inspector Cramer.  He soon begins to think things are not as they seem (unsurprisingly), and with help from Saul Panzer, gets the evidence he needs. (Which, incidentally, is why I think “Instead of Evidence” is not a good title.  There is evidence and it’s sufficient to bring the case to a conclusion.)

Another strong collection.  (I’ve been re-reading them a chapter or so at a time before I go to bed at night; each novella takes ne about a week.)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

John Bude, Death Makes a Prophet

John Bude, Death Makes a Prophet
British Library Crime Classics 2017
© Estate of John Bude 2017
ISBN 978-0-7123-5691-6
Also available as an ebook

There was a spate of mystery novels (some mentioned by Martin Edwards in his introduction) that are centered around a religious cult, in the 1930s and 1940s[1].  Some of these treat the cult gently or humorously (as is the case here); in other cases, the cult is quite sinister (The Dain Curse will suffice as an example).  In Death Makes a Prophet, we spend something over half the book following the (modest) travails of the Children of Osiris, founded (and presided over) by Eustace Mildmann.  The Cult is known familiarly as COO (Cult Of Osiris), or COOism.  Mildmann (who mostly lives up to his last name) is making a decent income as the High Prophet (£5,000 per year or about $25,000, in the late 1940s; that’s the equivalent of about $250,000 today).

Nonetheless he has his problems.  The chief supported of the venture, Mrs.Alic1a Hagge-Smith, seems interested in a more aggressive approach to the thing.  A secondary suporter, Mr. Hansford Boot, is a strong supporter of Mildmann.  Then there’s the somewhat mysterious Mr. Peta Peneti, the Prophet-in-Waiting, doing his waiting on a mere £500.  And Miss Penelope Parker, on whom both Mildmann and Peneti have designs (the former, honorable; the latter, not so much).

The first 60% or so of the book revolves around the internal machinations of COOism, and, as a result, the story advances at a very leisurely pace.  But this is a mystery novel, and so we do have a theft of a religious artifact, a shooting (of Mildmann’s chauffer, who has been mistaken for someone else), and, eventually a murder (actually, two of the principal dramatis personnae), by prussic acid.  And so Inspector Meredith (sans any backup from Scotland Yard) arrives on the scene.

His investigation is not undertaken at a whirlwind pace, either.  He speaks, more than once, to the principals and makes some headway in identifying who they are, were they were, and who might have a motive.  Finally, as the result of information obtained, but not by Meredith, we arrive at the conclusion.  Which consists of Meredith summarizing his conclusions for the relevant police higher-ups in about two pages, wherein we receive a mass of information we have never seen before.

And thus endeth the investigation.  This is the second or third of Bude’s books about Meredith, and it is decidedly the least of them.  It took we a while –over a week—to get through the 285 pages that it took to tell this story.  And while it was not aggressively bad, or badly written, it also did not exactly rivet me.  It seems likely that Inspector Meredith will not be high on ly list of things to read,

[1] And the religious cult continues to show  up on occasion in contemporary mystery fiction.  Timothy Hallinan’s The Four Last Things (1989), featuring Simeon Grist, for one.  A fairly comprehensive discussion can be found here:

Friday, March 23, 2018

Dorothy L. Sayers, A Treasury of Sayers Stories

Dorothy L. Sayers, A Treasury of Sayers Stories
First published 1958 by Victor Gollancz Ltd.
This edition an ebook

Twenty-four mystery shorts published by Sayers at various times during her career.  Sixteen of these feature Lord Peter Wimsey and six chronicle the detective career of a traveler n wine and spirits, Montague Egg.  The other two (and the only ones I had not read at least once before) are one-offs.  I have to say that these are far below the standard set in her mystery novels.  In general, the plotting is looser, the characters--even Wimsey, as portrayed here--less interesting.  I found the Egg stories to be clever, but fairly annoying (partly because of Egg's propensity for turning every experience into a slogan for a salesman), mostly because there was not a lot of detection--the solution tended to be obvious.

The Wimsey stories are less disappointing, but far below the novels in terms of plot and character.  Too many of the stories deal with "mysteries" that are fairly trivial.  "The  Abominable Story of the Man With Copper Fingers" (presumably the earliest of the Wimsey stories) is more a horror story that a mystery.  And, as it is being told, by Wimsey, long after the events in the story occurred, there's little suspense.  "The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question" might have been a "fair-play" mystery for a readership with a working knowledge of French; for the rest of us, both Wimsey's interest and the solution remain opaque.

Uncle Meleager's will involves solving an abstruse crossword puzzle in which the grid is the floor of an ornamental pool.  The clues will be virtually meaningless to today's readers; whether their contemporary readers will find them less obscure is beyond me.  (An example couplet-clue:  Foolish or wise, yet one remains alone/'Twixt strength and Justice on a heavenly throne."  (Virgo)

I could go on, I suppose, but I'm not sure it's worth it.  As artifacts, they are of interest, and Sayers writes well (even when the matte is minimal).  These are, I think, for completists only.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Jill Paton Walsh, A Piece of Justice

Jill Paton Walsh, A Piece of Justice
St. Martin’s Press © 1995 Jill Paton Walsh
Out-of-print, but available from used booksellers

The second book featuring Imogen Quy, the resident nurse at St. Agatha’s College at Cambridge University.  Her lodger, Frances Bullion, has been asked to ghost-write the biography of a (dead) mathematician (Gideon Summerfield), whose career consists, really, of one brilliant discovery.  Fran badly needs the job—she wants to finish her doctorate--and a new member of the faculty at St. Agatha’s, Leo Maverack, has contracted to write it, but wants not to.  Fran gets the money, Maverack gets his name on the book.

Meanwhile, Imogen and some friends are preparing to make a quilt to be sold for charity, and we are treated to a discussion of their process.  (Later on, an art historian, whose specialty deals with textiles, presents a rather remarkable lecture on the subject, which might be worth the price of the book.  Both the discussion of quilting and the lecture made me wish for visuals (and this is something that might be possible to do these days, by having a website associated with the book that would allow us to see, as well as read about, these things).

Things quickly become complicated.  Maverack is not the first to have been signed to write the book.  Or the second…he’s the fourth, which is distinctly odd.  And none of the other three seem to be available for consultation; one has certainly died, and the other two are nowhere to be found.  However, it does mean most of the research has been done.  But Fran discovered that, in the detailed chronology of Summerfield’s life, there is a blank—there is no record of what he did in the summer of 1978, and Fran id determined to fill in that blank.

I might note that Prof. Maverack is a biographer…but not in the sense that he writes biographies.  He is a theorist of biographies, and his exposition of his theory of biographies (pp. 31-34) might actually be worth the price of the book.

And things get even more complicated.  Summerfield’s widow gets a court order for the return of all materials that she had provided when the biography was first proposed.

Fran takes off for Wales, where she expects, or hopes, to find an answer to the mystery of the summer of 1978.

Not surprisingly, as this is, after all, a mystery novel, things are both more obscure, more dangerous, and more inter-connected than they appeared at the beginning.  Imogen, of course, gets deeply involved, and in the course of her involvement makes discoveries that are central to all the mysteries.

I enjoyed the first book in this series (The Wyndham Case) quite a lot; this is, I think, even better.  The resolution, when we get there (and this is not a long book) seems almost inevitable, but also almost shocking.  Not only are all the mysteries resolved, but a real injustice is righted.  So I will move on to Book 3 in the series (A Debt of Dishonour) with great anticipation.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Michael Innes, Death At the President’s Lodging

Michael Innes, Death At the President’s Lodging
House of Stratus reprint 2001
© Estate of JIM Stewart 1936 (and renewed)
ISBN this edition: 1-84232-732-1

I’ve read several of Michael Innes’s mysteries featuring John Appleby, but never this one, which was the first to appear.  I don’t recall what brought it to my attention, and I remembered almost nothing of the ones I have read, but good series are hard to find.  And so I bought it and read it.

And I’m not entirely sure.  Appleby is an appealing character, polished, erudite, and just introspective enough to have some depth.  In this, his first case, he is summoned to a small college, St. Anthony’s (not a part of Oxford or Cambridge; Innes, under his own name John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, taught literature at the University of Leeds, the University of Adelaide, and Queen’s University in Belfast before becoming a “fellow” of Christ Church College at Oxford).  There, the President of the College, Dr. Josiah Umpleby, has been murdered; his personal servant/butler (Mr. Slotwiner) and one of the faculty at the college (Mr. Titlow) heard a gunshot from inside Umpleby’s lodgings at about 11 PM.  Upon obtaining a key, they found him on the floor, with a bullet hole in his forehead, and his body encircled by old bones (quite obviously from some archeological expedition).

Umpleby’s relations with his faculty, we discover, are not as cordial as one would like.  And things are complicated by the fact that the murderer apparently entered through the College gardens, access to which was quite limited at night.  It was closes off by gates and only 9 people (the head porter; Umpeyby; and 7 of the faculty) had keys.  And new locks had just been installed, with the keys distributed that day.  So we have a sort-of locked room mystery, but that’s not really the focus of the investigation.

The book proceeds at a very leisurely pace, including what seemed to me to be a wholly unnecessary sub-plot involving a small group of undergraduates (the only students, really, who appear in the book).  Appleby is the only person sent from London to investigate the murder (in this respect, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn books seem much more authentic, as they usually involve a full investigative team); he proceeds by conversing at length with each of the members of the faculty who feature in the book.  (I should note that one of the faculty involved is a mystery novelist writing under a pseudonym.)  The conclusion is, it seems to me, somewhat forced, and not really grounded (as far as I can tell) in anything Appleby has discovered.  And the denouement seems to go on forever.

For all that, it’s well written, and Appleby, as I have said, is an engaging character.  I’ll probably read more of these, but it won’t be a priority.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Jill Paton Walsh, The Wyndham Case

Jill Paton Walsh, The Wyndham Case
St. Martin’s Press
© 1993 Jill Paton Walsh
Available from used booksellers

There’s been a lively discussion on the Lord Peter Wimsey Appreciation Society Facebook page which has touched on the quality of Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Dorothy L. Sayers’s series of novels about Wimsey.  Having read one of Paton Walsh’s mystery novels (The Bad Quarto) some years ago, I acquired all four of them to see how well they have held up.[1]  Having finished The Wyndham Case, I can say that at least the first in the series is quite good.

The title is itself interesting, as the death at the center of the book takes place in a rather special library at Cambridge known as the Wyndham Case, and the investigation into that death is, of course, the Wyndham case.  A young student (Philip Skellow) at St. Agatha’s College, from a decidedly working class background (and as a result treated by many of his fellow students as something of a lesser being) is found one morning on the floor of the Wyndham case, with a serious injury to his skull, having bled to death.  Imogen Quy, the College’s resident nurse, is asked to come to the library; she calls the police, as it is obviously a death by violence,  A friend of hers, Mike Parsons, is a detective on the Cambridge police; he is a member of the team that arrives to investigate the death.

As it happens, this library was founded by a (very large) donation some 300 years earlier.  The books are to remain in the library; they can be read or examined only there; no volume may be loaned out or sold.  And once every 100 years a complete audit of the library must be performed.  If anything is missing, the College loses the endowment and all the books are to be sold.  Also, as it happens, Skellow left a party in the suite of rooms he shares with Jack Taverham (who is from a wealthy family) the night before, and was next seen dead.  (Taverham and Skellow got along very badly.)  And none of the people at the party are willing to talk about it.

Meanwhile, one of Quy’s lodgers, Professor Wylie, returns from a trip to Italy and discovers, or at least thinks, that a very valuable book has been taken from his room.  And apparently one of her other lodgers left the rear door unlocked around the same time.  Or someone picked the lock.

One thing leads to another, and a second death—definitely murder—occurs; a third year pre-med student is found in an ornamental fountain late at night, drowned.  And Taverham has disappeared.

The investigations into all of this are handled well, and the resolution is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying (at least I thought so).  For a first mystery (Paton Walsh had written a number of children’s books and “straight” novels prior), this is a very satisfying read.  The setting is well done, the college atmosphere rings true (as well as one who have never been to Cambridge can tell), and the characters—while not uniformly quite so nice as they might originally appear—are sharply drawn.  Both the Master of St. Agatha’s and his wife are especially well done.

And if you think setting a mystery series in a college of Cambridge University named St. Agatha’s is extremely appropriate, well, all I can say is “You are right.”

[1] Her four books with Imogen Quy are The Wyndham Case (1993); A Piece of Justice (1997)’ Debts of Dishonor (2006; and The Bad Quarto (2007).

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Copycat photoblogging, war memorial edition

Chris has a dyptich of a British war memorial which is stark in its beauty
(  I have a small memorial plaque in a small town in France.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Rex Stout, Homicide Trinity

Rex Stout, Homicide TrinityViking Press, 1962; Bantam reprint, 1993

© 1962 Rex Stout
Three novellas: "Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo;" "Death of a Demon; "Counterfeit for Murder." 

Three of the stronger of the short mysteries, and Hattie Annis, Wolfe's client in "Counterfeit for Murder" is a magnificent achievement.  One thing I liked especially was, when she was asked what she would like for luncheon, she responds:  "How about some lamb kidneys bourguignonne?"  As if, or course, lamb kidneys would be available...and, of course, they are.  A truly nice bit involves  the efforts of a U.S. Treasury agent and Inspector Cramer to gain possession of $10,000 in brand new (in every sense of the word) $20s. The identity of the murderer is not hard to figrue out, though. 

In "Eeny, AMeeny, Murder, Mo," the least of these three, Wolfe gets a spot of barbecue sauce on his tie at lunch, and leaves it on his desk when he leaves for the afternoon orchid session.  While he's up on the roof, a legal secretary at a prestigious law firm arrives with an interesting legal problem--but it involves a divorce case.  Wolfe, on principal, refuses to handle anything dealing with divorce.  But Archie undertakes to talk him into it, and ascends to the greenhouse.  While he's upstairs, the potential client is murdered--strangled with the tie.  There is one aspect of the plot that strikes me as extraordinarily unlikely. 

And in "Death of a Demon," a PR "expert" is murdered and an identical gun winds up in his wife's possession (and, through her, Wolfe's).  The twists with the guns provides the main interest in the plot; the evidence Wolfe can provide about the murderer is somewhat speculative.  But Archie shines as a tough-guy detective.

Rex Stout, Three at Wolfe's Door

Rex Stout, Three at Wolfe’s Door
Viking Press, 1960.  Bantam reprint 1995.
© Rex Stout 1960

Theree novellas, all originally published in 1960:  "Poison ala Carte," "Method Three for Murder," and "The Rodeo Murder."  All three are excellent, but there was one thing about "The Rodeo Murder" that made me wonder.  As Wolfe is about to disclose the murderer, he deals with motive, and addresses Harvey Greve (one of the cowboys in town as a performer for the rodeo; Harvey will return in Death of a Dude):

“Mr. Greve, you told Mr. Panzer that in the past two years you have purchased some three hundred horses, two hundred steers, and a hundred and fifty calves. In behalf of my Dunning.  Is that correct?”

Harvey didn’t look happy either.  “That’s about right, He said.  “That’s just rough figures.”

“From how many people did you buy them?”

“Maybe a hundred maybe more.  I scouted around.”

“You are exposing a man who made you a party to a swindle and who is almost certainly a murderer.  Did he tell you not to divulge the amounts?”

“…and I have the names of three other men who made similar purchases under similar arrangements…”

Now, I know next to nothing about professional rodeos. But if four men were buying livestock in that quantity, we have over 1,000 horses and nearly 1,000 steers and around 600 calves in two years.  Based on a little google research, I’m coming up with around $200-$300 for the steers, $50-75 for the calves, and $100 - $200 for the horses.  So (taking the mid-range values), Greve paid $150,000 for horses, $250,000 for the steers, and $37,500 for the calves—over $400,000 in a 2 year period.  With 3 others presumably doing the same, that’s about $1.2 million in livestock purchases.  Presumably these guys got paid for this (let’s say a 10% commission, around $120,000 in total).  And the promoter presumably marked the animals up enough not just to make a reasonable profit, but an unreasonable one.

All of that’s well and good.  But we have 4,000 horses, 4,000 steers, and 2,400 calves…over two years…for rodeos?  And presumably all (or mostly) sold to a NYC theatrical promoter?  Color me skeptical.  Surely he had lawyers.  Surely he had people who could talk to people.  What in god’s name did he do with all the damned animals?