Sunday, April 29, 2018

J. Jefferson Farjeon, Seven Dead

J. Jefferson Farjeon, Seven Dead, 2017
British Library Crime Classics/Poisoned Pen Press
Reprint of Collins (UK) 1939 original
© 1939 Estate of J. Jefferson Farjeon
ISBN 978-0-7123-5688-6

Farjeon was another of the then-prolific and well-regarded authors of mystery fiction who slipped from public view; he published more than 80 books between 1924 and 1955.  Many of these featured Inspector Kendall, a non-Scotland-Yard policeman based in the southeast of England.

In Seven Dead, Ted Lyte breaks into a house he thinks is vacant, hoping to steal enough of something he can fence for enough for a meal.  Instead, he finds seven people, dead in the parlor, the shutters nailed closed.  He stumbles into the police as he’s trying to escape.  And he was seen, unbeknownst to him, by freelance journalist (and yachtsman) Thomas Hazeldean.  Kendall fairly quickly accepts Hazeldean as an innocent bystander.

The cause of death is obscure—the victims were not shot, stabbed, strangled, bludgeoned—which pretty much leaves some kind of poison—and seem to have died about 24 hours before the discovery of the bodies.  The residents of the house, John Fenner and his niece Dora Fenner, are not there (and it is not readily apparent where they are, except that their departure was hasty).  A paining of a young girl has had a bullet shot through it.  And an aged cricket ball is perched upon a glass vase on the mantel.

Kendall (and Hazeldean) discover that it is likely that the Fenners are in Boulogne, and Hazeldean heads off in his yacht to discover what he can there, while Kendall pursues inquiries in England.  From this point, the story proceeds at a brisk pace, with many discoveries, some new mysteries developing, but no resolution.  Eventually, all the principals in the case converge on Boulogne, and the contours of a solution begin to emerge.

And then…

I think the book falls apart.  Roughly the last 50 pages of the book involves a trip taken by Hazeldean and Dora Fenner (while Kendall pursues his unchronicled inquiries), Kendall’s meeting up with them in Africa, and a voyage to a tiny island in the Indian Ocean.  Where we discover a journal written by one member of a group of castaways.  The timeline of the journal and the timeline of the murders are (obviously) related, but just how those timelines intersect is not clear.  And while we are given a solution, the whole thing seems to be pulled more-or-less out of the air.  So what seemed to be a very promising story ended, for me, with an unconvincing thud.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

E.C.R. Lorac, Fire in the Thatch

E.C.R. Lorac, Fire in the Thatch
British Library Crime Classics
Reprint of 1946 original
© Estate of E.C.R. Lorac 2018
ISBN 978-0-712-5260-4

Lorac, as I have noted in previous reviews of her work, is a pseudonym used by Edith Caroline Rivett, who wrote at least 75 mystery novels between 1931 and 1959.  In most of her books, Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald carried out the investigations on behalf of Scotland Yard.  As he does here.

Nicholas Vaughn, invalided out of the British  navy in (presumably) 1945 (or late 1944) has come to a small town in Devonshire in hoped of taking up a tenancy on a property called Little Thatch, which is owned by Col. St. Cyres.  The colonel’s daughter-in-law (June), having taken refuge with St. Cyres and his daughter Anne, while her husband Dennis is serving in the navy.  Off-and-on, a London friend of Junes, Tommy Gressingham comes down from London, perhaps mostly to see June, perhaps mostly in pursuit of his own plans, which involve serious real estate developments.  He’s much more interested in buying the land, and not so interested in leasing.  The colonel, as you might suspect, grants Vaughn the tenancy of the property.  The property is called Little Thatch, largely because of a (badly-in-need of repair) fairly ancient house on the property.

There’s some mystery surrounding Vaughn, who is very much a loner and who, while he is well-enough regarded in the village, makes no close friends.  For one thing, he seems not just content with the life of a farmer—despite his university education (he’s a trained mechanical engineer, as near as I can tell)—but deeply committed to it.  And is is not a Devon native, but rather was born and grew up in the north.  He is, however, quite well enough liked by almost everyone.

Vaughn begins to make progress on the restoration of the house, and also on the revitalization of the land.  It’s not clear how much time elapses, but it has to be a matter of some months.  And then death intervenes.  Little Thatch (the house) burns nearly to the ground, and a body—Vaughn’s, presumably—is found in the wreckage.  The coroner’s jury enters a verdict of accidental death.  And there things would stand, but that Vaughn’s commanding officer intervenes, arguing that Vaughn would never be caught in a house in that way. And he convinces the higher-ups at Scotland Yard to send Macdonald to take a second look.

Vaughn’s death, I will add, somewhat surprised me. I suppose I thought that Gressingham would be the victim, and Vaughn would be the prime suspect.  But there you go.

Macdonald is a thorough, patient, cautious, and diligent investigator; he comes to believe that things are not as they seem.  Gressingham—still hopeful of landing the property, still hanging around—proposes an alternative—that the body is not that of Vaughn, but rather someone killed by Vaughn, who has then skipped out.  Not that he believes this, but Macdonald has to take it seriously.

And so things progress.  Eventually Macdonald puts everything together (and there’s a better than fair chance that you will as well).  What Macdonald finds explains almost everything that we’re interested in knowing, and at least leaves the locals accepting of his findings.  Lorac does an excellent job of making the setting very real (at least for me; her other books I’ve read were set in London, a setting she also handled very nicely).  I tend to like series characters, to have the chance to get to know them, so to speak, and I shall have many more opportunities to see Chief Inspector (he eventually achieves his Superintendency) Macdonald.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

E.C.R. Lorac, Murder By Matchlight

E.C.R. Lorac, Murder By Matchlight
(Edith Caroline Rivett)
Dover re-print 1988; original (U.K.) publication Collins (Crime Club), 1945.
ISBN 978-0-486-25577-4

Lorac was a prolific “golden-age author” of at least 75 mysteries between 1931 and 1959, the majority of which featured Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald.  Macdonald is a mild-mannered investigator, whose approach [at least in the 2 books I have read so far; the other Bats in the Belfry (1937)] seems to be to gain the trust of the people he’s questioning and using his sense of logic and order to sort things out.  There’s little overt violence and whatever reliance there is on “scientific” aspects of investigation is pretty much left to one side.

In this outing, a man (John Ward is the name on his identity card) is killed in a park, during the blackout (it’s WW2, and so none of the park’s lights are on), on a cloudy, moonless night.  In the park, at the same time, are two other men, Bruce Mallaig (who is wandering around, slightly depressed because his fiancĂ© has cancelled a dinner date) and Stanley Clayton (who is out of work, and overheard a telephone call setting a rendezvous between the man making the call—who referred to himself as “Tim” and to the person with whom he was speaking as “Joe” that aroused his curiosity.  The night is describes as so dark that there was virtually no visibility, except for that provided by a match when Ward lights a cigarette.[1]

Macdonald arrives on the scene where Mallaig and Claydon have been detained by a police officer who came in response to Mallaig’s shouts for assistance.  (A doctor who was walking his dog has verified that Ward is dead.)  And the investigation begins.

It leads him to the boarding house at which Ward lived.  Most of the inhabitants are working in one or another form of theater, and are (of course) eccentric.  Ward is quickly established as a ne’er-do-well, who seems to have lived by sponging off others and occasional fiddles, but an interesting one—he fought with the IRA in the 1920s; he attempted to enlist for WW2, but was rejected because of a permanently bad leg, and so on. 

The bulk of the book involved Macdonald’s efforts to confirm (or find holes in) the stories he has been told, and he eventually does.  If the conclusion seems a bit forced (and not, in my opinion, all that well deducible by the reader), it works quite well dramatically.  For an author I’d never heard of until the last couple of months, Lorac has been a pleasant surprise, and I’ll be on the lookout for more.

[1] I don’t entirely buy the complete darkness scenario, though.  I’ve never actually wandered around in that sort of complete darkness, but even outdoors at night with heavy clouds, I’ve always been able to see something.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Robert Goldsborough, The Battered Badge: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

Robert Goldsborough, The Battered Badge
Open Road/The Mysterious Press
© Robert Goldsborough 2018
ISBN 978-1-5040-4910-8
Also available as an ebook

Rex Stout has long been my favorite author of mysteries, and the pair of Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe my favorite fictional detectives.  Archie’s narrative voice is, in my opinion, unmatched, and Wolfe’s persona is at once captivating and intimidating.  So, when Robert Goldsborough first published a “Nero Wolfe” mystery (Murder in E-Minor, 1986) I had serious reservations about the enterprise.  Now, 32 years later (and having purchased and read all 13 of the “Nero Wolfe” mysteries Goldsborough has written), I find all my reservations confirmed and, if anything, strengthened.

I met Mr. Goldsborough in the early 1990s, having had the opportunity (at the invitation of a mutual friend) to have lunch with him.  He was, and I suspect still is, a pleasant, likable man, a good conversationalist, and a true devotee of Stout’s work (which he knows as well as anyone).  But, I must say, his efforts at continuing the saga have ranged from adequate to unfortunate,  The current effort, The Battered Badge, is not the least successful of his efforts [Murder, Stage Left (2017) has that dubious honor].  It is, however, a very disappointing book.

Now I will admit that my disappointment is in large part a reflection of my admiration for Stout’s writing and characterizations.  But even on their own terms, Goldsborough’s recent efforts are disappointing.  It is difficult, though, to read them, think about them, or write about them without comparing them to the originals.

Goldsborough’s (relative) strength is in his plots.  In this book, the director of the Good Government Group, a/k/a GGG (Lester Pierce) is shot in front of his Park Avenue apartment building, in circumstances that strongly suggest (a) a murder-for-hire that (b) might be a result of Pierce’s efforts to goad the New York Police Department into more vigorous efforts to investigate the Mob and disrupt it.  As a consequence of factors surrounding the investigation Inspector Cramer (Wolfe’s long-time rival in the NYPD) has been suspended as head of the Homicide squad.  (Another side note—some of the prepublication publicity for the book suggested that Cramer might be facing disciplinary action.  But nothing in the book really supports such a suggestion.)

As the remnants of the Homicide squad investigate (and fail to make much headway), Wolfe is hired by Pierce’s widow to investigate.  As usual, Archie does the legwork, including preliminary interrogations of the actors in the drama, and Wolfe also meets with them (usually briefly and, as least as I read the book, with little to show for it).  There is the usual gathering of the players and disclosure of the guilty party (in both cases with a twist).  But from the premise to the conclusion is not a particularly well-handled trip.

Without getting into the details of the investigation, I want to focus on what is the single greatest flaw with the book (and with Goldsborough’s work generally).  He gets the characters, and especially their voices, wrong.  The book contains many conversations in which Archie is a major participant (several between Archie and Lon Cohen, a newspaperman with the Gazette; Archie with his permanent flame Lily Rowan; and Archie and staff at GGG, and more).  While it’s established that Archie is glib and not above bantering, almost all these conversations are more banter than substance…and the banter is not even particularly witty or amusing. 

Another feature of Stout’s work involves the confrontations between Wolfe and either Cramer or people he expects to extract information from.  Here, Wolfe’s interrogations are strangely bland (or even pointless—but, at that, a notch above what we got in Murder, Stage Left), and, as extractions, seem mostly unproductive.  And the scenes with Cramer are almost wholly devoid of bite.

The conclusion, when it comes, seemed, at least to me, to be almost entirely ad hoc, based on no deductions (either by Wolfe or by Cramer), on no particular revelations during the climactic scene, but rather by the murderer’s verbal slip and subsequent outburst.  If what we see is supposed to provide us with any reason to believe that a jury would vote for conviction…well, call that another serious difficulty. 

Even leaving aside my respect and affection for the for the originals, assuming I could approach The Battered Badge without its context as a continuation and homage, the investigation and discoveries do not match the setup, and the conclusion was disappointing.  I clearly cannot recommend this as an addition to the Wolfe oeuvre, and I can’t really recommend it on its own merits.  I wish I could do one or the other—or both.  But I can’t.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A digression on Rex Stout's novella, "Invitation to Murder"

As I think I may have mentioned, I've been re-reading the novellas as my "bedtime" reading. And I'm currently re-reading "Invitation To Murder," originally published in 1952 (so presumably set in the Wolfean world as it existed around 1950). We are introduced to the problems of Herman Lewent, the primary of which is that he has been receiving a $1,000 per month allowance from his sister (he was basically disinherited in their father's will)--and she has died. Her husband has continued the allowance, but whether that will go on for much longer, he cannot say. But that's not what I wanted to talk about.

Early on, Herman tells Wolfe (and Archie): "A few months ago I had three mistresses, one in Paris, one in Toulouse, and one in Rome..." Herman is such an unprepossessing figure that Archie at least initially doubts this. But what I have always wondered about is the economics of this. $1,000 per month around 1950 would be the rough equivalent of around $10,000 per month today. And in 1950 the US dollar was "strong" relative to the franc and the lira, adding perhaps 20% to 25% to its purchasing power in post-war Europe. Say 25%.

So his annual income was, then, the equivalent of abut $150,000. Clearly a decent income. But enough to support three mistresses on?

So I did what you would expect an economist to do--I tried to find some actual data. Which has proved to be harder than I would have thought. Which is, for me, a disappointment...I continue to wonder how Herman managed.

The alternative, of course, is that his "formula" for getting on terms with women was such that they paid most of the costs of the relationship. Which might explain why, after some time, one of them attempted to poison him.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Jill Paton Walsh, Debts of Dishonor

Jill Paton Walsh, Debts of Dishonor
Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press
© 2006 Jill Paton Walsh
ISBN 0312-35536-X
Walsh’s third mystery featuring Imogen Quy, resident nurse at St. Agatha’s College (Cambridge University).  Sir Julian Farran, who (barely) graduation from St. Agatha’s around 40 years ago, and who is now chairman of and the driving force behind the Farran Group (sort of a cross between an investment banking firm and a corporate raider, buying whole firms to flip or dismember for profit), has been invited to dine at the High Table.  The invitation was urged by Peter Weatherby, recently appointed Bursar (chief financial officer) at St. Agatha’s (he’s also on the board of the Farran Group).  And Andrew Duncombe, formerly a Fellow (in economics) at the college and (for a while) Quy’s lover, will be with him.  He works for Farran and is a member of the board.
The dinner goes reasonably well, but two leftish members (Carl Janner and Clive Horrocks) of the college (a sociologist and another whose discipline is not specified) launch a pointed interrogation of Farran, dissecting his business career.  The evening ends with Farran falling on his way out the door and being treated by Quy.
But Quy has made an impression on Farran; he invites her to come to London to lunch with the board of directors (and o offer the position of HR director.  (This was my first problem with the book—Quy is an excellent nurse.  But why anyone would want to hire her as a company’s HR director is beyond plausible.  One thing HR directors must know well is labor law, and Britain’s labor laws are relatively strict—compared with the U.S.)
Farran then takes a short leave, checking into a small medical facility that specializes in treating substance abuse issues.  The clinic in on the coast; patients ate discouraged from wandering around on their own; alcohol is prohibited.  It should come as no surprise that Farran is found, quite dead (and well bashed up) at the bottom of the cliff.  Given the state of the corpse, some formal identification is required, and it’s provided by his wife (now widow) and the doctor running the clinic.
Duncombe (remember him?) finds it hard to accept the verdict, believing that the second in command at the Farran Group, Max Holwood, has murdered Farran in order to take control of the company.  He persuades Quy to accompany him on fishing expedition.  It’s worth noting that Holwood is married to Farran’s daughter Rowena, for whom Duncombe has developed some affection.
This is, broadly, the setting.  At this point (and, indeed, to the end), the one weakness of the book is its treatment of the business issues that really are at the heart of the story.  At one point, Weatherby (St. Agatha’s Bursar) disappears—having not asked for leave, having not only told no one where he was going, but telling no one that he was going.  If I were the Master of the college, I would have almost immediately called in auditors and reported the disappearance to the police.  (This is not second-guessing; as soon as he disappeared, I was mentally shouting “Call in the auditors!  Call in the police!”) 
And then Holwood is also murdered, after having had something of an altercation with Duncombe. 
And then the share prices of the Farran Group collapse—Farran is dead; Holwood is dead.  An initial examination of the books is not positive.  For the college—Weatherby had invested most of the college’s funds in a single bond issue (a truly stupid thing to do, especially for someone who should certainly have known better—and he is still missing. 
Oddly enough, it’s at about this point that the book, for me, came together.  Quy’s gentle probing of the people involved is very much in character, and she realizes something that was easy to miss.  While major parts of the ending can hardly be called “happy,” it all seems at least to work.  And, if everyone has to make some ethical compromises to get there, at least they recognize what they are doing. 
The first two book in this series (The Wyndham Case and A Piece of Justice) have more coherent plots and are more tightly written.  But Debts of Dishonor is by no means a disappointment.  Well worth the trouble of finding a copy and well worth the time you spend with it.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Velvet Claws (the first Perry Mason book)

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Velvet Claws
© 2011 (renewed)
Original publication 1933
Available as an ebook and from used booksellers

My reading TOCTVC originated in a post on the Wolfe Pack’s Facebook page (the Wolfe Pack being, of course, a group devoted to the life and works of Nero Wolfe—and his creator, Rex Stout).  Specifically, Pack member Ted Burge posed this question:

So in the story, Mason gets a client to confess, with Della and Drake there. The police enter the room, and Mason turns the client in. Gardner was a litigator before turning author. How is the confession not privileged and why doesn’t it result in a fast descent into disbarment for Mason?

But that’s not I want to write about.  TCOTVC was the first Mason book; I thought I had read them all (all 80-something of them), but could call up absolutely no memories of this one.  And, although I On have occasionally bought one (or two…) for my ebook reader, I didn’t have this one.  So I bought it and read it (and none of the Mason books take very long) and this report is my reaction.

The plot, briefly.  An attractive young woman (calling herself Eva Griffin) calls at Wolfe’s office to seek his help.  The previous night she had been at a nightclub with Harrison Burke, a member of Congress who is preparing to run for the Senate.  While there, a man was shot (murdered), and she and Burke managed to get away without being questioned.  But a tabloid (Spicy Bits, which is basically a cover for blackmail) has learned that Burke was there, and she wants Mason to ward off any publicity—if necessary, by buying off the editor of the tab.  Della has checked on the woman’s address and has reason to suspect that the name is phony.  Mason takes the case (which suggested to me that either he was hard up or he was taken in by his new client’s charms).

Well, of course, Eva Griffin is a phony, and, as is often the case with Mason’s clients over the years, seemingly unable to keep her story straight.  We quickly discover that she is the wife of George Belter, the wolf behind Spicy Bits, that her marriage is rocky, and that she fears that Belter will make her life even more miserable than it is if he finds out about her fling with Burke.

Later the very same night, she phones Mason and begs him to come pick her up (at a drugstore near the Belter manse), with a story about someone having shot Belter (true!) and claiming she had heard Mason arguing with Belter just before the fatal shot was fired (false!).  Mason goes to bet her (in a rainstorm, which becomes relevant), and, after poking around, calls the police. 

On our way to the solution of the crime (and, or course, Mason’s client did not do it), we encounter (among other things) a drunken nephew, a stoic housekeeper and her niece, a forged will, and, yes, the scene in which Mason extracts a confession from Eva and turns her over to the cops.

It’s pretty much what you will find in every Mason book, but it’s also a lot less well handled than in subsequent books.  Gardner did a great job devising intricate (and often almost unbelievable) plots (in the sense of structure of the book and events within the book), but he was never an eloquent or graceful writer.  (Gardner wrote, in addition to the Mason books 29 books featuring Donald Lam and Bertha Cool, and 9 about a small-down DA, Doug Selby.  These other 2 series, which I think are in some ways are better than the Mason books, share the plotting intricate plots and pedestrian writing.  In some ways, though I like them better.)

The one thing that stands out in TCOTVC is the repeated intrusions into the story of Mason explaining/excusing his actions—some of which actually could get him in legal hot water—that it is his duty to fight for his clients, even at risk to himself.  (I found this vastly amusing because there is a personal injury lawyer in Indianapolis whose TV ads feature the lawyer proclaiming “I fight hard for my clients.”)  I suspect that removing all those speeches, which are more obtrusive in this book than in most of the later ones, would cut the reading time from a little over 2 hours to maybe 1 hour and 40 minutes.

This, like the Mason books generally, is like candy corn…you eat it (read them) and then wonder why.  But they are hard to resist.