Mar 022015

His name was Jay Otto. He was not quite three feet tall. He was an entertainer, performing as "The Big Midget." The audiences, apparently, loved him. As for the people around him...well, here's what one woman had to say:

"He looked exactly like any other peson, only tiny. And he hated everybody. He hated everybody so much that the hate seemed to ooze out of him, like sweat."

So perhaps it wasn't surprising that Jay Otto was murdered. And that's when he really started making trouble for Chicago lawyer John J. Malone and his two close friends, Jake and Helene Justus, in one of Craig Rice's screwball comedy-mysteries from 1942 called The Big Midget Murders. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

Jake and Helene are now the owners of a Chicago casino, and Jay Otto is performing there when he is murdered backstage. Now we all know the first thing one is supposed to do on discovering a murder scene is call the police – and never to touch the body or disturb the crime scene. That rule is pretty well ignored by Malone, Jake and Helene, who don’t want a dead body discovered in their casino. So they put the body into a case designed for a big bass fiddle – I told you this was a screwball comedy mystery – and go outside to discuss what to do next. When they go back inside, they discover that the fiddle case – and the body – have disappeared. And that's just the beginning of the complications. Somehow, Rice manages to keep us laughing - though the laughter often has a very dark edge - while increasingly surreal events surround the "now-you-see-it, now-you-don't" appearances and disappearances of the body. it’s to her credit that she maintains the black comedy while providing an interesting and complex plot and a fair number of memorable characters. 

"The Big Midget Murders" appears to be out of print, but there is an e-book version available. It's grim but funny, as with so many of Rice's books. If you're in the mood for something a little off the beaten path, this book deserves your consideration.

The 2015 Bingo Challenge

As you probably know by now, I am participating in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge. The Bingo card has 36 squares to be filled by reading a book appropriate to each square's instructions. The Big Midget Murders is my entry for the square (second row, fourth column) which calls for a book with a lawyer, courtroom, judge, etc. Malone will fill that square very nicely.

Vintage Golden Card 2015

Feb 152015

While I very much enjoyed this week's Georgette Heyer book, No Wind of Blame, I'd also like to remind my visitors here about one of my favorite Heyer books, Envious Casca, which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago.

On my podcast review, here's what I said:

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to hold a family reunion over the Christmas holidays? A time when family members and friends get together for a little old-fashioned celebration. Of course, the head of the family is a tyrannical and bad-tempered old man. His brother is a wooly-headed optimist. His nephew matches the old man in personality and temper AND is engaged to a pure gold-digger. His niece is an actress who wants him to pour money into an awful new play by an unknown author. His business partner is engaged in some shady deals. What could possibly go wrong?

It's a most ingenious plot, complete with an impossible murder inside a locked room. The characters are compelling, the wit is dry and the humor often laugh-out-loud funny. I recommend the book heartily.

Feb 092015

Pity poor Inspector Hemingway.

Sent by Scotland Yard to investigate a murder, he found himself confronted with a large number of suspects, nearly as many motives, a scarcity of good alibis - and Ermyntrude. And Vicki.

What am I talking about, you ask? Why Georgette Heyer's 1939 mystery No Wind of Blame, a witty story about a very English murder. It is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

I have read (and reviewed) a number of other Georgette Heyer mysteries - as a group, they're quite well done, with clever plots, witty dialogue and delightful, often outrageous characters. A friend who enjoys Golden Age mysteries recommended No Wind of Blame to me, saying it was one of Heyer’s funniest mysteries. I’d have to agree with her.

Consider Ermyntrude - and I love that name. Ermyntrude Carter used to be an actress. She married a very rich man named Fanshawe who was good enough to die and leave her a very wealthy widow with a young daughter, Vicki. Ermyntrude then had the misfortune (or bad taste) to marry Wally Carter, a man whose behavior and character were both dubious at best. She has also attracted a fortune-hunter of an exiled Georgian prince who is looking to marry the very wealthy Ermyntrude, if she will only divorce her husband. As for her daughter Vicki - now Wally's step-daughter - she is indeed a Drama Queen, going so far as to change her personality and her clothing to fit her mood of the moment (now being a Woman of Sport, now a Comfort-to-Mother, now a Woman of the World, or perhaps a Notorious Woman - all fine roles, to be sure). There are some unsavory neighbors, too, and assorted other friends and servants. Oh, and some hints of a blackmailer working in the neighborhood, too.

A lot of people are unhappy with Wally, so perhaps it's no surprise that someone apparently takes a shot at him one day. Everyone insists it was an accident - except Wally, who may be forgiven for taking such things seriously. And there is, very soon, a murder. And Inspector Hemingway arrives to find himself surrounded by this very unusual if highly entertaining group of characters.

It's all handled with a light and deft touch and it is indeed very funny. One quick example of what to expect: at one point someone says to Ermyntrude – talking about Vicky –

“If I were you, I’d let her go on the stage…I believe that’s what she’d really like best.”

“Don’t you suggest such a thing!” said Ermyntrude, quite horrified. “Why her father would turn in his grave – well, as a matter of fact, he was cremated, but what I mean is, if he hadn’t been he would have.”

Yes, that's Ermyntrude.

George Heyer is best known for her historical regency romances, but I believe her mysteries - she wrote several very good ones - deserve a wider audience. No Wind of Blame is available in printed and e-book versions. It's a delightful light read.

The 2015 Bingo Challenge

Regular visitors to this blog know that I am participating in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge. The Bingo card has 36 squares to be filled by reading a book appropriate to each square's instructions. As I do not own a copy of this book and borrowed it from the excellent mystery collection of my local (Springfield, NJ) public library, No Wind of Blame is my entry for the square (bottom row, fifth column) which calls for one book that you have to borrow (you do not own).

Vintage Golden Card 2015

Feb 062015

Word today from the British Crime Writers' Association (via Janet Rudolph and Mystery Fanfare) that the Crime Writers' Association will present this year's prestigious Diamond Dagger Award to Catherine Aird. The award honors her long - and, happily, continuing - career as a writer of traditional mysteries, including the long-running series called "The Calleshire Chronicles" featuring Inspector C. D. Sloan of the Calleshire police.

I have had the pleasure of writing about several of Aird's earlier novels - you can find my podcast reviews on this blog's backlist page - several of which have been republished by the Rue Morgue Press. Her books can be fairly hard to find in the US, which I think is almost criminal negligence. Her mysteries are stylish, with some police procedural elements, some very interesting plots, delightful characters, and witty and often quite deliberately funny writing (Sloan, for instance, usually finds himself stuck working with Detective Constable Crosby, who is known behind his back among his colleagues as "the Defective Constable).

The CWA explains its Diamond Dagger this way: "Nominees have to meet two essential criteria: first, their careers must be marked by sustained excellence, and second, they must have made a significant contribution to crime writing published in the English language, whether originally or in translation." Congratulations to Catherine Aird for a well-deserved honor. The award will be presented in London in June.

Feb 052015

As the Classic Mysteries podcast is now more than 7 1/2 years old, pre-dating the birth of this blog by nearly a year for that matter, I promised my readers at the beginning of this year to start looking back at some of the mysteries I reviewed in the early days of the podcast. 

I thought that Edmund Crispin's Swan Song would be a good place to start. When people talk about Crispin's mysteries, the first one that usually comes to mind is The Moving Toyshop, but I must admit that Swan Song is my favorite. Here's an edited version of my original review:

Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger is one of the great, high romantic comedies in the operatic repertory. It seems a pity to have a Wagnerian baritone murdered in the preparations for this opera – but that’s what happens in Swan Song.

Edmund Crispin was the pen name of Bruce Montgomery, a prolific composer of movie scores and an accomplished organist and choirmaster, according to Wikipedia. Music plays a significant role in at least a couple of Crispin’s crime novels, and it is central to the plot of Swan Song. A particularly nasty baritone, scheduled to play the leading role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger is found dead, hanging from a rope in his dressing room. Was it suicide? It certainly appears impossible for anyone to have murdered him – yet an autopsy reveals a large quantity of a sleep-inducing drug in the body, and there are signs that the singer’s hands and feet had been tied.

Nobody can be said to be grieving over the singer’s death – in fact, the singer’s brother, when notified, sends a telegram back to the authorities, reading: “Delighted. Hoping for this for months. Suicide eh query. Don’t bother me now.” But the police, quite obviously, cannot simply ignore what has happened.

Assisting with the investigation – at least, he would argue that he was assisting and not hindering it  – is Crispin’s detective character, Gervase Fen, a professor of English literature at Oxford University. Fen is a close friend of the chief constable, and, as such, tends to get involved in such criminal goings-on as may occur. Eventually, there will be a second murder and a reasonable amount of mayhem before the mystery is solved.

To my mind, what makes this story stand out – and, for that matter, makes Crispin’s work stand out overall – is the author’s sense of humor. He has a fine touch for the ridiculous. This is sometimes overdone, and it is often incongruous to laugh through a particularly funny passage only to have it turn into something quite unpleasant and bizarre before the end. But in Swan Song, Crispin strikes a good balance between the humor and the unpleasant events of the book.

Swan Song is extremely fair: the reader is given all the clues – although quite often in ways designed to drag a red herring across the correct path to a solution. What we are presented with is another example of the so-called impossible crime, with a witness situated to swear that nobody could have entered or left the singer’s dressing room between the time the singer was last seen alive and the discovery of his body. And yet we are given the clues needed to determine what really happened – if we can interpret them.

When I wrote my original review, Swan Song was long out of print. That's no longer the case; the Felony & Mayhem Press has reissued most of Crispin's books - including Swan Song. I recommend it very highly indeed.





Dec 042014

As any reader of this blog is aware, I have been taking part in the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge at Bev's terrific My Reader's Block blog. The idea was to read books that would - in Bingo fashion - make up horizontal or vertical lines on the challenge image - this one:

Vintage Golden Card 001

This Golden card was to be filled with mysteries published before 1960. There was also a Silver card for mysteries published between 1960 and 1980. I chose to concentrate on the Golden card.

Of course, we were also challenged to try filling in the ENTIRE card. And I'm pleased to say that this is exactly what I have done. For those who either want to check my honesty or - perhaps on a brighter note - read my reviews, here are links to all of them. I am listing them by row from top to bottom, in order going across left and right.

Row 1:

Row 2:

Row 3:

Row 4:

Row 5:

Row 6:

That's 36 books, 36 reviews, 36 squares covered. Whew. And now, time to get ready for Bev's 2015 challenge - same idea, different categories. Where to start, where to start...

Oct 012014

Happy October to and from Mike Ripley, who greets the new month (as always) with a new column for "Getting Away with Murder" for the Shots Crime & Thriller Ezine. As always, you'll find news and gossip about new mysteries being released in the UK - and also about mysteries being re-issued.

I'm particularly happy to learn that the great Catherine Aird is publishing a new collection of short stories, some featuring her marvelous series detective, Chief Inspector C. D. Sloan and his not-so-marvelous sidekick, Detective Constable Crosby. Quite typically, it's called Last Writes: A Chief Inspector CD Sloan collection. She's not always easy to find, which is a pity, as she's a smart and witty writer. I see on Amazon that it's being released in the U.S. later this month. There goes another pre-order...

At any rate, there's a lot of news and even more interesting notes and comments in the latest Ripley. Take a look at it!

Sep 292014

Who shot solicitor Sampson Warrenby? The man certainly had more than his share of enemies in the English town of Thornden - richly deserved them too, as far as anyone could tell. Chief Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard, who was sent down to investigate the murder, anticipated a difficult case. But he really didn't expect that just about everyone in town would be eager to offer possible solutions - and an assortment of possible villains - to the police. As one resident observed to the chief inspector, “Between you and me and the gate-post, there’s a bit too much amateur detection going on in Thornden!”

Is it a mystery? Or a sophisticated comedy of manners? Actually, it's a little of both. It's Georgette Heyer's last mystery, Detection Unlimited, first published in 1953, and it's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

 I suspect that Georgette Heyer's Regency romance novels have a wider readership than do her mysteries. That's a shame; her plots were usually quite clever and her writing full of a dry humor. She knew the standard ingredients readers expected to find in small-English-village murder mysteries, and she could undermine them very nicely indeed. 

In Detection Unlimited, when the unpopular and unsympathetic Sampson Warrenby is murdered, the local chief constable decides that too many of the potential suspects are his friends, so he calls in Scotland Yard. Enter Chief Inspector Hemingway and his assistant, Inspector Harbottle. They find far too many unanswered questions – and far too many suspects, none of whom seems to have any sort of alibi for the time the murder must have been committed. For that matter, there was no shortage of possible motives. What they also found was a town full of people who treated the murder almost as a new form of entertainment. After all, as one older female resident of Thornden put it, "although it was disagreeable to persons of their generation to have a murder committed in their midst, it was very nice for the children to have something to occupy them, Thornden being such a quiet place, with really nothing to do in it at this season except to play tennis."

So will Chief Inspector Hemingway and Inspector Harbottle be able to cut through all these helpful suggestions and figure out what really happened – who wanted Sampson Warrenby dead and why? Read Detection Unlimited and find out. It's available both in print and in electronic versions.

The Challenge

As it happens, I don't own this particular Heyer book, but my town's library had it in stock and on the shelf - and so I borrowed it. And part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for "one book that you have to borrow (you do not own)." For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

Sep 222014

There are people who read traditional, puzzle-and-plot oriented mysteries from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction who simply revel in matching wits with the author. Give me the clues available to your detective, these readers say, and I should be able to follow those clues to their logical conclusion. They take great pride in their chosen roles as armchair detectives, although - more often than not - they find themselves having been fooled by a clever author.

To such people I offer The Blind Barber, by John Dickson Carr, who was widely acknowledged as the master of classic locked room and impossible crime mysteries. The Blind Barber is, as mystery critic Anthony Boucher observed, quite simply a farce about murder. It is also as pure an "armchair detective" novel as you can get. And I suspect that few readers will be able to interpret the clues, avoid the brilliant misdirection, and come to the correct solution...

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Blind Barber is the subject of the review on today's Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

The Blind Barber, originally published in 1934, sometimes reads more like a Three Stooges slapstick comedy than a solid, bloody murder mystery. The action takes place on board the S. S. Queen Victoria, on a transatlantic journey from New York to London. The complex plot is hard to summarize here without totally confusing you – or confusing me, for that matter. Among its elements, there is some stolen movie film that could prove very embarrassing and dangerous to people in very high places, a stolen emerald elephant, and a very bloody shipboard murder with a victim who disappears - and nobody is missing from the ship. There are also four central characters who manage inadvertently to assault the ship's captain several times in the course of all the mayhem.

The armchair detective is, of course, Dr. Gideon Fell, who solves the case and the impossible disappearance without ever leaving his London flat. When the Queen Victoria docks, and before anyone else is allowed off the ship, one of the central characters is permitted to go to Dr. Fell and tell him the story of what happened. Dr. Fell, who appears only at the beginning, once in a kind of intermission and at the end, comes up with the solution - pointing out, as he goes along, the clues that those characters - and the readers - will have missed along the way which will explain quite fully what has been going on.

I must say that The Blind Barber is still funny, but a lot of its humor doesn't necessarily hold up all that well 80 years after the book was written. There's an assumption that anything having to do with drinking to excess - and there is a lot of that in the book - is hilariously funny. But there are some inspired scenes of mayhem, usually involving another assault on the Queen Victoria's captain, and the very clever impossible crime situation make this a book that is still very much worth reading. At the moment, it is available only as an ebook in a variety of formats, but there seem to be a lot of old paperback copies available from your favorite mystery book dealer or through Amazon's dealers. By all means, let me know if you manage to solve the mystery before Dr. Fell points out the correct answers.

The Challenge

As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one book that involves a mode of transportation. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

Sep 012014

Who killed Aunt Alexandria?

The Chicago police figured it was her niece - after all, her fingerprints were on the weapon, she had a very good motive and she was found unconscious next to the victim in the room where the murder was committed. So they were inclined to ignore all the inconsistencies and peculiarities, such as the fact that the window was wide open despite the wintry weather, or the fact that all eight clocks in that house had stopped running with their hands set precisely to 3 AM - the time the murder apparently was committed.

So things looked pretty bad for the niece, Holly Inglehart. But that's when John J. Malone, Jake Justus and Helene Brand got themselves involved in the investigation. You'll find the story in 8 Faces at 3, by Craig Rice, the queen of the "screwball mystery." 8 Faces at 3 was her first book, published in 1939, and it introduced readers to a remarkably unlikely trio of investigators: shady Chicago lawyer John J. Malone, and his good friends and frequent drinking companions, press agent Jake Justus and socialite (and overall hell-raiser) Helene Brand. 8 Faces at 3 is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

The book is both an excellent mystery and a very funny comedy. A lot of the humor comes from the heavy drinking of the three central characters. Jake and Malone are heavy drinkers, and, as for Helene, she can outdrink both of them put together. We are given a lot of alcohol-related humor, including some very funny (but perhaps excruciating to some of today’s readers) scenes involving drunk driving. As mystery scholar Curtis Evans commented, “these characters make Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe look like a teetotaler.” As for the mystery itself, I suspect most readers don't need to be told that the trio's emphasis on the oddities surrounding the murder - particularly the stopped clocks - is well-placed. 

8 Faces at 3 is a fast and funny read with a cleverly plotted mystery. It's a good way to meet this oddball trio who were featured in many of Rice's other books. It's available in a print edition from the Rue Morgue Press.

(Yes, I'm publishing a day early this week. It's a holiday weekend. So sue me. :-)

The Challenge

As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one book with a number in the title For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.