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.

Jun 162014

There is no question that the book that Monica Stanton wrote was scandalous. For a minister's daughter to write a book named Desire was certainly something her relatives wished had never happened. For a British movie company to buy the film rights turned her world upside down - particularly when she discovered that the studio was not hiring her to rewrite her own book. Instead, she would rewrite a detective novel...and the man who wrote that book would rewrite Monica's book for the movie version. And all that was before the deadly attacks began...

That's the situation we find in And So To Murder, by John Dickson Carr, writing as Carter Dickson. The 1941 mystery, featuring Sir Henry Merrivale, is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.

The attacks on Monica really began in earnest when somebody lured her to the set of another movie and tried to pour vitriol - sulfuric acid - down a speaking tube and onto her face. The unsuccessful attack was followed by frightening anonymous letters. And there were more attacks. Fortunately for Monica, Bill Cartwright, the writer of that detective story which she had been assigned to rewrite, was nearby - and a friend of Sir Henry Merrivale. And it turns out that Sir Henry was very interested in some other mysterious goings-on at the movie studio, which might have been the work of enemy spies.

 I have always been fond of Carr's Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries. The Old Man, as "H.M." is known, is a brilliant but irascible man, apparently qualified as both a lawyer and a doctor. He spends much of his time working for the British government - particularly in wartime books, such as And So to Murder, where he is heading up British secret service. In many of Carr's books, Sir Henry provides a great deal of comic relief - not nearly as much so, however, in And So to Murder. There is a lot of humor in the goings-on at the film studio, where it is considered only normal to have two writers working to adapt each other's books rather than adapting their own work. But Sir Henry is remarkably restrained. He doesn't even appear in the book until well past the halfway point, and, aside for a few bursts of bad temper, he is mostly serious. Perhaps that was only to be expected in 1941 Britain, deep into the war years.

It is also worth noting that, by the time of And So to Murder, Carr had had very bad experiences with film studios; Carr's wife is quoted as saying that her husband hated "with complete loathing" his time at the studio. He certainly gets his revenge in his biting and often hilarious picture of the industry.

And So to Murder isn't my favorite Carr book - for one thing, without drifting into spoiler territory, I think Carr violated one of his own fair-play rules to mislead the reader. Still, for the characters, for the film industry byplay, and for the plot, you will most likely enjoy And So to Murder. Contrary to what I said when I recorded the podcast version of this review, the book is available in a trade paperback edition from the Langtail Press, and it's certainly worth your purchase!

This is another entry in the continuing Vintage Mystery Bingo reading challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog. On my bingo card, it fulfills the requirement for "one book set in the entertainment world."

Jun 012014

Strange doings in the English town of Lindsay Carfax, a remarkably commercial little town with a large tourist trade. It is a town where people who may seem "out of place" find themselves suddenly accident prone. Sometimes those people disappear for a while. And sometimes worse things may happen...

Into this town comes the elderly Mr. Albert Campion, concerned because of an apparent attack on his wife's niece. What he finds there is told in Mr Campion's Farewell, a brand-new Albert Campion novel, completed by author Mike Ripley. Already published in the U.K., Mr. Campion's Farewell will be released in the U.S. in electronic formats by Severn House Publishers on July 1 of this year, to be followed shortly by a print version of the book. 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.

First, a few words about this book, and why I think it warrants being reviewed as a "classic" mystery. Generally regarded as one of the great "crime queen" writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Margery Allingham created the character of Albert Campion in 1929. He began as a rather foppish, outwardly foolish but really quite intelligent young man, and he matured over the course of many novels and short stories.

When Allingham died in 1966, her husband, Philip ("Pip") Youngman Carter completed the Campion novel on which his wife had been working, Cargo of Eagles. Carter went on to write two additional Campion books before he died in 1969. He left behind four chapters of another book featuring Albert Campion - but no plot outline, or any kind of summary or indication of what kind of story he had had in mind. After many years, those chapters wound up in the hands of the Margery Allingham Society - and they eventually invited British author Mike Ripley to try his hand at finishing Carter's last book. The result is the brand-new Mr. Campion's Farewell, and it fits quite well into the Campion saga.

The story is set in the village of Lindsay Carfax, a place where tourists are more than welcome to come, wander the town, visit local museums and somewhat doubtful historic sites, and – to be sure – spend a lot of money buying souvenirs. That is the way the town likes it. That is the way the people who may run the town want it – a secretive group of nine people called the Carders – a group which may or not actually exist. But people who don’t fit in – say, a band of what were then called "hippies" – are unwelcome, and bad things may happen to them; in fact, a couple of them died quite recently from apparent drug overdoses. People who go against the grain sometimes disappear – always for a period of nine days – and, when they reappear, they have nothing to say about where they have been or what may have happened, or the occasional bruises they exhibit. And they no longer seem as inclined to cause what the Carders and other townspeople might consider “trouble.” As one character puts it, “We’ve been a carefully preserved gold mine for at least seventy years and it has never paid anyone to step out of line. People who do become accident-prone.”

When a booby-trapped staircase nearly causes the death of Campion's wife's niece, he agrees to visit the village to investigate the odd events there. What he finds is a series of mysterious events - many involving the number nine - and at least a couple of murders.

Mike Ripley has done a fine job taking these plot twists and adding new ones of his own. Because Albert Campion is one of the few fictional detectives who apparently aged and matured in the course of their books, the inevitable changes in Campion's character, caused by the fact that different authors have contributed to the character's development, play quite well and do not jar. I think fans of the original Campion novels - including the Youngman Carter books - will welcome Campion's return under the excellent guidance of Mike Ripley, who brings his own considerable wit and good humor to bear on this story. The publishers provided me with an electronic version of the book for review, and I heartily recommend it.

May 012014

Saxon Wall was not exactly one of those lovely, idyllic and peaceful little English villages, so often the setting for a rather genteel murder or two. The people were rather nasty and unfriendly, everyone seemed to share some rather sordid secrets, and there was an uneasy aura of witchcraft which hung over the town. So when there were several unexplained deaths - not to mention persistent rumors about babies being switched at birth - psychiatrist and consultant Beatrice Lestrange Bradley was called to town to try and make sense out of what was going on at Saxon Wall.  What she found is explained in Gladys Mitchell's marvelous 1935 book, The Devil at Saxon Wall. 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.

What kind of village is Saxon Wall? Here's how Mitchell describes it:

“The village of Saxon Wall, where they had come to live, was in a remote part of Hampshire. It was an ugly, straggling place, and Constance disliked and feared the people. They were like no villagers that she had ever seen. She had a poor memory for verse, but every time she encountered any of the inhabitants of Saxon Wall there came into her mind the line ‘ugly squat and full of guile.’…Both men and women seemed stupid and ferocious, so that, mixed with the fear of them, was a good deal of disgust. Even the children were ugly, and most of them threw stones at her whenever they saw her.”

Suffice it to say that Constance does not thrive in Saxon Wall. And it is only when an outsider comes to town, an author named Hannibal Jones, that anyone begins to connect the dots around a number of disappearances and mysterious deaths, along with those rumors about exchanged babies. And it is up to Mrs. Bradley to pursue those clues and find some resolution to the case.

That summary probably makes the book sound grimmer than it really is. Gladys Mitchell has a wonderful way of working humor into her text, amid some genuine horrors. Readers looking for eccentric behavior and eerie atmosphere in an excellent Golden Age classic will find much to enjoy here – whether it’s the eldritch laugh of Mrs. Bradley, or the odd behavior of the sisters who keep a goat as their household pet, or the minister who refuses to pray for rain in the midst of a terrible drought, or the rumors of the “long, thin man,” a spirit buried outside town in a prehistoric barrow and believed by villagers to be sleeping there. And, always, back to witchcraft again.

Fair warning: the plot is quite convoluted - so much so that, after the novel ends, we are presented with Mrs. Bradley's notes about the case, which include pointers to the clues (many given to us while reading) that led her eventually to solve the various mysteries of Saxon Wall. This is probably not the best introduction to Mrs. Bradley for a new reader. But if you've encountered her before, and enjoyed the eccentricities and humor along with the requisite horrors, then by all means read The Devil at Saxon Wall. Long unavailable in the U.S., it's now back in print in a new edition and also available as an ebook, and I recommend it strongly to Mrs. Bradley's fans - and Mitchell's fans as well.

I am submitting The Devil at Saxon Wall as another title read as part of the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, filling the square on my Golden Bingo card calling for "one book set in England."

Mar 312014

There's more news to share about the forthcoming "continuation" novel by Mike Ripley featuring Albert Campion, the gentleman detective/adventurer created by Margery Allingham.

As I posted here in January, the new book, Mr Campion's Farewell, is really a continuation of a book begun by Allingham's husband, Pip Youngman Carter, after his wife's death. Carter died after writing only a few chapters, and the manuscript was never finished or published. Now, Mike Ripley has completed it, and I believe it has just been published by Severn House in the U. K. It's scheduled to be released in the U.S. on July 1st.

Mike Ripley has done an interview with Shots Crime & Thriller Ezine about the new book, its origins, and his involvement with the project. I've been given an advance copy of the book, and I look forward to reviewing it on the blog and podcast as we get a little closer to the release date. For fans of Margery Allingham and Albert Campion, I would bet that your favorite friendly mystery bookstore would be more than happy to order a copy of Mr. Campion's Farewell for you. In the meantime, Ripley's interview answers a number of excellent questions and may whet your appetite.

Mar 242014

Asey Mayo was probably the only person on Cape Cod who didn't care about the big charity auction. Everybody else was eager to bid on the items up for sale - largely because they had heard rumors that the late John Alden had hidden a lot of cash inside something that would be sold at the auction. Asey didn't care. He didn't think much of those rumors and he hated auctions. He just wanted to go fishing. So it was just his bad luck to be on hand when one of those auctioned items was opened - and turned out to contain a corpse.

Welcome to the auction in Going, Going, Gone, a 1943 Asey Mayo Cape Cod mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries website. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

Because Asey Mayo, also known as "the codfish Sherlock," is on the scene…and because it is wartime and a lot of the usual authorities are busy elsewhere…he finds himself stuck with the job of investigating the murder. That proves to be difficult and fairly dangerous. Poor Asey finds himself knocked out when he tries to catch someone prowling around at night and very soon after that finds himself tied up and dumped unceremoniously in the woods right next to the equally trussed policeman who had been left on guard.

All this is told in a surprisingly cheerful manner. Phoebe Atwood Taylor was very good at making the events in her Asey Mayo books light enough so that the humor never seems out of place. She manages to keep a smile on the reader’s face no matter what seems to be happening. Asey Mayo, who stars in two dozen of Taylor's books, is a wonderful character, and the Cape Cod background provides a first-rate setting for these mysteries. If you haven't met Asey before, Going, Going, Gone would be a fine introduction.

This is another entry in the My Reader's Block blog Vintage Mystery Bingo reading challenge, filling the square on the Golden score card for "a book by an author you've read before."

Mar 032014

If there was one point on which many of the long-time residents of the Hotel Richelieu agreed, it was that the Richelieu was a good place to live. That, of course, was before someone began turning it into a better place to die. Violently. And as the police were struggling to figure out what was going on, it was going to be a self-proclaimed "old battle-ax," Adelaide Adams, who would play a central role in solving Murder á la Richelieu, a 1937 mystery by an author virtually unknown today, Anita Blackmon. Murder a la Richelieu is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

Anita Blackmon wrote only two mysteries, which is unfortunate. She is very much a highly-skilled member of the Had I But Known school of detective fiction made popular by American author Mary Roberts Rinehart. Her narrator, Adelaide Adams, has a fair amount of fun with that particular convention. I mean how can you resist a book whose protagonist observes: "Had I suspected the orgy of bloodshed upon which we were about to embark, I should then and there, in spite of my bulk and an arthritic knee, have taken shrieking to my heels." I think it's the arthritic knee which makes that such a fine parody of the genre.

In any case, Adelaide Adams proceeds to tell us about the murderous events at the Hotel Richelieu, a residential hotel located in an unidentified city in the American south (apparently Little Rock, Arkansas).  As for the events she goes on to describe…well they begin with the murder of a man found hanging in Adelaide’s room with his throat cut, and go on from there. By the time it is over, we will be dealing with multiple killings and a number of other serious crimes, along with some wholesale blackmailing. And the police will note - as will the reader - that it is usually Adelaide Adams who finds the latest body...

It's a complex mystery, with a fair number of subplots that suddenly twist and fall into place, though that place is not always where the reader might have expected. It is an engaging mystery, with enough humor and plot twists to carry the reader through some fairly grim events.

I am indebted to mystery scholar Curtis Evans for my first exposure to Anita Blackmon. Evans wrote the introduction to the new Coachwhip Publications edition of Murder a la Richelieu, as well as a lengthy post on his blog, The Passing Tramp. He calls Murder a la Richelieu an example of "The twentieth-century HIBK tale at its best." I agree completely.

This review is another entry in the My Reader's Block blog reading challenge 2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo - it is an example of "one book with a place in the title." For full details about the challenge, be sure to check out the reading results pages at the blog.

Feb 242014

It would be fair to say that Bill Tracy was not having a good day. Tracy, an ex-reporter now writing soap operas for radio, was not happy to pick up a newspaper and read about the murder of his boss, shot by some loon wearing a Santa Claus suit (in New York City in August). The problem for Tracy was simple: the killer had stolen the whole idea of the murder from one of Tracy's new radio scripts. One of his newly-written and still unpublished radio scripts. That was not going to make the police - or Tracy - very happy...

That's the start of a very funny and rather outrageous book called Murder Can Be Fun, by Fredric Brown, first published in 1948 under the title, A Plot for Murder. You can find a full audio review of Murder Can Be Fun on the Classic Mysteries podcast this week, and you can listen to it by clicking here.

As if that murder cribbed from one of his unpublished scripts weren't enough to give Bill a major headache, it quickly got worse: there was soon another murder - this time in Bill's own apartment building - where, once again, the method of murder was one taken directly from another of Bill Tracy's new scripts that had never left his apartment.

If you’re at all familiar with Fredric Brown's mysteries, most of which, sadly, are out of print, you should realize that he had a bizarre sense of humor, and this kind of plot is the kind that he did really well. Tracy, of course, will get deeply involved in the case – the police, after all, are kind of interested in how anyone but Bill might have known what was in his manuscripts. There are all kinds of complications arising from Bill’s "regular" work on the scripts for the soap opera called Millie’s Millions, particularly when he gets an attractive young stenographer to help him write the shows.

And then there's the drinking. Bill (and the other characters, to be sure) put away enough liquor among them to account for the output of a pretty good-sized distillery. I'd say he makes Nick and Nora Charles look like teetotalers. Tracy's usual condition might be described as ranging between slightly inebriated and "good and stinkingly drunk." 

What we have, overall, is a fine, complex comic mystery. I think the solution ultimately is a bit weak – but frankly I was laughing too hard to care very much about that. I think you'll enjoy Bill Tracy's company, share his fully justified concerns and fears - and read the book to find out just how the killer DID manage to steal those ideas from Bill's manuscripts.  Murder Can Be Fun has been reissued as a Print on Demand trade paperback by Blackmask Online. I think you'll enjoy it.

Murder Can Be Fun is another entry in the My Reader's Block blog Vintage Mystery Bingo reading challenge, fulfilling the requirement on the "Golden" score card for "a book published under more than one title."


Feb 172014

Writing at the Golden Age Detection group on Facebook, Jeffrey Marks reminds us that today is the 126th anniversary of the birth of Fr. Ronald Knox, a classic writer from the Golden Age of English Detective Fiction. Father Knox is perhaps best remembered as the author of the "10 Commandments of Detective Fiction," a list which is frequently more honored in the breach than in the observance (including by Knox himself). (And a hat tip to Jeff for the link.)

I reviewed one of Knox's mysteries, The Viaduct Murder, on this blog several years ago including a full review on the podcast. It's an entertaining book, quite in keeping with the Golden Age tradition of fair play puzzles. It is still available (at the link) as an e-book for the Kindle, although I'm pretty sure it's out there in other electronic formats as well.

Feb 052014

It was a beautiful morning for a horseback ride through New York City's Central Park. Too bad it ended in sudden - and most unnatural - death for the rider. As a result, the very considerable talents of schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers and her good friend, Inspector Oscar Piper proved to be essential in solving The Puzzle of the Red Stallion, by Stuart Palmer. 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.

Stuart Palmer wrote more than a dozen novels and a fair number of short stories about schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, whom he referred to as "that meddlesome old battleaxe." Hildy generally teamed up with her friend (and more than occasional rival), New York City Police Inspector Oscar Piper to solve mysteries which very often appeared impossible at first viewing.

The Puzzle of the Red Stallion, which was first published in 1935, was the sixth book to feature Hildy and Piper. It begins with a murder – a murder in which Miss Withers quickly becomes involved. The victim, a glamorous fashion model, had been riding her horse, a beautiful red stallion and former racing horse named Siwash. At first, there appears to be no good way to explain her death, as there is no evident wound on the body, though there is blood in Siwash. Miss Withers helps Piper solve that problem only to discover that, while there are plenty of suspects who might have had good reason to want the victim dead, none appeared to have had an opportunity to commit the murder. There is a great deal about horse racing in this book, and the sport does play a very important part in the solution of the mystery. There is more than one murder – and, I would have to say, a really nasty method for committing murder that almost evades detection.

While The Puzzle of the Red Stallion is not the strongest entry in the series, there are a couple of murders and some interesting characters. It was made into a movie called "Murder on a Bridle Path," but I don't think it's available for viewing at the moment. The book is a fairly quick, enjoyable read. There are used copies available from the usual sources, but it's also been published as a low-cost e-book from the Mysterious Press and Open Road Integrated Media.

This book is another entry for this year's Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge at the My Reader's Block blog. The challenge this year is to fill our "Bingo" - type cards with vintage mysteries (Gold = pre-1960 or Silver = 1961-1980) mysteries. On my Gold card, this book counts os "one book with an animal in the title.