Mar 022015

Mike Ripley's new - and, he says, final - "Getting Away with Murder" column has now been published in Shots Ezine. As usual, it contains a wide-ranging ramble through the current mystery scene, particularly as it appears in the U. K. Among the topics this month:

  • Another new Albert Campion book, Mr. Campion's Fox, which Ripley has written with the blessing of the Allingham Society;
  • A reflection on an anonymous literary agent's bad choice;
  • The seemingly endless parade of  nominees for mystery awards;
  • A recommendation for a new mystery that counts SIX different narrators;
  • Announcements about several other newly-published-in-the-UK books;
  • Books he's reading for the Chianti Crime Festival in Siena, Italy, later this Spring;
  • Reviving some old TV serials;
  • Lots more book reviews;

And a possible farewell of sorts. This is column #100 for "Getting Away with Murder." Ripley, who has insisted that column #100 would be his last, runs down a list of people who, he says, are some of the candidates to replace him - well, that's what he says, though the biographies are, er, highly dubious at best.  I hope it's somebody with Ripley's quirky sense of humor, very much on display again here, which has made his columns required reading for me. It occurs to me, however, the next column being dated April 1, and therefore quite possibly an appropriate time to introduce any of these candidates, that it would be wise to withhold lavish displays of grief. At least for now...

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 282015

Just got an intriguing email newsletter from Ramble House, the small Mississippi-based company that publishes all of Harry Steven Keeler (and also great books such as Hake Talbot's "Rim of the Pit"). Here's the note from RH's Fender Tucker:

This is just a teaser about a great new book by James Keirans called THE JOHN DICKSON CARR COMPANION. We're putting the final touches on the huge book, getting the comprehensive index just right and we anticipate that it will be available sometime during the month of March. Of course you'll get a Rambler to announce it.

It contains information about every character and plot in every tale written by Carr, all in alphabetical order. Author Keirans has spent years compiling this information and it's all here to accompany you on your journey through the world of John Dickson Carr.

Stay tuned.

As I said, intriguing, to say the least. Anyone know any more about this project?

Feb 262015

As I look back on the books I've reviewed over the past nearly-eight years on the Classic Mysteries podcast, I find, according to the Backlist page, that I have reviewed more than 20 of Rex Stout's books, most of them featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Over at the Wolfe Pack's group page on Facebook this week, there has been some discussion about which Nero Wolfe books are personal favorites. I must admit that my favorite still is The Doorbell Rang, written in 1965, at a time when there was still an air of "The Untouchables" around the FBI and its leader, J. Edgar Hoover. Some disillusionment was beginning to set in, however - and nowhere is that more clear than in The Doorbell Rang.

My podcast review, written before this blog was in place, summarized the book this way:

Here’s the situation: a very wealthy woman comes to Wolfe’s office on West 35th Street in New York. She has read an unflattering book about the FBI, and has bought ten thousand copies of it and sent them to friends, government officials, and others whom she believed should read the book. As a result, she says, she has been harassed by the FBI. She believes they have tapped her telephone, spied on her movements, and generally made her life miserable. She wants to hire Wolfe to stop the FBI.

It takes some persuading. Neither Wolfe nor his assistant, Archie Goodwin, is a fool. They know that if they do get involved, the FBI will shift its harassment to them. They could wind up losing their licenses as private detectives.

But Wolfe’s ego – and Archie’s too – make them accept the case, even though Wolfe doesn’t have any immediate answer to the question: how do you persuade the entire FBI organization – not to mention its boss – to stop doing what they won’t even admit they are doing...

And so battle is joined. Wolfe comes up with a plan, all right, and it’s one of the most delightful, daring and ingenious charades he has ever created. Along the way to finding an answer to his problem, he solves a murder which the New York City police have, in effect, been told by the FBI not to solve. It’s not often that Wolfe finds his old nemesis, New York City homicide detective Inspector Cramer, cheering him on…but that’s one of the many odd developments in this case.

It required a fair amount of courage for Rex Stout to write this one. It's by no means typical of the rest of Nero Wolfe's cases, most of which are great murder mysteries. In this one, the murder is secondary to the battle between Nero Wolfe and the FBI - and what a marvelous solution it is.

And this book has one of the best closing lines of any of Rex Stout's books...

If you haven't read this one yet, go get it and enjoy it. 

Feb 012015

Life certainly wasn't easy for Georgine Wyeth, a young mother and widow trying to scrape together a living in Berkeley, California, during the dark days of World War II. It was a time when many Americans on the west coast learned to live with night-time blackouts, fearing  a possible air attack on their cities. Georgine was trying her hand at selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door the day she came to Grettry Road, a small, dead-end street in the Berkeley hills. She certainly thought her luck had changed when she suddenly found a temporary job there working as a typist for a local professor who apparently was working on some major new invention. But it wasn't long before Georgine realized that there were a lot of possibly dangerous secrets on Grettry Road. And that was before she stumbled over the body in the blackout...

That's the initial situation in the undeservedly obscure Skeleton Key, by Lenore Glen Offord, first published in 1943. 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.

When Georgine trips over the body, it appears that the victim had been struck by a runaway car. At first, it’s written off as an accident – but there are things that don’t add up. Georgine confides in one of the neighbors, a young mystery writer named Todd McKinnon – and she also goes to the police with her story. Contrary to what you may expect, they do take her seriously – and it quickly becomes clear that this is indeed a murder. And Georgine, whether she knows it or not, may have the only clue to the murderer’s identity.

The plot is nicely developed, with the requisite number of surprise twists, and some very well-realized characters. The book also is quite good at recreating the often-nightmarish atmosphere of those war years, when many on the West Coast feared the kind of attacks which had become tragically common in Europe. 

Offord only wrote about a dozen books, including just eight mysteries, and her name has pretty well been forgotten. Happily, the Felony & Mayhem Press has rediscovered Offord's Skeleton Key, and is releasing it at the end of this week with a new introduction by Sarah Weinman. In that introduction, she writes, "Lenore Glen Offord deserves the much wider audience that these new reissues will undoubtedly bring, a contemporary audience certain to enjoy her novels." I couldn't agree more.

The publisher kindly sent me a copy for this review.

The 2015 Bingo Challenge

I have already mentioned 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. Skeleton Key is my entry for the square (fourth row, second column) which calls for a book by an author you've never read before.

Vintage Golden Card 2015

Jan 312015

Malice Domestic, the organization of traditional mystery writers and their readers, has announced its list of nominees for the Agatha Awards, the awards named after Agatha Christie and inended to honor authors who continue to follow those traditions.

The nominees are:

Best Contemporary Novel

  • The Good, the Bad and the Emus, by Donna Andrews
  • A Demon Summer, by G. M. Malliet
  • Truth Be Told, by Hank Phillippi Ryan
  • The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny
  • Designated Daughters, by Margaret Maron

Best Historical Novel

  • Hunting Shadows, by Charles Todd
  • An Unwilling Accomplice, by Charles Todd
  • Wouldn't it Be Deadly, by D. E. Ireland
  • Queen of Hearts, by Rhys Bowen
  • Murder in Murray Hill, by Victoria Thompson

Best First Novel

  • Circle of Influence, by Annette Dashofy
  • Tagged for Death, by Sherry Harris
  • Finding Sky, by Susan O'Brien
  • Well Read, Then Dead, by Terrie Farley Moran
  • Murder Strikes a Pose, by Tracy Weber

Best Nonfiction

  • 400 Things Cops Know: Street Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman, by Adam Plantinga
  • Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer's Journey, by Hank Phillippi Ryan
  • Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice, by Kate Flora
  • The Art of the English Murder, by Lucy Worsley
  • The Poisoner: the Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor, by Stephen Bates

Best Short Story

  • "The Odds Are Against Us," by Art Taylor
  • "Premonition," by Art Taylor
  • "The Shadow Knows," by Barb Goffman
  • "Just Desserts for Johnny," by Edith Maxwell
  • "The Blessing Witch," by Kathy Lynn Emerson

Best Children's/Young Adult

  • Andi Under Pressure, by Amanda Flower
  • Greenglass House, by Kate Milford
  • Uncertain Glory, by Lea Wait
  • The Code Busters' Club, Case #4, The Mummy's Curse, by Penny Warner
  • Found, by Harlan Coben

The winners will be announced at the Agatha Awards Banquet on May 2, 2015, part of the annual Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, MD. Congratulations to all of the nominees!

Jan 302015

Perhaps British author, critic and man-about-town Mike Ripley needs to check his calendar. Although we are still in January, he has just published his February column for the Shots Crime & Thriller eZine, "Getting Away with Murder." As always, it's a good look at the state of crime fiction in the U. K. (primarily).

In this month's edition, Mike is off on his usual round of publishers' parties, drinks, new books, drinks, new publications, new/vintage Penguin Book covers (take heart, Green Penguin fans!), old mystery movies, a French police drama series on TV, and drinks. Also: a former US basketball star's first mystery for adults, starring Sherlock Holmes's older brother Mycroft; Sarah Weinman's new blog, including her critique of some narrators of new "domestic suspense" novels who appear to be "TSTL" (Too Stupid To Live); a couple of James Bond, er, "continuation novels"; a forthcoming mystery convention in Italy sponsored by Chianti producers (yes, please); and some chatty previews of books coming down the road - at least, so far, in the U.K. Go read, go enjoy. By the way, this is his 99th column - and he insists the next one, number 100, will be his last...

Jan 262015

Damon Gaunt had developed quite a reputation among criminal investigators as a detective who never failed to reach a successful conclusion in a murder case. That's pretty amazing when you realize that Gaunt had been blind since birth - although he had developed his other senses to the point where they told him more about the world around him than mere sight ever could. So perhaps it wasn't surprising that when Garret Appleton was shot and killed in his own house, members of the Appleton family called on Damon Gaunt to help them uncover the truth about the murder. They probably got more than they had bargained for. The story is told in At 1:30, by Isabel Ostrander, a classic first published 100 years ago, in 1915. 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.

In At 1:30, Garret Appleton's mother and brother call in Gaunt because they have no faith that the New York police will solve the crime, and they are hopeful that Gaunt can solve it and, at the same time, keep any scandal at bay. He is welcomed by Inspector Hanrahan of the police, though Hanrahan is hardly the not-very-bright police investigator of too many period novels. It appears at first as if an outside intruder must have committed the crime – the body clearly was robbed after the murder. It will come as no surprise to any mystery reader to learn that Gaunt quickly demolishes that theory - and that family members are less than pleased by what he finds. And we are off on an investigation which will peel away layer after layer of deceit and lying on its way to the ultimate solution.

Gaunt's blindness is central to the book. It was quite common in detective stories of the day for authors to endow their protagonists with some unusual and readily apparent trait. Gaunt's blindness serves that purpose for Ostrander's novel, just as other detectives of the period might be "psychic," or solve crimes by analyzing dreams. At 1:30 appears to have been the only book Ostrander wrote to feature Gaunt, although she did write a number of other books. It holds up surprisingly well after a century. It's available primarily as an e-book, along with a few of the author's other works in a single package. I'd be happier with it if the publisher had managed to get rid of some of the very many typographical errors that probably crept in when the book was converted to e-book format. But it's still an interesting read with an unusual detective.

The 2015 Bingo Challenge

I have already mentioned 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. At 1:30 is my entry for the square (second row, fifth column) that calls for a book with a time, day, month, etc., in the title.

Vintage Golden Card 2015

This post is also entered into another challenge. Rich Westwood, of the Past Offences blog, has begun the new year by challenging his readers to review a mystery book or film (or plurals thereof) that are 100 years old - meaning they first appeared in 1915. That's the original publication date of At 1:30, and it is my entry in that challenge. There are some interesting entries there this month - be sure to follow that link above and see what others have been reading and/or viewing.

Jan 212015

It is with considerable pleasure that I report that I have now been published, in the current (March) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The magazine has a feature called "Mystery Classic," and I was invited to choose a classic short story and to write an introduction to it. The story is "Red Dot," by Samuel Hopkins Adams, featuring "Average" Jones, who investigates fraudulent or misleading advertisements. Adams himself was a journalistic "muckraker," and he was a driving force behind the establishment of the agency that eventually became the Food and Drug Administration. "Average" Jones's exploits appeared in book form in 1911. For full details, please check out my intro and "Red Dot" in AHMM.