Oct 272014

Philip Marlowe is not the sort of private eye to flinch or shy away from troublesome clients. When he gets a phone call from a young woman who thinks she wants to hire him - although she doesn't approve of his drinking or smoking and doesn't think he's a gentleman - he hangs up the phone on her. That, he muses, was a mistake: "It was a step in the right direction, but it didn't go far enogh. I ought to have locked the door and hid under the desk." Instead, he finds himself drawn into a dark and violent search through the glitz of Hollywood in the late 1940s. You'll find the story in Raymond Chandler's 1949 novel, The Little Sister, and believe me, Marlowe should have followed his instincts. The Little Sister 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 woman who telephoned Marlowe about hiring him turns up at his office and does, in fact, hire him. Her name is Orfamay Quest, she has come to Los Angeles from her home in Manhattan, Kansas, and she wants Marlowe to find her younger brother, who left home to take a job in Los Angeles but who has failed to communicate with his family. The trail leads Marlowe to Hollywood and the definitely tarnished glamor of the movie industry.

Sound pretty straightforward? Well, no. This is Raymond Chandler, after all, and it isn't long before the bodies are piling up, Marlowe is finding that just about everyone has secrets to hide and is lying to him, and his client is turning out to be...well, let's just say, difficult. The plot is complex, with a fair number of twists and turns, violent and very dark indeed.

All of that is redeemed, for me, by Chandler's clever writing; he can come up with one-line descriptions that make any writer jealous. Of one Hollywood actress, for example, he says, “She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.” Or consider this description of a night-time drive through Los Angeles and Studio City:

"I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad."

My edition of The Little Sister quotes a New Yorker magazine review that says Chandler wrote as if pain hurt and life mattered. Readers looking for a happily-ever-after ending won’t find it here; in this world, everyone and everything is damaged. But they will find an intense but ultimately pleasurable reading experience.

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 size in the title. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

Oct 212014

Hake Talbot's 1944 masterpiece, Rim of the Pit, is one of the best "impossible crime" mysteries ever written (at least in my humble opinion). It's the subject of the current book discussion under way among the members of the "4 Mystery Addicts" group at Yahoo. I'm the question master; between now and October 30, I'll be posting a total of six questions for the group to consider and discuss. The first question is already posted; the second will be going up there tomorrow. If you've read the book, I invite you to come discuss it in conversation with the group - I'd love to know what you think.

If you're not a member of the group yet, by the way, I strongly encourage you to join (you can do it at the link above) - it's free, of course, and you'll find discussions there about every possible sub-genre of the mystery field and the very latest books by your favorite authors.

For those who may have missed what I had to say about Rim of the Pit in the past, here's a link to an earlier post.

Oct 202014

Methinks there's dirty work afoot...

"On the Saturday morning at twelve o'clock he left England, on the wildest chase that any man had ever undertaken. And behind him, did he but know it, stalked the shadow of death."

Cue the organ music. Get the monsters and misfits ready offstage. Could that melodramatic bit of writing have originated with anyone other than the master of the early English thriller, Edgar Wallace? Of course not. It is, in fact, a key development in the rather confusing but thoroughly entertaining plot of The Door With Seven Locks, first published in 1926, and a fine example of the kind of book which made Edgar Wallace one of the most popular novelists of his day. The Door with Seven Locks is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to that full review by clicking here.

The plot is difficult to sum up in a few well-chosen words. It begins with a Scotland Yard detective who is about to retire from the force. He becomes involved with a small-time crook, an expert at picking locks, who tells him about a recent lock-picking job that has made him quite nervous. Before he can pass along details, the lock-picker is murdered. Next, our retiring detective gets involved in a couple of seemingly unrelated incidents – the theft of an obscure book from a lending library (whose librarian, a young woman, will be the heroine of the story), and an assignment to go chasing around the world after a very rich and very elusive young heir who is rarely seen. That assignment leads to the departure I quoted at the beginning of this post.

In the midst of all this chasing about, we discover that there is a desperate search under way for seven individual keys which, when all used together, can open a mysterious door in a family's tomb. We meet a doctor – clearly an unsympathetic and sinister character – who is suspected of carrying out unethical medical experiments, to say the least. And we get glimpses of some powerful and dangerous creatures who may or may not be linked to the doctor. Add in our heroine’s unfortunate habit of getting herself into dangerous situations and you have a very fast-moving, easy-to-read and easy-to-enjoy – if not very easy to summarize - thriller. The Door with Seven Locks is certainly Wallace in fine form.

Wallace's popularity has endured, by the way: more than 160 movies have been made from his work, more than have been made from any other author's books. In fact, this book was made into a movie which was given a new but entirely appropriate name: Chamber of Horrors. They don't write 'em like that any more, do they?

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 has been made into a movie. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

Oct 192014

Exciting news about one of my favorite authors, Arthur. W. Upfield, the creator of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland, Australia, police. Upfield has long been nearly impossible to find in print - in the U. S., I believe only The Bone Is Pointed and The Bachelors of Broken Hill have remained in print out of the 29 novels featuring Bony.

Apparently, Upfield's estate has released e-book versions of all 29 of the Bony novels, in a variety of popular formats. According to Wikipedia, this website (with links to the available books) is maintained by Upfield's grandson, William Upfield, and it promises that all 26 of the Boney television series which was made from the novels will be made available as downloads.

If you're not familiar with Upfield and/or with Bonaparte, you should be. Bony (note that the TV series did add an extra "e" to the name "Boney" to make it clear how the name should be pronounced) was a half-White, half-Aboriginal detective. Writing at a time when such characters were rare, Upfield made Bony a wonderful, warm character, a man who never failed to solve the most difficult case because of his abilities inherited from his White father and Aborigine mother. He has been out of favor among the politically correct in Australia and elsewhere, which merely reinforces my low opinion of political correctness. 

I've reviewed five of the Bony books on my podcast over the years, and you can find those reviews on my backlist page (just scroll down to "Upfield"). I haven't done more because they have been so hard to find - I didn't think it would be fair to my readers. Now that they have all been released as e-books, I intend to go back and review several more of my favorites. If you like traditional mysteries, made more exotic by the Australian outback setting of so many, with a wonderfully warm and charismatic central character, you will love Arthur Upfield's books about Bony.

This is exactly what I have believed e-book publishing should be about: making great books available to a new generation of readers (and, I hope, generating some additional income for the authors' estates as well). Bravo, Mr. Upfield, bravo!

Oct 132014

Today is October 13, which means that Bouchercon 2014: Murder at the Beach will begin officially in Long Beach, CA, one month from today. As I've noted elsewhere, I'll be at Bouchercon (along with my wife) and look forward to meeting, speaking with, learning from and laughing with well over a thousand (maybe closer to two thousand) mystery readers and mystery authors.

While there, I'm scheduled to moderate a panel on Thursday, Nov. 13th, called "Just the Facts: Journalists Solving Crimes," with authors R. G. Belsky, Ellen Crosby, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Susan Union and LynDee Walker. The next morning, Friday, November 14th, I'll be on the panel discussing "Collecting 101: Tips and Tricks from the Experts on Building Your Collection," which will be moderated by Otto Penzler with other panelists including Al Abramson, Bill Gottfried, Tom O'Day and Donus Roberts. In the off chance that you're not coming to Bouchercon primarily to hear me speak - an unlikely thing, I know - rest assured that you will be choosing from well over 100 different panels over the four days of the conference. There are authors you'll know, authors you don't know yet but will want to meet, and a lot of readers who may share your tastes or be willing to debate the advantages of their tastes.

That's not even counting all the extra events, off-site dinners and brunches, charity auctions and, of course, the Anthony Awards. I certainly hope you'll be there. And if so, even if you don't attend my panels, be sure to stop me in the halls and say hello.

Oct 122014

Something was very wrong in the district of Lan-Fang, a remote area of ancient China during the Tang Dynasty some thirteen centuries ago. Judge Dee, newly appointed as the magistrate for Lan-Fang, discovered the town living in fear, the administrative functions usurped by a local tyrant. It would be up to Judge Dee to figure out a way to restore normalcy to the town. And he would have to do that before he could really get down to solving three cases involving murder and other crimes. Read all about it in The Chinese Maze Murders, by Robert Van Gulik, which is the subject of today's book review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the full review by clicking here.

Judge Dee was a real person who lived in China during the Tang dynasty during the seventh century, but his exploits, as reported in The Chinese Maze Murders, were fictional. In 1949, Robert Van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat and Orientalist, had published a volume called The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee which was the translation of a classic Chinese detective novel written in the eighteenth century. At the end of that book, Van Gulik had challenged Western authors to try their hands at writing a classic Chinese detective story. As nobody took him up on the challenge, Van Gulik began writing them himself. The first of the books, originally published in 1956, was The Chinese Maze Murders. It begins with Judge Dee cleverly solving the problem presented by that local tyrant and then going on to solve three interrelated mysteries: "The Murder in the Sealed Room," "The Hidden Testament" and "The Girl with the Severed Head." Van Gulik went on to write more than a dozen other books about Judge Dee, all of which are very much worth your reading time. Van Gulik expertly fleshed out his characters and settings in an effort to give today's readers some idea of what life in ancient China may have been like. You don't need to read the books in any particular order, but The Chinese Maze Murders certainly would be a good place to start.


In today's podcast, I managed inadvertently to place the action in the wrong fictional part of China. It takes place, as I said above, in Lan-Fang. I mistakenly call it Poo-Yang, where several other Judge Dee books take place. My error and my apologies.

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 set anywhere but the U.S. and England. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

Oct 092014

When it comes to books by Ellery Queen, there's a lot of disagreement among traditional mystery readers about which of those books are their own personal favorites.  

Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee, the two cousins who wrote as "Ellery Queen" went through at least three more-or-less distinct periods in their writing. Personally, I prefer their early novels, the first nine books about Ellery Queen - for newcomers to EQ, the detective character has the same name as the pseudonym used by the authors. Those early books all have titles that include a nationality, a noun and the word "mystery." The Egyptian Cross Mystery, the book we are discussing here this week, is one of those books. My own favorites among them would be The Siamese Twin Mystery and The Greek Coffin Mystery, but they're all pretty good. 

Some readers prefer books from Queen's later periods, especially those set in and around the fictional town of Wrightsville - books, they argue, that are more mature than earlier Queen novels and have less of the puzzle element, while the books' characters are better developed and the overall tone is darker. Personally, I prefer the earlier ones, where there's more of a direct challenge to the reader to uncover the clues and solve the mystery before everything is revealed at the end of the book. But it's purely a personal choice. Among the later books, I'm very fond of Cat of Many Tails, their venture into the world of a serial killer.

If you enjoy the Ellery Queen books, I think you might enjoy two non-fiction books in particular that will give you more insight into Dannay and Lee and ow they worked and wrote. They divided the labor very strictly: Dannay came up with the plots and provided detailed outlines; Lee took the outlines and turned them into finished novels. They fought often, and bitterly, over their work - but they wound up writing some incredible books, and their influence on the American traditional detective story cannot be overstated. Francis M. Nevins' Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection is a first-rate critical biography by someone who knew the cousins very well. And Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950, edited by Joseph Goodrich, is a fascinating book of letters exchanged between Dannay and Lee when they were working on three books between 1947 and 1950 - not the "nations" books, but among their best.

Oct 052014

When we talk about America's contributions to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, those years between the two world wars, I know too many readers who begin to stifle yawns. Traditional, puzzle-oriented American mysteries, they say, were so dull, so cerebral, and so on and so forth. No blood. No guts. Ho hum.

Have I got a book for you.

Beheadings. Crucifixions. Cults. Nudists. An apparent multiple murderer. No apparent rhyme or reason - or so you are led to believe. 

And a detective who, in order to figure out whodunit, must first figure out why...

Welcome to The Egyptian Cross Mystery, by Ellery Queen, the pen name used by Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee for their books about a detective who is also named Ellery Queen - two authors who really helped define the traditional American detective story and whose puzzles even today (especially the ones in their earliest mysteries) continue to amuse and delight readers who enjoy a challenge. It was the fifth Ellery Queen novel, originally published in 1932, and it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the full review by clicking here.

In The Egyptian Cross Mystery, Ellery Queen is intrigued when he hears about the gruesome murder in West Virginia of a local schoolmaster, whose body is found hanging from a T-shaped signpost, his head missing. Ellery thinks that there might be a connection to Egyptian mythology and religion – a belief nurtured by the presence near the murder scene of a sun-worshipping cult. 

Months later, there is a similar murder, this time at an estate on New York’s Long Island. The victim has been murdered in the same horrifying manner as the man in West Virginia. Ellery Queen gets involved in the investigation, and the case quickly becomes even more complex and bizarre – and, once again, that cult of sun-worshippers is on hand. There are plenty of red herrings, and more murders – and plenty of clues for the reader to follow. And, of course, it all ends with a challenge to the reader: the authors tell us that we have all the clues Ellery Queen needed to solve the case - can the reader do it first?

I couldn't. Could you?

The Egyptian Cross Mystery is one of several Ellery Queen mysteries recently re-published as e-books by The Mysterious Press and Open Road Media. It's a terrific - if gory - read. For another spoiler-free take (and a very good analysis of the book), check out this review by author Tony Hays, written for The Rap Sheet blog a few years ago.

The Challenges

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 set in the U.S. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

Also this week, Rich Westwood, who blogs about crime fiction at Past Offenses, has challenged other book bloggers, myself included, to review a book during the month of October that first appeared in 1932 - which just happens to be the year when The Egyptian Cross Mystery was published. He even let me help pick the year. So...challenge accepted and completed...


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 so...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 you have to borrow (you do not own)." For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.