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 222015

It was only because of a trick that Nero Wolfe was persuaded to get involved in the case of Molly Lauck. That unfortunate young woman, a fashion model, had made the mistake of opening a brown box of candy and taking a piece - a piece which turned out to have been laced with cyanide. The police really had nothing to go on. But a young man named Llewellyn Frost managed to get a number of prominent orchid growers to sign a letter begging Nero Wolfe to get involved in the case. And so he did. And he discovered that in addition to that brown box of deadly chocolate, the case would hinge on another box - a mysterious - and missing - red box, whose contents, although still unknown, could move someone to murder. It happens in The Red Box, by Rex Stout, originally published in 1937 and only the fourth recorded case for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The Red Box is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.

It doesn't take Wolfe long to begin to suspect that the wrong victim may have died by eating that poisoned candy. For that matter, it really doesn't take him long to determine the probable culprit - but there is, as he says repeatedly, no proof. There will be more deaths before Wolfe (with the active help, for once, of Inspector Cramer of Homicide) stages one of his most daring office confrontation scenes in order to solve the mystery of the red box and its contents.

As always, the story is narrated by the irrepressible Archie Goodwin, which guarantees a fast, funny delivery, full of wisecracks, with plenty of first rate quotes from Nero Wolfe as well, who is, as always, irascible and sharp. At one point, for example, while talking to a wealthy client, he observes, “Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth.” Stout really was a marvelous writer; I don't think most readers would put up with Wolfe's mammoth ego for very long if it weren't for Archie's narration.

At the moment, The Red Box appears to be in print as part of a paperback collection which also contains Stout's The Rubber Band. It's also available in e-book format. It is very much worth your reading time.

The 2015 Bingo Challenge

This week, we're back to another entry in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge being presented by Bev Hankins at her marvelous "My Reader's Block" blog. The Bingo card has 36 squares to be filled by reading a book appropriate to each square's instructions. The Red Box is my entry for the first square - top row, left-hand column ' calling for a color in the title or cover color.

Vintage Golden Card 2015

Feb 202015

"Eve is like a kid with an ant's nest - one of those glass-sided jobs. She knows that if she goes poking round, ordering 'em about, she won't learn much, so she just sits and watches. It's her toy, and she won't let any of the other kids touch it."

As the book featured on this week's podcast, Lament for a Lady Laird, stars an anthropologist by profession, I thought this might be a good time to mention another classic where anthropology and an anthropologist play a central role. The book, The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest, by much-honored British author Peter Dickinson, is being re-released next week in e-book formats from Open Road Media (which provided me with a copy for this review).

The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest, first published in 1968 in the U.K. with the title Skin Deep, was the first of Dickinson's mysteries featuring Superintendent James Pibble. Jimmy Pibble seems to have a talent for solving quirky, unusual cases, and he certainly finds one here. We are presented with the surviving members of a primitive New Guinea tribe, transported to London after most of the tribe was wiped out by a Japanese massacre during World War II. The survivors are living in a home owned by an anthropologist, who studies and records their behavior. When the leader of the tribe, Aaron Ku (the tribe is known as the Kus, and all the members have the surname "Ku") is murdered, Scotland Yard moves in quickly and sends Jimmy Pibble, because of the unusual nature of the case and, frankly, because it doesn't seem important enough to warrant sending anyone else.

What we have in The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest is a novel that was somewhat ahead of its time, dealing as it does with unusual and primitive rituals, black-and-white relations and even gender role reversals. The anthropologist, Eve, holds some of the keys to the mystery, and serves as Pibble's guide (and ours) to understanding the behavior of the Kus. The book was awarded the Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers' Association as the best book of the year when it was published. There are elements of both police procedural and traditional mystery here, plus more than a hint of modern noir, along with memorable and very unusual characters including the rather unheroic Jimmy Pibble. It's quite a book.


UPDATED to add the words "is murdered" after the parentheses in the first paragraph, inadvertently omitted in the original post.


Feb 162015

We're going to take a short break from the Golden Age this week to tell you about a more recent book that remains true to the traditional puzzle mystery. Between 1979 and 1995, Margot Arnold wrote a series of 12 fine mystery novels featuring the combined detective work of anthropologist Penny Spring and archeologist Sir Toby Glendower. "Margot Arnold" was, in fact, the pen name of an author named Petronelle Cook, who, according to her entry in Wikipedia, has solid credentials in both anthropology and archeology.

The sixth book in the series, published in 1982, is Lament for a Lady Laird, and it is typical of this intelligent, often funny and quite suspenseful series. 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.

Set in the rugged and remote Scottish highlands, Lament for a Lady Laird is really a mix of a classic puzzle with a relatively mild (by today's standards, anyway) thriller. It begins with an invitation to Penny Spring from an old school friend, Heather Macdonell to come and visit her - she has inherited, and is now living in, a castle in the highlands. When Penny gets to the castle, she finds Heather has been frightened half out of her mind by a series of odd and terrifying events: someone apparently is stalking through the castle at night; a bagpipe is heard somewhere in the grounds piping an ancient lament; a mysterious and possibly ghostly figure appears (and disappears) nearby wearing the full dress tartan of the Macdonells. There is even talk of an old curse on the Macdonell clan.

There’s plenty of evidence that it could be part of a campaign to terrorize Heather, and it doesn’t take long for things to spiral out of control. When one of Heather's neighbors is murdered, Penny calls for help to her old friend, Sir Toby – and they both will find their hands full as they uncover a very dangerous secret. And the giant whirlpool just off the coast, the Corryvreckan, will prove to be a significant danger. Margot Arnold keeps the events rolling at a pretty good pace, and the result is a pleasant mix of classic puzzle and thriller. It's a very enjoyable combination.


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.