Jul 202014

The beliefs in Spiritualism and the occult attracted the attention of a great many people in Victorian England. For some, it was a system of religious beliefs mixed with scientific fervor, a system that might offer the possibility of finding some real basis for the manifestations of ghostly spirits allegedly taking place during seances. For others it was a convenient mask to hide all sorts of criminal activity. That is how Sergeant Cribb first became involved in A Case of Spirits: A Sergeant Cribb Investigation, which is the title of Peter Lovesey's book being reviewed today on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.

Peter Lovesey is a marvelous British author who continues to turn out first rate mysteries. He began his mystery-writing career with a series of books set in the Victorian England of the 1880s. They featured Sergeant Cribb, a tough but fair and intelligent detective from Scotland Yard. The books give readers a good feel for what late-nineteenth century London must have been like, the same sense of atmosphere that we can enjoy in a Sherlock Holmes story.

And then there was Spiritualism, a belief (or at least, for some, the hope) that the spirits of the dead could communicate with the living, usually through a person acting as a medium. As we see in A Case of Spirits, Sgt. Cribb had little patience for Spiritualism - like the great magician Harry Houdini, Cribb had seen far too many frauds and charlatans to believe very much of what he observed at seances. He is sent by his superiors to investigate some peculiar burglaries and thefts at the homes of some influential people involved in psychic research. The victims whose homes were robbed were all upper-middle-class people who had been dabbling in séances and Spiritualism – and, in fact, the robberies appeared to have been timed to occur when the homeowners would be safely out of the house, attending another séance. Cribb has a pretty good idea about what has been going on - but he is confronted suddenly by a seance that ends in murder. 

Lovesey writes with humor and wit, and Sergeant Cribb is a remarkably likeable investigator. The reader will also learn a good deal about some of the tricks used by less-than-scrupulous mediums to produce the effects of "spirits" at their seances. There will be some interesting and enjoyable run-ins with some of these characters before Cribb pursues his clues leading to a surprising conclusion. A Case of Spirits is available both in paper and as an e-book, and it is very much worth your time.

First published in 1975, A Case of Spirits will be my entry into the so-called "Silver" Bingo scorecard at the My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge, filling the square for "One book with a professional detective." (The Silver card covers mysteries first published between 1960 and 1980.) Once again, I urge you to visit that blog to see the many different books being submitted there.



Jul 132014

I make no secret of the fact that my favorite kind of mystery story is the locked room/impossible crime puzzle. I enjoy authors who can lay out a story so that it appears that the crime (or other event) could not possibly have happened, but did. The locked and sealed room, the murder scene surrounded by unbroken fields of snow, the mysterious disappearances, they are all part of the genre. Of course, it requires an exceptional writer to give us such a puzzle and then to explain how the trick was done - and provide the reader with well-hidden clues to the true nature of the problem and its solution.

The late Edward D. Hoch was just such an exceptional writer, a prolific author of short stories who saw one of his tales published in every monthly issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine from 1973 until his death in 2008. You do the math. Hoch created many series characters. One of the most popular was country doctor Sam Hawthorne who invariably was called upon to tackle seemingly impossible crimes - and who, invariably, came up with a rational solution to the mystery.

Crippen and Landru Publishers have been republishing Hoch's Dr. Sam stories in a series of anthologies. The latest, released this Spring, is Nothing Is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, and it is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, which you can hear by clicking here. Nothing Is Impossible contains fifteen short stories with impossibly marvelous puzzles for Dr. Sam and the reader to solve. Among the problems:

  • A man's throat is cut with an apparently invisible weapon;
  • A circus trapeze artist disappears from his trapeze in mid-act;
  • A teenaged girl rides her bicycle around a corner - and vanishes;
  • Someone is stabbed to death in a cabin surrounded by unbroken snow.

You get the idea. These are tremendously entertaining. Hoch was proud of his ability to vary these puzzles; I seem to recall reading somewhere that he never repeated the same solution. This is the third anthology of Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories reprinted by Crippen and Landru. There's still material for several more, and I hope that those stories too will be brought back for new readers to enjoy. The editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Janet Hutchings, provides an introduction to this anthology, offering more background about both the author and this marvelous series. I recommend the package very highly indeed.

Jul 062014

It is probably a very good thing for civilization in general that so many murderers make mistakes that expose their schemes. Obviously, this happens all the time in mystery fiction: the best-laid plans of a clever killer are thwarted by some critical bit of evidence. Sometimes, it is a very large and very obvious error on the killer's part. And sometimes it can be as small and as seemingly inconsequential as a single drop of blood. That is what happens in a largely-forgotten mystery from America's Golden Age of Detective Fiction called One Drop of Blood, a 1932 "lost classic" by Anne Austin, now brought back into print by the Resurrected Press. The book is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.

One Drop of Blood begins with the murder of Dr. Carl Koenig, the chief psychiatrist at the Mayfield Sanitarium in the midwestern U. S. city of Hamilton. The weapon used to kill Dr. Koenig is the proverbial "blunt instrument," and the psychiatrist's office has been trashed, presumably by the killer. Is the murderer one of the quite possibly insane patients? Or is it a perfectly sane, if devilish, plot created by someone else - perhaps one of the other staff members at the Sanitarium? The primary detective is James "Bonnie" Dundee, special investigator for the District Attorney's office in Hamilton. It is Dundee who points out the discrepancies in the evidence which make it pretty certain that they are dealing with a sane and cunning killer. And it is also Dundee who will discover what will eventually prove to be the critical piece of evidence: a drop of blood at the murder scene where there really shouldn't have been a drop of blood.

I do have to point out the Dundee is hindered, rather than helped, by the head of the local homicide squad, Captain Strawn, who is certainly one of the dumbest "Watsons" I've ever run across in detective fiction, far outdoing such non-geniuses as Poirot's friend, Captain Hastings. Every time a new clue is discovered, Captain Strawn spends several pages coming up with moronic theories about who the murderer must be. I found the character sufficiently irritating that he slowed down my reading of the book. Fortunately, he largely disappears for the second half, and I must say that, once he's gone and Dundee gets going on those small clues, the book becomes a real page-turner. About two-thirds of the way through the book, in the best traditions of the classic puzzle mystery, Dundee treats the reader to a list of questions to be answered that, he says, should lead to the criminal. Match wits with him, if you like.

This new edition of One Drop of Blood includes a foreword by Greg Fowlkes, the Editor-In-Chief of Resurrected Press. It contains a good deal of background about Anne Austin and some discussion of the state of psychiatric knowledge and treatment at the time the book was written. I do wish the publisher had been more careful about the typos that have crept into the digital version of the book, which are far too frequent.

I discovered One Drop of Blood after seeing a review on John Norris's fine blog at Pretty Sinister Books, and I recommend his review to you as well. I am submitting Anne Austin's One Drop of Blood to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog to cover the entry calling for "one book already read by a fellow challenger," as John read this book and reviewed it back in January.

Jul 022014

Two announcements in the past few days from The Wolfe Pack, that intrepid organization of fans devoted to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, are worth repeating.

First, there are the Nero Award finalists, nominated by the group's judges as the best American mystery of 2013 written in the tradition of the Nero Wolfe books. This year's nominees are:

  • Ask Not, by Max Allan Collins;
  • Three Can Keep a Secret, by Archer Mayor;
  • Murder as a Fine Art, by David Morrell;
  • A Study in Revenge, by Kieran Sheilds;
  • A Question of Honor, by Charles Todd.

The winner will be announced at the Wolfe Pack's annual Black Orchid Banquet, held in New York City on the first Saturday in December.

The Wolfe Pack has also announced that the Ninth Annual Black Orchid Novella Award competition, sponsored jointly by the Wolfe Pack and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, is now accepting submissions for next year's BONA award. Full details about length and requirements may be found here. The winner of the 2015 award will receive a $1000 prize and publication of the novella in a future issue of AHMM

Hat tips are due to Janet Rudolph at Mystery Fanfare and Jeff Pierce at the Rap Sheet blog, both of whom got to this before I did!

Jul 012014

Another month, another update on what's happening in and around and somewhat in the vicinity of crime fiction in the U.K. and the rest of Europe. It's another monthly report from Mike Ripley in the Shots Ezine column "Getting Away with Murder," and - as always - it's worth your reading, if only to see who has been hanging out at the parties Ripley attends. But there's so much more - reviews, comments, even photos. Go enjoy it.

Jun 262014

It has occurred to me more than once that, had I been selling insurance during England's Golden Age of Detective Fiction,  I probably would have been most reluctant to insure the lives of those sometimes-tyrannical and patriarchal gentlemen accustomed to riding over the wishes of the increasingly unhappy relatives and business partners who live at the family's country house. The thought arises from reading another of Georgette Heyer's excellent Golden Age mysteries, They Found Him Dead, first published in 1937. It is the book being reviewed today on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.

They Found Him Dead presents us with just such a family patriarch. Silas Kane is not really hated by his relatives, but he IS standing in the way of a business deal which several family members would like to see made. Kane is surrounded by his relatives as he celebrates his sixtieth birthday. That evening, he goes out for a walk on a path by a cliff - quite a foggy path, really - with entirely predictable results. It certainly seems that Silas Kane must have become confused in the fog, slipped, and fell to his death.

But then another person dies - this time shot to death in the house, almost (but not quite) in front of witnesses. And a third person finds himself the target of increasingly dangerous attacks.

Into this situation, Heyer brings her detectives, Superintendent Hannasyde and his assistant, Sergeant Hemingway. And the more they investigate this case, the more puzzled they become, for the pieces of the case don't really seem to fit together. These two professionals are a refreshing change from the all-too-often encountered and not very bright police officers found in too many mysteries. Hannasyde and Hemingway are pretty clear-headed; what's more they have senses of humor and aren't afraid to use them - or even to press some would-be amateur sleuths into service.

Georgette Heyer, of course, is best known for her Regency romance novels, but she also wrote a dozen entertaining mysteries. I think They Found Him Dead is one of the best.

As Hannasyde and Hemingway are thoroughly professional, I am submitting this as another entry in the My Reader's Block blog Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge, filling the space on my golden bingo card calling for one book with a professional detective.

Jun 252014

The newest edition of the bimonthly I Love a Mystery newsletter has just been posted for your reading pleasure. For 20 years, this newsletter has provided readers with reviews of all kinds of mysteries. Whatever genre or sub-genre you prefer, you'll find something here that will intrigue and entertain you. I review classic books and classic authors for the newsletter, but I assure you that there are a great many other reviewers and a huge selection of other books to tempt you. Give it a try - it's free!

Jun 242014

Some very fine modern mysteries will be up for awards this fall: Janet Rudolph, the editor of Mystery Readers Journal, has announced the nominees for this year's Macavity Awards, which will be presented in November (along with this year's Anthony Awards) at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, California.

The Macavity Awards are presented for Best Mystery Novel, Best First Mystery, Best Mystery Short Story, Best Non-Fiction and the Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award. For a complete list of the nominees, click here. The awards are nominated, and voted upon, by members and friends of Mystery Readers International and subscribers to Mystery Readers Journal

The Macavity Awards are named for Macavity the Mystery Cat, one of the cats celebrated by poet T. S. Eliot in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats:

Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!

Well, at least I learned something as an English major.

Congratulations to all the nominees - it looks like a very rich field!

Jun 232014

Now here's an interesting mystery. It's a Golden Age classic, set in Oxford, England, in the 1930s. It involves the students and staff at a college for women students, part of Oxford University, at a time when the notion of providing an Oxford education to a woman was still a matter of heated debate. It revolves around a member of that staff who seems to draw criticism and controversy to herself. It was published in 1935. It's title is...

Wait a second. You're thinking that I must be talking about Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. 


I am talking about Mavis Doriel Hay's book, Death on the Cherwell.

Mavis who?

Mavis Doriel Hay wrote just three mysteries in the course of her career. They were written at the peak of the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Death on the Cherwell is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.

In Death on the Cherwell, we are introduced to several young women, all undergraduate students at Persephone College for Women within Oxford University. They have gathered at an old boathouse on the Cherwell to form a secret society. Its purpose (for all such organizations must have a purpose): to curse the name of Miss Denning, the college bursar, who has - according to the students - made all their lives miserable.

Their meeting is interrupted rather rudely by the appearance of a canoe - the bursar's canoe, in fact - floating down the river with - I very much regret to say - the bursar's dead body inside. And so begins a lively, quite well written (and well-clued) mystery. The students are concerned that a lot of the evidence, as it turns up, seems to be pointing to one of their fellow students. They don't believe it - or do they? They are determined to find out what really happened. And the police, though they are quite competent and pleasant themselves, are quite willing to let the young women do some of their investigating for them...

This is the second novel by Mavis Doriel Hay that I have read. There is one more still to go, sitting in my To Be Read pile, and I'm inclined to move it up and read it pretty quickly. I like what I've read of Hay's books and I do wish she had written more - she lived on into the 1970s, but abandoned crime novels after those first three. Her books quickly disappeared and remained out of print and virtually impossible to find until British Library reprinted them among their Crime Classics books. This edition contains an informative introduction by Stephen Booth providing more background about Hay and her books.

Death on the Cherwell is another of my entries in the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, and it fills the space on my golden scorecard calling for "One academic mystery." 

Jun 212014

Or follow that Dickson, anyway. I noted in my review of And So to Murder this week that it wasn't really my favorite Sir Henry Merrivale novel written by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson. A quick check online shows me that two of my favorite H.M. novels are still available, both in print and electronic editions.

The Judas Window is nothing short of brilliant - what seems to be a totally impossible crime (with an obvious candidate for the gallows) is de-mystified by H.M. - who keeps reminding readers throughout the book that the crime was simple and relied on a Judas window. And what is a Judas window, you may ask? Read the book...

Also still available is The Plague Court Murders, which was the very first Merrivale novel. The impossible crime is quite good, but it is the eerie atmosphere which really carries the book; it wouldn't have taken much to turn this into a great ghost or horror story along the lines of M.R. James, but it's a mystery instead - and I certainly didn't follow the cleverly hidden clues while I was reading it!

I've written about both before - The Judas Window is here, and The Plague Court Murders is here. Take your pick - you can't go wrong with either choice.