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.

Feb 052015

As the Classic Mysteries podcast is now more than 7 1/2 years old, pre-dating the birth of this blog by nearly a year for that matter, I promised my readers at the beginning of this year to start looking back at some of the mysteries I reviewed in the early days of the podcast. 

I thought that Edmund Crispin's Swan Song would be a good place to start. When people talk about Crispin's mysteries, the first one that usually comes to mind is The Moving Toyshop, but I must admit that Swan Song is my favorite. Here's an edited version of my original review:

Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger is one of the great, high romantic comedies in the operatic repertory. It seems a pity to have a Wagnerian baritone murdered in the preparations for this opera – but that’s what happens in Swan Song.

Edmund Crispin was the pen name of Bruce Montgomery, a prolific composer of movie scores and an accomplished organist and choirmaster, according to Wikipedia. Music plays a significant role in at least a couple of Crispin’s crime novels, and it is central to the plot of Swan Song. A particularly nasty baritone, scheduled to play the leading role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger is found dead, hanging from a rope in his dressing room. Was it suicide? It certainly appears impossible for anyone to have murdered him – yet an autopsy reveals a large quantity of a sleep-inducing drug in the body, and there are signs that the singer’s hands and feet had been tied.

Nobody can be said to be grieving over the singer’s death – in fact, the singer’s brother, when notified, sends a telegram back to the authorities, reading: “Delighted. Hoping for this for months. Suicide eh query. Don’t bother me now.” But the police, quite obviously, cannot simply ignore what has happened.

Assisting with the investigation – at least, he would argue that he was assisting and not hindering it  – is Crispin’s detective character, Gervase Fen, a professor of English literature at Oxford University. Fen is a close friend of the chief constable, and, as such, tends to get involved in such criminal goings-on as may occur. Eventually, there will be a second murder and a reasonable amount of mayhem before the mystery is solved.

To my mind, what makes this story stand out – and, for that matter, makes Crispin’s work stand out overall – is the author’s sense of humor. He has a fine touch for the ridiculous. This is sometimes overdone, and it is often incongruous to laugh through a particularly funny passage only to have it turn into something quite unpleasant and bizarre before the end. But in Swan Song, Crispin strikes a good balance between the humor and the unpleasant events of the book.

Swan Song is extremely fair: the reader is given all the clues – although quite often in ways designed to drag a red herring across the correct path to a solution. What we are presented with is another example of the so-called impossible crime, with a witness situated to swear that nobody could have entered or left the singer’s dressing room between the time the singer was last seen alive and the discovery of his body. And yet we are given the clues needed to determine what really happened – if we can interpret them.

When I wrote my original review, Swan Song was long out of print. That's no longer the case; the Felony & Mayhem Press has reissued most of Crispin's books - including Swan Song. I recommend it very highly indeed.





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!