Dec 222014

An old woman is brutally murdered in her bed. In their wildest imaginings, the families who lived in the five homes on Crescent Place would never have dreamed of such a horror happening in their quiet, secluded neighborhood. And that proves to be only the first of several killings that happen in The Album, a 1933 classic by Mary Roberts Rinehart, surely one of the most popular American mystery authors writing during the first half of the twentieth century. The Album 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 Halls. The Lancasters. The Daltons. The Wellingtons. The Talbots. The families who lived together in their rather remote houses on Crescent Place had succeeded very well in keeping the rest of the world out of their little enclave. Socially, they were relics of an earlier age - particularly the women; in their world, the younger women were expected to remain unmarried and reclusive and dedicate themselves to serving the older family members. It was a society which still clung to existence in the early 1930s in some parts of America - but a society quite clearly about to undergo rather badly needed essential change.

For that social order was challenged when old Mrs. Lancaster was murdered in her bed. And there were more murders to come before the unsettling conclusion to this mystery.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was known as one of the leading proponents of the "Had I But Known" type of mystery, where the reader is always being forewarned that had the narrator only realized [some salient point], then so-and-so might still be alive today, or had she but known the dangers hidden behind that door, she would never have tried to open that door by herself in the middle of the night.

Somehow, in Rinehart's hands, it's never quite as silly as it seems, and she generates a pretty good atmosphere of terror around those events, even with the forecasting of HIBK. There is also a good deal of healthy rebellion against that overbearing social order. It is easy to sympathize with the women – particularly the younger women – of the crescent, who feel they must keep certain secrets, abandon many normal and routine pleasures, and live up to a particular level of expectation which is surprisingly accepting of what we would now consider remarkably eccentric behavior. As Louisa Hall, our narrator, notes rather wistfully: “Out in the world, women were taking their places and living their own lives, but our small rules of living and conduct ignored all that.” And she refers to this way of life as "the slavery of the unimportant."

"The Album" provides a solid mystery, placed against that setting provided by a changing social order. The story is rather long and, occasionally, rather confusing even when the events are eventually unraveled. Overall, however, I think you would enjoy it. It is not in print at the moment, although there seem to be plenty of hard copies available through Amazon's book-dealer associates, and Open Road Media and The Mysterious Press now have released it in e-book format.

Dec 212014

I wouldn't call it gloating, exactly, but I feel a great deal of quiet satisfaction in the news that a Golden Age mystery has become a runaway bestseller, at least in the U. K. The book is J. Jefferson Farjeon's Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story, first published in 1937, which was reviewed on this blog a couple of weeks ago. It was republished recently as part of the first-rate British Library Crime Classics series. An article in today's The Independent newspaper in the U. K. says the big British bookstore chain Waterstones says the book is selling in "astonishing numbers," with some 60,000 copies sold to date. Waterstones says it is outselling popular modern mysteries such as Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch.

Blogger and author Martin Edwards, who wrote the introduction to the new edition of Mystery in White, notes:

"I suppose the success of the British Library Classic Crime books shows that, if one is patient for long enough, the roulette wheel of public taste will move in one's favour. It's a shame that J. J. Farjeon is not around to see how popular his book has become in the 21st century, but it's nevertheless a heart-warming story - a reminder to authors that the books we write may, just possibly, enjoy a good life long after we are gone."

I suspect most readers of this blog would agree - certainly I'm delighted to see the success of these books and to see them reaching a new (and, I hope, younger) audience. Oh, and if you haven't read Mystery in White yet, I strongly urge you to give it a try - especially during Christmas week, when it is most timely.

P. S. - I just checked Amazon - there's been so much demand that the paperback is out of stock, with more expected soon (I see they're talking about February delivery!). So be advised that it's also available as an e-book, with no waiting...

Dec 182014

The end of the year is fast approaching - and so are the deadlines for registering for some of next year's great mystery conferences and saving yourself a bit of money, too.

Let's start with Left Coast Crime, coming up in Portland, OR, March 12-15. Register by December 31 and the price is $175. Dawdle until January 1 and it goes up to $195. Also, early registrants (prior to January 23) will be able to take part in the nominating process for four categories of awards. Click here for their registration page.

Next up is Malice Domestic, that annual celebration of the traditional mystery held each year in Bethesda, MD. In 2015, the conference will be held from May 1 through May 3. Price varies (depending on whether you want to attend the Agatha Awards banquet, which you should), but all prices increase on January 1. Those who register before December 31 get to help select the final nominees for the awards. Click here for registration information.

And in the fall, there is Bouchercon 2015, the oldest and largest of the conferences, coming up in Raleigh, NC, from October 8 through October 11. The price for this one is $175 until January 1, after which it goes up to $195. Their registration page is here.

Never been to a mystery conference? Maybe this is the year for you to try one. Each of these conferences attracts hundreds of mystery authors and more hundreds of readers who want a chance to meet and mingle with their favorite authors - and to learn about new authors and books they might enjoy. There are entertaining and informative panel discussions, rooms full of book dealers, prestigious awards, well-known guests of honor, autograph sessions, welcoming bags filled with books to take home, and the opportunity to make a great many new friends. I attended all three this past year; in 2015, I'll be missing Malice (much to my regret), but looking forward to attending all of them again in 2016. Try one. You'll enjoy it.

Dec 152014

Love her or hate her, British crime fiction author (and critic) P. D. James, who passed away last month, was one of the strongest defenders of the modern British crime novel. Over the course of a writing career that spanned 50 years, she wrote only about 20 novels, eleven of them featuring police detective Adam Dalgliesh. While she certainly had ties to the traditional mystery, she was more interested in creating realistic characters involved in crimes which generally grew out of their personalities rather than being imposed as puzzles.

Perhaps her closest approach to the traditional mystery may be found in her first Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face, originally published in 1962. It's the story of the murder of a young woman, a maid in one of those traditional English country houses. Cover Her Face is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.

Sally Jupp loved to keep secrets - making it very clear to everyone, however, that she was in possession of those secrets. She had an illegitimate child, for example, but wouldn't identify the father. She irritated almost every member of the household where she worked, and she even announced that the family's son had proposed to her.

Well, as one of the characters says, “She liked amusing herself with people…They can be dangerous playthings.” Apparently someone, pushed beyond endurance, kills Sally - in a locked room, no less. And so Adam Dalgliesh - a mere Detective Chief Inspector in this book, he would later be promoted to a Commander of the Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard - arrives at the estate to investigate the murder.

While James plays with the traditional English mystery ingredients - the country house setting, the locked room, the "upstairs downstairs" relationships between the family suspects and the servants - she is quite clearly more interested in giving us the memorable characters who populate this book. Although there are plenty of traditional clues to the identity of the killer, the solution to the mystery really comes from the interplay among the characters and the uncovering of their petty (and not so petty) secrets, often under the guidance of Dalgliesh. It was a pretty impressive debut performance for James. Over the years, her stories became longer and more complex - and, to me, less enjoyable, but I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Cover Her Face.


Dec 122014

The calendar says it is still 2014, but the Mystery Writers of America have named the recipients of some very special 2015 awards, which will be presented at the annual Edgar Awards banquet next April.

The 2015 Grand Masters Awards, which are really life/career achievement awards, go to two fine, long-standing authors, Lois Duncan and James Ellroy.

The group is also awarding two Raven Awards, which are presented for outstanding achievement outside the field of creative writing. The awards will go to Jon and Ruth Jordan of Crimespree Magazine and to Kathryn Kennison, the founder of the Midwestern mystery conference Magna Cum Murder - a conference I haven't yet attended, meaning I ought to get up and go. 

The MWA is presenting its 2015 Ellery Queen Award to Charles Ardai, the editor of the publishing (and republishing) house, Hard Case Crime. The award is designed to honor writing teams (such as the team that was Ellery Queen) and/or leaders in the mystery publishing industry.

You can find full details about the awards and the winners here. They will all receive their awards at the Edgar banquet in New York on April 29, 2015. Congratulations to the honorees!

Hat tip to Xavier Lechard, of the At the Villa Rose blog (via Facebook).

Dec 082014

Christmas is approaching rapidly, as we are reminded repeatedly by the constantly-repeated secular "holiday" music playing everywhere. Do we dream of a "White Christmas," think of the romantic images of "Let It Snow," long to be out building snowmen and listening for sleigh bells? Well, be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. Holiday snowfalls can be beautiful, to be sure, but it is not exactly beautiful to find yourself stuck in a third-class carriage on an English train (circa 1937) in the midst of a blinding snowstorm on the day before Christmas, with the train stuck along a desolate stretch of track, blocked from going either forward or back by the buildup of snow. Five passengers decide to leave the train and set out on foot for a station just a few miles down the track. What happens to them next may be found in J. Jefferson Farjeon's 1937 book, Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story. It is something a great deal less than that ideal romantic image. Mystery in White is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and I invite you to listen to the entire review by clicking here.

A group of five travelers, desperate to get off their immobile train and reach their destinations, walk off the train together. The refugees from the train include a brother and sister, another young man who is a clerk, a third man described repeatedly as a bore, a showgirl, and an elderly psychical researcher who will, eventually, be our detective. Shortly after they leave the train together, the storm intensifies, becoming a raging blizzard, with whiteout conditions - they can barely see each other though they walk together. So it is more or less a miracle when, stumbling through heavy, drifting snow, they come upon a house. Nobody answers their knock, but, when they try the door, it proves to be unlocked and swings open. Desperate for shelter, they enter - and find fires blazing in the fireplace, water ready for boiling, tea essentials on hand. What they do not find is any sign of anyone in the house - it is empty, except for them.

And, slowly, as they settle in, waiting for the owner to return, things gradually get worse and worse - not only the blizzard, but the entire setup - there is clearly something wrong with the place, and where is its owner? Things are not helped by the arrival, out of the snow, of another singularly unpleasant man who has also left their train...bringing reports of a murder. And that will prove to be only the first of several deaths. 

While it is a classic Golden Age story, Mystery in White really isn’t much of a "fair-play" puzzle – it’s really more of a light thriller. Gradually, the reader learns the secret of the house and of the people who live there, but it’s not revealed through hidden clues. Most of the secret is revealed through papers found in the house. But through it all, the blizzard hides some pretty dark secrets. The writing is kept light, and the humor helps to keep the reader both entertained and informed. There’s a touch of romance as well, and the plot flirts with the supernatural without letting it overpower the book. Mystery writer Martin Edwards has contributed a fine introduction to this new edition from British Library Crime Classics providing more insight into the author, J. Jefferson Farjeon - a name virtually unknown today, despite having written more than 80 novels between 1924 and 1955, some of them quite popular in their day. At this time of year, it would make an ideal stocking stuffer for the mystery lover, the incurable holiday romantic, or - ideally - both.

Dec 062014

Another new month (well, a few days old, anyway), another new "Getting Away with Murder" column from Mike Ripley in the Shots Crime & Thriller eZine. 

Among the many items on the agenda this month:

  • Interesting notes from the Autumn Lunch of the Margery Allingham Society;
  • From that lunch, a review of an interesting-sounding mystery by Jane Stevenson;
  • A new Sherlock Holmes exhibition in London;
  • A list of Ripley's favorite mysteries of 2014;
  • A couple of newly-reissued Golden Age classics which I must check out quickly;
  • Lots of reviews of new books published, or about to be published, in the UK;
  • And concluding with a hearty "Merry Crimbles to One and All" from The Ripster.

It's a great way to keep up with what our friends across the pond are doing to keep crime fiction alive and well. Enjoy your reading!

Dec 042014

As any reader of this blog is aware, I have been taking part in the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge at Bev's terrific My Reader's Block blog. The idea was to read books that would - in Bingo fashion - make up horizontal or vertical lines on the challenge image - this one:

Vintage Golden Card 001

This Golden card was to be filled with mysteries published before 1960. There was also a Silver card for mysteries published between 1960 and 1980. I chose to concentrate on the Golden card.

Of course, we were also challenged to try filling in the ENTIRE card. And I'm pleased to say that this is exactly what I have done. For those who either want to check my honesty or - perhaps on a brighter note - read my reviews, here are links to all of them. I am listing them by row from top to bottom, in order going across left and right.

Row 1:

Row 2:

Row 3:

Row 4:

Row 5:

Row 6:

That's 36 books, 36 reviews, 36 squares covered. Whew. And now, time to get ready for Bev's 2015 challenge - same idea, different categories. Where to start, where to start...

Dec 012014

Talk about Cyber Monday book sales - our friends at Open Road Integrated Media (who publish the Mysterious Press line of e-book mysteries) are having a huge sale TODAY (MONDAY) ONLY- with prices up to 80% lower than normal. Most books are $1.99. Full list of Kindle versions and more info at this link. For other formats, please visit here for Nook titles and here for Kobo titles. You can also try Apple's iTunes store, but I can't seem to get the proper link for that one. Again, the prices are only for today. There's a lot of great mystery titles - and a lot of other books available as well. As we say, check 'em out.

Dec 012014

A mystery writer gets involved in a conversation with a Turkish official about crime fiction and crime fact. The writer gets himself taken to the local morgue to view the body of a man described as a petty criminal, one Dimitrios Makropoulos. The Turkish official calls Dimitrios "a dirty type, common, cowardly, scum. Murder, espionage, drugs – that is the history. There were also two affairs of assassination."

But the writer becomes obsessed with learning more about Dimitrios - and winds up finding himself in the middle of a large and dangerous conspiracy.

If it sounds like a classic plot for a thriller, that's exactly what it is. The book, now 75 years old, is A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler, and it is considered one of the foundation stones upon which many of today's thrillers are built. A Coffin for Dimitrios 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 deeper he gets into his search for facts about Dimitrios, Charles Latimer learns more and more disturbing things about him. Latimer is no professional spy or secret police agent - he is very much an ordinary man, swept up in a world of intrigue. Latimer suddenly finds himself in the midst of a very dangerous game involving political assassinations, illicit drugs, the sex trade, spies, blackmail, murder and – everywhere -treachery. It is a world totally unfamiliar to Latimer, a world in which the easiest way to tell if someone is lying to you is by watching to see if their lips move.

The book was turned into a classic movie in 1944, under the original British title, The Mask of Dimitrios. Readers of this blog know that I don't do very much with modern "noir" thrillers - they simply aren't the kind of mysteries I usually prefer. But A Coffin For Dimitrios proves to be an exciting read, even now, 75 years after its first publication in 1939. I highly recommend it.

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 outside my comfort zone. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.