Last Update 3/31/16

Nobody Lives Forever by John Gardner, 1986  

James Bond goes on vacation but the dying head of SPECTRE announces a contest for his head, which results in a dozen or so organizations sending people to try to kill him. Fortunately luck is on his side, or is it more than luck that results in the deaths of several of the competitors. Then a double agent in his own organization arranges for the kidnapping of Moneypenny and Bond – accompanied by two gun toting female adventurers – is off to rescue her and her companion, hopefully without losing his head in the process. A step up from Gardner’s last couple of Bond novels, but still overly dependent upon coincidence and with little holes scattered through the plot that are very annoying. 3/31/16

Of All the Bloody Cheek by Frank McAuliffe, Ballantine, 1965 

Four adventures of Augustus Mandrell, a professional assassin, who uses wit and humor to waylay his targets and earn his pay. In the first, three interlocking commissions enable him to efficiently collect three payoffs in a very short period of time. The second involves the assassination of a reformist leader in Iran in 1942 and it’s almost as clever as the first. The third is more adventurous – Mandrell has to get into an American run prisoner of war camp in France toward the end of the war. Getting out after completing his mission turns out to be much more difficult. The fourth and weakest requires that he arrange the death of a Scotland Yard official while making certain that no one even suspects that he was responsible. A very lively, witty, and often funny book. 3/29/16

Running from the Devil by Jamie Freveletti, Harper, 2009 

A plane is sabotaged and crashes in Venezuela. Emma Caldridge is one of the survivors, and apparently the only one of them not captured by a band of guerillas. She teams up with a government agent whom she nurses back to health and after various adventures discovers that she is the target of a group that believe she possesses the secret to a revolutionary new weapons system. Lots of chases and derring do, competently and entertainingly written. 3/28/16

A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum, 7th Street, 2016, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-128-0

Although this is not a first novel, it was my first introduction to this author. It opens with a cold case. Back during the 1950s, a young woman was thrown into the water in a boating accident and presumed dead, although her body was never recovered. Years later her infant son, now in high school, decides to disobey his father and look into the matter of her disappearance and presumed death. He happens upon a one-time detective who lost his job after some impropriety, and begins to turn up information he never knew before. Predictably they discover that the official version of events is not completely true, and by poking further they risk renewed dangers. I found the prose in this one very readable and in fact what might have been a rather routine story was actually more entertaining than I would otherwise have expected. 3/27/16

Role of Honor by John Gardner, Berkley, 1984

Bond agrees to an elaborate charade in which he is drummed out of the service in order to infiltrate an operation that is creating training software for criminals. He has several low key adventures ingratiating himself with the bad guys – some of which make no sense at all in context – and eventually springs a trap when they launch an operation to neutralize all the nuclear arsenals in the world. The implausibility of the plot beggars description. Gardner’s Bond is pretty much a marginally competent wimp who blunders his way to success, and some of the people he works with are clearly more competent than he is. SPECTRE is not dead after all, but has a new leader who escapes at the end of the novel. Although not as bad as the previous two, it’s still a subpar novel. 3/25/16

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2015, $25, ISBN 978-1-101-87261-1

A very large compendium (over 700 pages) of pastiches by a wide variety of authors. There are also a number of parodies including one of my favorites by Bret Harte. In fact, my major criticism is that there are too many parodies, most of which make the same basic jokes. About half of the authors were people I’d heard of, but the other half were new to me. A couple of them were good enough that I’m looking for their other work.  This is not, however, a book to be read in a short period of time. Most of the stories, even the well written ones, follow pretty much the same pattern and they became monotonous very early on, so much so that I’d been reading two or three a week. Several of them are from other collections which are fairly readily available, but a few are quite rare.  Some of them are quite good – Tanith Lee, Manly Wade Wellman, Peter Tremayne, etc. – but not in big doses. 3/22/16

Icebreaker by John Gardner, Berkley, 1983 

Although this Bond thriller starts off better than the previous one by Gardner, it quickly becomes illogical, self contradictory, and irritating. Bond is something of a wimp – he has to get rescued several times, he doesn’t anticipate any of the villain’s moves, and he stupidly tells the villains what they want to know. The plot involves a fascist group smuggling arms out of Russia through Finland. A joint operation with the KGB and Mossad is sent to find out the details, but it’s actually a trick to capture Bond. The plot has massive, gaping holes that are often there simply so the author can pull a surprise later, even though the surprise reversal then makes what went before meaningless. Most of the pulpish men’s adventure novels I’ve read do a better job plotting than is in evidence here. 3/19/16

For Special Services by John Gardner, Berkley, 1982

Gardner’s second James Bond novel is dreadful. Bond and Felix Leiter’s daughter are sent to infiltrate the ranch empire of a man believed connected to a revived SPECTRE. They encounter thugs along the way, get taken prisoner, survive various tribulations, uncover a plot to seize control of particle beam weapons, save the day, uncover Blofeld’s daughter and kill her, and so on. All of the elements of a Bond novel are here, but they’re all misaligned. Characters act inconsistently with their purposes, and for that matter, why in the world would British intelligence be called, paired with an agent who has no field experience, and sent into a situation in which multiple earlier agents have already died. Gardner apparently has no idea of the size of the US – 4 men search every hotel within a day’s drive of New York City and later a helicopter covers several thousand miles in a couple of hours. And the dialogue is frequently awful. After this I’m surprised the estate didn’t pick another writer. 3/16/16

License Renewed by John Gardner, Berkley, 1981

This was the first of more than a dozen James Bond novels written by Gardner. Bond is sent to find out why a disgraced nuclear physicist is having meetings with a known terrorist. He discovers a plot to seize a half dozen nuclear plants and hold the world to ransom, but he is thwarted when he tries to alert the authorities and is held prisoner. The villain should know better than to spend time explaining everything and then keeping his prisoner alive long enough for him to eventually foil the plan, but he doesn’t. Some minor plot problems but otherwise a pretty good Bond adventure. 3/12/16

Moonraker by Christopher Wood, Warner, 1979 

This was Wood’s second James Bond screenplay and novelization, this one at least bearing some resemblance to the novel of the same name by Ian Fleming.  The action is at a breakneck pace, but plausibility flies out the window. Hugo Drax is a megalomaniacal American who plans to use bacteriological weapons to wipe out everyone on Earth except a select few preserved in a space station, basis for a new race to come. Jaws is back as well. There’s little characterization, bad science, leaps in logic, and none of the little detail work that made Fleming’s novels so memorable. 3/10/16

No One Knows by J.T. Ellison, Gallery, 2016, $26, ISBN 978-1-5011-1847-0  

The protagonist of this psychological thriller is legally a widow, since her husband disappeared five years earlier. She was at the time and perhaps still is the primary suspect in his disappearance, although she is innocent. She has even found a new man in whom she is interested, a man who reminds her of her lost husband. But thriller readers now that when the body hasn’t been found – and sometimes even when it has – the odds are high that the character is not dead after all, and it’s really not much of a spoiler to tell you that he is indeed. He has had plastic surgery and he’s in trouble with some very bad people, and when he gets back, the protagonist has to decide whether or not he too is one of the bad ones. Reasonably suspenseful although the climax is largely telegraphed. 3/9/16

Old House of Fear by Russell Kirk, Avon, 1961 

Although there are hints of legend and the supernatural in this suspense novel, it’s really just a mundane thriller, although a pretty good one. A lawyer travels to a remote Scottish island to attempt a purchase of the property but runs into trouble with a bunch of communist spies and saboteurs who have taken over the island. He and a young woman play an elaborate game to keep the villains guessing, but eventually open battle breaks out for an exciting finish. This reminded me slightly of Hammond Innes. 3/8/16

The Spy Who Loved Me by Christopher Wood, Warner, 1977 

This is the novelization of the screenplay which had nothing to do with the Fleming book of the same name. Bond is pitted against a megalomaniac who has captured two nuclear armed submarines and hopes to cause a nuclear war so that he and his chosen ones can form a new civilization under the ocean. Wood co-wrote the screenplay but he added a lot of material here, including a back story to explain how Jaws came to be in the villain’s employ. It’s not up to Fleming’s standards but it’s not a bad novel. 3/5/18

The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper stories edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Running Press, 2015,  $14.95, ISBN 978-0-7624-5814-1

I regret to say that this collection of Jack the Ripper related short stories is probably the worst original anthology I’ve read in a long time. More than half the stories are so amateurish that it was embarrassing to read them. There are a few good ones by Steve Rasnic Tem, William Meikle, Martin Edwards, and Adrian Cole, but for the most part they are repetitive, awkwardly written, illogical, uninteresting, and sometimes outright irritating in their lack of sophistication. I have read better fiction in fanzines. Even the “good” stories are far below the standards of those authors’ usual quality. This is a really bad book that should never have seen print. 3/4/16

Bullets of Rain by David J. Schow, Dark Alley, 2003

This is more of a suspense novel than a mystery and it’s a great example of the story in which not everything is what it seems to be. A recently widowed architect is hunkered down in his experimental house as a massive hurricane approaches. A short distance away, a group of strangers have assembled for a storm themed house party, but their host is using drugs and other methods to manipulate them in ways that border on science fiction. The architect gets drawn into an increasingly violent and convoluted series of encounters, but there are even more surprises waiting for the reader at the end. Can’t say too much about this without revealing too much, but it’s a fascinating roller coaster ride. 3/2/16

Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty, 7th Street, 2016, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-130-3

Sean Duffy returns to solve another case. The body of a young woman is found on the grounds of a castle in Ireland and preliminary evidence suggests that it was a suicide. But Duffy is suspicious because the victim had recently been investigating rumors of corruption at very high levels within the government and her death is rather convenient for the people whose misdeeds might have been uncovered. He decided to look into matters a bit further, which might well put him between the crosshairs. McKinty quite reliably delivers another tense, intricate, and well plotted thriller mixing police procedural with a touch of action/adventure. 3/1/16

The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2010   

Eleven hundred pages of stories from the famous detective magazine, including the complete original version of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. There are lots of stories here from Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Cornell Woolrich, Brett Halliday, George Harmon Coxe, and many others including mystery stories by SF writers Cyril Kornbluth and Ray Cummings. Most involve private detectives, a couple of them female though that was not a poplar device during the magazine’s time, and for the most part they were quite good, with only a couple I thought were of dubious quality. There are some repetitious themes, but I read this in bed, a little at a time, over most of a month so there was no sense of monotony. I’m not sure it would hold up as well read straight through. Several of the stories by authors whose names were not familiar to me were good enough that I’m looking for more of their work. 2/29/16

Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis, Bantam, 1968   

This was the first James Bond novel not written by Ian Fleming. A Chinese agent has kidnapped M and plans to frame him for an attack on a Soviet sponsored conference in Greece. Bond was also targeted, but escapes and ends up fighting alongside a beautiful communist agent. Amis did a good job of capturing the essence of Fleming’s writing, although his Bond is perhaps a bit softer and more introspective. The book was originally published as by Robert Markham. Amis had earlier written two nonfiction books related to the James Bond series. This would have made the basis for a good movie. 2/26/16

Arsene Lupin vs Holmlock Shears by Maurice LeBlanc, 1909

The Confessions of Arsene Lupin by Maurice LeBlanc, 1912

The Golden Triangle by Maurice LeBlanc, 1917

The Eight Strokes of the Clock by Maurice LeBlanc, 1922

This is an omnibus edition of these four books, one novel, two short story collections, and a related novella and novelette. The first title contains two long adventures in which Arsene Lupin, gentleman crook and occasional detective, matches wits with an obvious Sherlock Holmes figure. The tone is light - sometimes satirical - and Lupin prevails in both encounters. The second is a collection of stories of which "The Wedding Ring" and "The Red Silk Scarf" are the best. They are slightly more serious in tone than the first book. The third is the novel and is the most serious of all, a complex story about stolen gold, international espionage, an old murder and a new abduction, and other adventures. The last is another collection in which Lupin's name is only mentioned once, but it is implied that the protagonist is Lupin lurking under a false identity. This set of stories makes up a set and ends with Lupin finding the love of his life. A bit repetitive at times and prone to coincidence and outrageous jumps of logic, but most of the stories are fun. 2/25/16

Dr. No by Ian Fleming, 1958 

James Bond travels to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of the local intelligence chief. He discovers that troubles at an island bird sanctuary are linked to a mysterious figure, Doctor No, who runs the island with an iron hand. Eventually he sneaks onto the island, gets captured, negotiates a dangerous obstacle course, rescues the girl, and buries the villain in guano. Although the plot in the movie is pretty close, the film version actually avoids some minor problems with the plot and provides a more satisfying ending. 2/24/16

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming, 1959  

Bond thwarts a plot to steal all the gold in Fort Knox, although the high point of the novel is the tense golf match with Goldfinger, and to a lesser extent the card cheating episode that opens the story. Although the elements of the movie are here – Oddjob, Pussy Galore, etc. – but events are shuffled around, people die at different times, and the senseless sequence with the gangsters is absent. Some elements are more plausible in the movie – in the book Goldfinger plans to put a drug in the water rather than spray it from the air, which would not have worked since the first few people collapsing would have alerted the rest. Still a good read, but not one of the top novels. 2/24/16

For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming, 1961

This is a collection of five stories including “Quantum of Solace,” “From a View to a Kill,” and the title story, but none of these have much to do with the movie that used their titles. “Quantum” isn’t even a spy story. It’s a tale about a doomed love affair related to Bond at a party. “From a View to a Kill” is a good story about spies intercepting messengers, whose plans Bond manages to disrupt. Fleming was generally better at novel length but these aren’t bad. 2/24/16

Thunderball by Ian Fleming, 1961

The first appearance of Spectre has the international crime syndicate stealing two nuclear weapons with which to extort world governments. Bond travels to Bermuda to follow up on a hunch by M and crosses paths with Emilio Largo, whose activities are sufficiently suspicious to make Bond follow through. The story, based on a screen treatment, varies only in some details from the film version of the same name, which was later remade as Never Say Never Again. This one was better than I remembered. It also introduces Blofeld and has Felix Leiter back in the CIA despite his disabilities. 2/24/16

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming, 1962 

I have long suspected that this was a trunk novel onto which Fleming grafted the James Bond character, who only appears in the last fifty pages. An unhappy woman takes a job closing up a resort hotel in order to get away from it all, but she is soon menaced by two obvious thugs who claim to be working for her boss. Bond shows up in time to rescue her from the bad guys. Even without the clumsy Bond injection, this is badly written, uninteresting, and poorly conceived. The weakest by an order of magnitude of all Fleming’s books. 2/24/16

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming, 1964 

Although the movie version of this was pretty dreadful, the book is considerably better. Bond impersonates an expert on heraldry in order to penetrate Blofeld’s retreat on the top of a mountain in Switzerland. There he uncovers a plot to poison the crops and livestock all through the British Isles, and, naturally thwarts it. He also meets the love of his life, daughter of a crimelord, and marries her, but she dies on the last page of the book, assassinated on Blofeld’s orders.  2/24/16

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming, 1965 

This is a pretty boring James Bond novel. More than two thirds of it consist of his conversations with Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service, about Japanese culture, or Bond’s mild love affair with a female diver on an island off the coast. His mission is to gain access to Japan’s intelligence network and to do so he agrees to assassinate a mysterious philanthropist who seems to be encouraging suicides. The philanthropist turns out to be Blofeld, who killed Bond’s wife, so it becomes personal. The story ends with Bond suffering amnesia and wandering off, convinced he is Japanese.  2/24/16

The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming, 1966 

Fleming only lived long enough to do the first draft of this, his final novel, and it shows. The dialogue is stilted, there is no detail or texture to the story, and the plot is shaky. Bond is sent to eliminate a professional killer named Scaramanga. He poses as another assassin and is hired by Scaramanga, eventually eliminating his organization and killing his quarry. Oh, and the novel opens with a really bad sequence in which a brainwashed Bond tries to kill M in his office. The brainwashing is magically reversed before the main action starts. 2/24/16

Octopussy by Ian Fleming, 1967 

Three short stories about James Bond, although the title story is actually about a soldier who steals Nazi gold and confesses the details to Bond after his crime is discovered. It has nothing to do with the movie and the title refers to an actual octopus. “The Property of a Lady” is also supposed to be inspiration for Octopussy but other than the presence of a Faberge egg, it is similarly dissimilar. “The Living Daylight” (aka “Berlin Escape”) bears some remote resemblance to the movie. Bond is sent to kill a sniper who is supposed to kill an escaping agent, but she’s beautiful so he just wounds her. This was Fleming’s second and final posthumous book. 2/24/16

From Russia, With Love by Ian Fleming, 1957 

My favorite James Bond novel was also my favorite Bond movie, and in large part because it was quite loyally transferred to the screen, other than having Spectre rather than SMERSH in charge. A clever plot is concocted to kill and disgrace James Bond, but the Soviet agent chosen to carry it out falls in love with him and the professional killer who is supposed to kill him succumbs to temptation and is defeated. Very well constructed, full of adventure, fast paced, and well written, this was Fleming at the top of his form. 2/14/16

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming, 1956 

James Bond takes on the American mob in this somewhat below average Bond adventure. He’s on the trail of people smuggling diamonds out of British possessions in America, and his rather wandering path leads him to Las Vegas, a Texas ghost town, and a pair of ruthless hired killers. He is rescued by the ice maiden who falls for him in true movie fashion, though it’s not very convincing in print. A few good scenes but this is well below his average quality. 2/13/16

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles, Pocket, 1947  (originally published in 1931) 

The author was better known as Anthony Berkeley, and I believe only three novels appeared under this byline. This particular novel is sometimes referred to as one of the first modern crime novels in that it has no detective and not much mystery. The protagonist is a doctor who has a terrible wife and eventually kills her, while conducting a couple of extramarital affairs. He is eventually arrested and tried for the crime, but there is not enough evidence to convict him. Ironically he is then convicted and executed for a murder he did not commit. This is a very nicely done story with a lot of repulsive characters but I thought the first half should have been streamlined a bit because it seems to take forever for the plot to start moving. 2/10/16

Crime Tears On by Carolyn Wells, 1939 

A wealthy man rewrites his will, substantially reducing the amount to be received by his two nephews and his sister. He has also quarreled with the board of managers with whom he is attempting to build a new town. They will acquire control of most of his fortune if he dies, so that makes him the obvious candidate for murder. And why has a successful actress accepted an invitation to stay at the house, with people she has never met before?  Our prospective victim and one of his nephews both profess to have fallen in love with the actress, further complicating motives. He is found dead in his bed one morning, stabbed in the brain, but the room was locked.  Although the solution is only fair, this was one of the author’s better Fleming Stone mysteries, coming late in her career. 2/10/16

Moonraker by Ian Fleming, 1955  

This was one of Fleming’s best James Bond novels, although it little resembles the film version. Hugo Drax is an industrialist who is building a rocket which purportedly will make England invulnerable to enemy attack, but he’s actually a disgruntled Nazi who plans to use it to deliver an atomic bomb to London. There’s actually a big flaw in the plot; if they already have the weapon in England, why not just drive it to London and set it off remotely? Quibble aside, it’s a pretty exciting story and the card game with Bond vs Drax is better than the one in Casino Royale. 2/8/16

Protocol Zero by Franklin Abel, Berkley, 2015, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-425-27634-1 

I thought this might be science fiction but I was wrong. This is a Joe Rush adventure story but it’s also a murder mystery. Joe is called to Alaska when a family he knows makes a frantic call about a mysterious disease from their remote outpost. He leads a rescue team which finds them all shot to death. Even worse, there is reason to believe that a biological weapon is loose. But there’s also a ringer among the military people and problems with the quarantine and Joe smells a rat. It all gets sorted out in the end after gunfights and mysteries solved. The story isn’t bad but it didn’t have much texture. There is too little physical description and the succession of very short paragraphs gives the text a flimsy feel. 2/7/16

And Dangerous to Know by Elizabeth Daly, 1949 

A woman who was disappointed to discover that her aunt had not left her a fortune disappears mysteriously one day. Henry Gamadge investigates and discovers that she had been secretly meeting an unknown man. He sees an unusual pattern in the garden and alerts the police, who find the missing woman’s body. Although a bit slow in the second half, there is a nice twist in that the dead woman had actually been intent upon murder herself, but the tables were turned. There are a couple of rather obvious red herrings. About average. 2/5/16

Death and Letters by Elizabeth Daly, 1950

A young widow is held prisoner by her husband’s family until she manages to get a message to Henry Gamadge, who promptly rescues her. She believes that her husband was poisoned but has no idea why. Gamadge figures out that there were some scandalous but valuable letters in the attic, that one member of the family secretly sold them, and that her husband had discovered the truth. This may have been Daly’s best novel. 2/5/16

The Book of the Crime by Elizabeth Daly, 1951

A woman escapes from her husband and his family after he makes a sudden threatening move against her. She seeks help from Henry Gamadge, whose investigations eventually reveal that her husband is an imposter, that he and the family are defrauding a trust fund, and that his reaction was to the perception that she had seen through the conspiracy. This is a pretty good mystery in which the one murder is almost an afterthought and is only necessary to ensure that all of the guilty parties are sufficiently punished. 2/5/16

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming, 1954 

The second James Bond novel pits him against Mr. Big, who uses voodoo to control a vast criminal empire. Mr. Big has found an enormous pirate treasure and is smuggling gold into the US to finance communist operations – he is another agent of SMERSH – as well as to line his own pockets. Bond escapes from his minions in New York and Florida, then travels to Jamaica to infiltrate a privately owned island guarded by sharks and barracuda. The last section of the novel is quite good but there are lengthy slow sections in the build up usually characterized by a tedious attention to insignificant detail. 2/4/16

Night Walk by Elizabeth Daly, 1947 

This Henry Gamadge mystery starts with a prowler making several stops before killing an elderly man in his bed. The suggestion that this is random is reinforced when the town librarian is similarly murdered a few nights later. Gamadge is suspicious, however, and determines that the dead man was on the verge of proposing to his ward, and that this precipitated the murder. Evidence of that motive was inadvertently included in a book donated to the library, which explains the second death.  I had a problem believing the motives in this one, but otherwise it’s well done. 2/2/16

The Book of the Lion by Elizabeth Daly, 1948 

A somewhat disappointing Henry Gamadge thriller that is never really a mystery since we pretty much know who the villains are. Two of them are blackmailing the wife of a murdered writer, and they kill again to protect their investment. The story they try to use to distract Gamadge involves a lost Chaucer manuscript, hence the title, but it’s not a particularly important element in the story. They’re not very smart and Gamadge doesn’t have to work up a sweat to expose them, at which point they turn on one another. 2/2/16

The Inugami Clan by Seishi Yokomizo, Muse, 2003 

Yokomizo is probably the most popular mystery writer in Japan, pioneer of the development of the detective story there. This 1976 novel features his recurring detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, an unprepossessing type who nevertheless is able to untangle complex murder cases. The story involves the will of a very rich man whose estate is left to the daughter of an old friend, on the condition that she marry one of his three grandsons within three months of the reading of the will. If she dies beforehand, other clauses come into play and someone has already made at least three attempts on her life, each arranged to look like an accident. There’s a missing potential heir, a returned veteran whose face is unrecognizable due to his wounds, a spate of murders, a mysterious visitor to a nearby hotel, and other plot complications. I figured out about half the solution. This was a very good mystery and I am rather disappointed that so few of his other novels have been translated into English. 1/31/16

The Wrong Way Down by Elizabeth Daly, 1946 

One of Daly’s better mysteries, this one involves the death of an elderly woman who was cleaning out an old house for its owner. She suspects that something was stolen and when Henry Gamadge starts to investigate, he narrowly misses being shot to death. It appears like a conspiracy of six people are involved, but appearances can be very deceiving. There are some nice twists in this one, which breaks out of the author’s usual plot pattern and presents an interesting puzzle. 1/30/16

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, 1953 

The very first James Bond novel includes most of the familiar characters and tidbits, M, Q, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter, his fussiness about what he drinks, and the Bentley he drives – which disappeared in the movies. His job is to out-gamble Le Chiffre, a Soviet agent who has unwisely lost a bunch of money entrusted to him and who hopes to recoup his losses by making a killing – no pun intended – at the title establishment. Bond eventually succeeds but is taken captive and tortured, before a Soviet agent inadvertently comes to his rescue. His romantic interest turns out to be a spy who commits suicide. The 2006 film version is actually quite loyal to the original material. Fleming would be imitated and pastiched many times but rarely equalled. 1/29/16

The Curved Blades by Carolyn Wells, 1916 

Lucy Carrington is such a self obsessed, nasty person that it is a relief when she is murdered. She was also very rich and had been hinting that she might marry or in some way change her will, which would have upset a number of relatives and acquaintances who expected to be mentioned therein. On the other hand several of them have been living on her largesse for most of their lives. Detective Fleming Stone figures it all out with his usual jumps of logic, good luck, and disdain for actual clues and evidence. One of her weakest novels. 1/29/16

Any Shape or Form by Elizabeth Daly, 1945   

Detective Henry Gamadge is attending a garden party when the woman to whom he is speaking is fatally shot from ambush. Suspicion falls on the brother and sister who will inherit the large fortune left in a trust, but it is perhaps a bit too obvious that the third and lesser beneficiary is actually the killer. The solution this time requires some arcane knowledge – I had never heard of a Regard Pin, which requires a specific sequence of precious stones. There is a very nice twist at the end; someone is not the person we think they are. Daly also withholds some information without which the reader is unlikely to guess the killer’s motive. 1/27/16

Somewhere in the House by Elizabeth Daly, 1946  

I learned a new word from this one. A book made into a box is a solander. Henry Gamadge is hired to be present when a family unseals a room that no one has entered in twenty years. Not to any reader’s real surprise, the body of a long missing servant is found inside. Someone has been looting valuable items from the house and selling them, and is willing to kill to prevent the truth from being discovered. A nice twist toward the end. This was from the period in her career when Daly seemed to be peaking as a writer. 1/27/16

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902 

This novel is probably the best known of all the Sherlock Holmes adventures. Has Charles Baskerville fallen prey to a supernatural family curse, or is there a human agency behind his death? Will the heir, Henry Baskerville, be the next victim? Who is the mysterious man who has been following Henry and posing as Sherlock Holmes? Why does Holmes send Watson alone to accompany the beleaguered aristocrat? What is the strange creature local people report seeing on the moors? Holmes is largely absent as we see most of this through the eyes of Dr. Watson, who is acting as companion to Henry while Holmes secretly sneaks around on the moors. Still my favorite of Doyle’s novels. 1/26/16

The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, 1961 

A young woman suffering from partial amnesia finds herself in a cellar with a dead woman. She leaves and fortunately runs into Maud Silver, to whom she tells her story. A rather standard story follows as the protagonist has to figure out who she is while Silver solves the mystery of the murdered woman. This felt shorter than most of Wentworth’s other novels and the story moved along quite briskly, although it was otherwise so much like her other work that it felt as though I had already read it. Miss Silver is an interesting character but too often she plays too small a role in the story. 1/25/16

Midsummer Nightmare by Christopher Hale, Dell, 1945 

This is a pretty standard murder mystery by a writer who seems to have fallen off the radar. A woman is murdered, stabbed to death near her house, and there are several people with good reason to want her dead. One of them is a sleep walker, one has been accused unjustly of theft, one is an ambitious Senator, and there are businessmen, wives, secretaries, and others thrown into the mix. More murders follow but Inspector French eventually finds out who the killer is. The characters are never well differentiated and the puzzle isn’t all that interesting, although Hale does a good job of providing multiple motivations and opportunities.  Hale’s other mysteries are all expensive collectibles, but that’s fine because I wasn’t entertained enough to look for them. 1/22/16

The Book of the Dead by Elizabeth Daly, 1944 

This is one of Daly’s best novels. A man named Crenshaw dies of natural causes in a hospital, but when a casual friend makes inquiries, she is promptly murdered and our detective, Henry Gamadge, is nearly ambushed in his own home. Suspicion falls on the dead man’s companion, who disappears, then shows up under an assumed name. There is a nice twist in this one – the dead man wasn’t Crenshaw after all. The companion is the real Crenshaw who wanted to start a new life without his wife, who refused to divorce him.  Very nicely constructed. 1/22/16

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo, Tuttle, 2012 (originally published in 1956)   

Rampo is the penname of Japan’s equivalent of Edgar Allan Poe and this is a collection of his best short fiction. They tend toward the mystery genre although some, like the first, are just very strange. “The Human Chair” is about a furniture maker who builds a space for himself in an armchair and lives there unbeknownst to the people who sit on it. “The Psychological Test” is a quite clever crime story, with the murderer betrayed by an inspired line of questioning. “The Caterpillar” is an unsettling story about a man who has lost all four limbs plus his vocal chords and hearing. After years of serving him, his wife gives in to a moment of rage and blinds him, after which he commits suicide. “The Cliff” describes a mysterious murder plot. “The Hell of Mirrors” concerns a man obsessed by optics who is driven insane during an experiment. “The Twins”  involves another murder plot, this time an identical twin taking over his brother’s life. A man spins an elaborate tale of indirect murder in “The Red Chamber” and a man is fooled into believing he committed a murder while sleepwalking in “Two Crippled Men.”  “The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture” is the weakest story in the collection, and features a picture that may have magical qualities. This is an exceptionally good collection. 1/19/15

The Clue of the Eyelash by Carolyn Wells, 1933

Wells usually brought her detectives into a case only in the closing chapters, but this time he’s on the scene right from the start. He is invited to a dinner party but the host is shot before he can make an appearance. An indication of the age in which this was written is that the hostess doesn’t want to notify the police until the party is over with. This was from the period when Wells belittled intelligence and hard work. Her detective, Fleming Stone, assures us that the good detectives rely on luck and guesses, while deduction is “more or less an exploded theory.”  The guilty man appears to have a perfect alibi, but it’s quite obvious that he impersonated the dead man earlier. This was one of the author’s least interesting efforts. 

Yu’an Hee See Laughs by Sax Rohmer, Collier, 1931 

Inspector Haig of Scotland Yard is attempting to trap the villain in the title, who is guilty of drug trafficking, receiving stolen goods, and murder, among other things. One of his subordinates is brutally killed during the investigation, his throat torn out by what appears to be an animal. The chase involves a sea voyage, a shipwreck, and other adventures, but this was one of the author’s least successful thrillers, despite a fairly promising opening. The hints of the supernatural are never convincing or suspenseful and the explanation is unconvincing and uninteresting.

Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly, 1944 

A good set up is completely wasted in a very weakly constructed novel. Henry Gamadge receives cryptic, anonymous message that lead him to a house where murder and deception are in the offing. One problem is that there was no reason why the messages had to be secret, or cryptic. Another is that I refuse to believe that someone could pretend to be mentally arrested at the age of six for literally years in close company with various other people without making a slip. Another is that Gamadge makes these incredible leaps of intuition. Based on the tension at the house, he concludes that another character living at another location is living in a house that has a deathtrap constructed to kill her. There is no supporting evidence for this at all, but of course he is correct. 1/15/16

The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi, Soho, 1998, translated from the 1948 Japanese edition  

This was a first novel, published during the American occupation of Japan. The story opens in the subculture of tattoo artists and subjects, which has a serious artistic element in Japanese culture. There are even people who collect human skill harvested from the bodies of those who have died with notable tattoos. The protagonist, Kenzo, is the younger brother of a police detective who becomes romantically involved with a spectacularly tattooed woman, Kinue, who is married to a crooked businessman. She is troubled by an elderly professor who collects tattooed skins and covets hers. When she is apparently murdered, in a locked room, the mystery deepens. Although I guessed most of the solution to this one, the subculture in which it takes place is fascinating and I've ordered the author's other two books available in translation. 1/14/16

The Old Man in the Corner by the Baroness Orczy, Dover, 1980 (originally published in 1905)  

This collects the first twelve of a series of 38 stories in which the unnamed Old Man relates the solution of mysteries that have eluded the police. He uses analysis and logic to solve most of them, a few of which I thought were obvious but others are very clever.  One of the stories, meant to be the final installment in the series, has the Old Man himself identified as the murderer.  Several of the stories hinge upon impersonations, which gets a bit repetitive but generally they are quite good. This is one of those classics of mystery fiction that I just never got around to reading until recently. 1/11/16

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler, Black Lizard, 2015, $25, ISBN 978-0-307-74396-1

This collection of more than 80 locked room mysteries – although sometimes the definition is stretched a bit – was my bedside reading for a few weeks. The opening section includes some classics from Wilkie Collins, the superb “Two Bottles of Relish,” and what I thought was a rather poor Father Brown story.  The Joseph Commings is pretty bad as well, but the low points are vastly outnumbered by the good stories, including a Sherlock Holmes story by Stephen King that I had not previously read. Most of the stories are relatively obscure so despite the high price tag, the volume of material is well worth the price. An amusing tidbit is that Wells states outright that women lie better than do men and in fact that women are by their nature inclined not to tell the truth. There are a couple of instances where two stories make use of nearly identical solutions, but for the most part this is a varied selection that includes familiar names like Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Leslie Charteris along with a lot of less familiar ones. There’s more than 900 pages of good reading here, a bargain for the price. 1/10/16

Evidence of Things Seen by Elizabeth Daly, 1943 

This is a rather boring and drawn out murder mystery despite a mildly spooky opening. Henry Gamadge’s wife is awake when someone murders a sleeping woman in the next room. She saw no one enter but did spot a figure that appears to be the ghost of the murder victim’s dead sister. Gamadge investigates tediously and only comes to a solution by luck. Very implausible. For one thing, there was no point to producing the illusion of a ghost since no one believed it anyway. Daly seemed unconcerned with plausibility in a lot of her mysteries. 1/9/16

Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz, Harper, 2015, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-06-239510-8 

James Bond is back in this story which takes place shortly after Goldfinger ends.  It’s a fairly good story although the premise is faulty. The villain is a crazed Korean who wants to explode a bomb in downtown Manhattan and make it look as though a defective American missile launch crashed there. The plan is completely implausible and there is a long and rather awkward sequence in which the villain explains his plan in great detail to Bond, who is his captive, and then allows him to escape by burying him alive, but without leaving anyone to make sure he doesn’t dig his way out. 1/8/16

The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin, Harvest, 2006 

Third in a railroad oriented detective series. Jim Stringer has been promoted to railway detective in 1906 so now has an excuse to investigate crimes. He gets a tip about a gang of thieves operating around the railway stations so he goes undercover, joining the gang in order to unmask the entire operation. But there is someone involved who is willing to commit more deadly crimes than simple larceny. And when his cover is blown, his wife is placed in the crosshairs and he has to bring them to justice before they avenge themselves on her. An okay entry in the series, but not up to the first two. 1/7/16

Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin, Mariner, 2007 

This is the fourth Jim Stringer mystery, set in 1909, three years after the previous book. Jim is still working as a detective for the railroad and he is anticipating a much needed pay raise and promotion in the near future, because his young son needs expensive medical care. He is returning from an assignment to investigate what appears to be a simple assault when an accident uncovers a dead body in a snowdrift. It is a clear case of murder and Stringer finds himself on the most puzzling case of his career. A definite uptick from the previous book, with a fast moving plot and an interesting puzzle. 1/7/16

The Fourth Door by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2007 (translated from the French edition of 1987)

This is an impossible crime novel which contains two apparently murders in locked rooms, plus another in a house completely surrounded by snow. There is a variety of tricks and illusions involved in the solutions, some of which I cannot imagine working as described. Some of the explanations are ingenious but the author tried a little too hard to get everything to fit together. There is also an irritating interlude near the end in which we are told that none of the foregoing story is true, that it was a manuscript written by a mystery novelist who wanted to create an unsolvable crime as a challenge to another writer, after which we are given the solution as the addition by the second man. Amusing but not entirely convincing. 1/5/16

Triple Detective, Altus, 2010  1816

Gibbering Gas of Madness by Capt Kerry McRoberts

City of Phantoms by Robert Wallace

The Death Plague by Tom Johnson 

This is I believe the last in the Triple Detective series, with stories about The Eagle, the Phantom Detective, and the Masked Avenger. The Eagle is a spy who foils a plot to undermine America by driving leading scientists insane. The second is a relatively minor Phantom Detective mystery. The final story has the Masked Avenger rescuing a kidnapped boy and foiling a plot to kill everyone in New York City. The real authors of the first two are not revealed, and Johnson is the editor of the series. 1/5/16

Kickback by Ace Atkins, Putnam, 2015, $26.95. ISBN 978-0-399-17084-3 

I had trouble getting into this Spenser novel because the opening chapters were very contrived and unrealistic. Spenser is investigating the railroading of a teenager to a reform facility after he made a bad joke about a school administrator. The local authorities refuse to let Spenser see the police files even with parental authorization and despite the fact that a very powerful legal firm has taken the case. This felt completely implausible for a Boston suburb and the harassment he receives is overblown, illegal, and not believable. Nor can I accept that no one would have spoken up when told that the defendants could not have attorneys because they are juveniles. And for that matter, I’m pretty sure that judges are not elected in Massachusetts; they are all appointed. Nor do I believe that parents could be denied visitation rights. The offer to release the boy from prison if Spenser agrees to stay out of town, delivered through a lawyer no less, would be tantamount to a confession of corruption and would never have been made. This needed some editing as well. When you are replaced in your job, your replacement is NOT your predecessor. This was really an awful book, not even remotely as good as Atkins’ previous Spenser novels. It reads as though he knocked it off over a weekend and sent it in first draft. 1/3/16

Nothing Can Rescue Me by Elizabeth Daly, 1943   

This is a mildly flawed Henry Gamadge mystery in which murder strikes twice at a remote country house. One of the characters has no apparent motive and no apparent opportunity, while all the others have both, so it is pretty obvious that her only purpose in the story is to be revealed as the killer. This felt more hastily written than her earlier books and there are sections which are so jumbled that it is difficult to determine what is happening and impossible to analyze the sequence logically. 1/1/16

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