Last Update 3/29/17

Dead Man's Land by Robert Ryan, Simon & Schuster, 2012

This is the first in a series of novels about Dr. John Watson's adventures during World War I. Sherlock Holmes has retired and is in the early stages of possible dementia and Watson has rejoined the army. In his first adventure, he is experimenting with a new kind of blood transfusion when he stumbles across two men whose injuries are suspicious. They appear to have been poisoned. At first he thinks it might be poisoned bullets fired by Germans, but eventually he realizes that they are being killed by someone on the Allied side. And there may have been more victims, not to mention additional ones to come. Aided by Miss Gregson, ex-wife of the Scotland Yard detective's son, he investigates further, runs into Winston Churchill, is nearly killed himself, and finally solves the mystery, with some minor help from Holmes. The mystery is good but not great. The description of life in the trenches is impressively realistic. This was quite long but I stayed up late to finish it, and I've already ordered the rest in the series. 3/31/17

A Welcome Murder by Robin Yocum, 7th Street, 2017, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-263-8

A large and varied cast of characters give legs to this otherwise routine crime novel set in a dying town in the Midwest. A one time baseball player finishes a seven year prison term for selling cocaine. He immediately returns to his home town, where he had hidden a significant amount of illegally obtained money, planning to relocate and start a new life. Unfortunately his plans go awry when the chief witness against him in his original trial is murdered and the police decide he's the prime suspect. And also unfortunately, he talked too loosely while in prison and another ex-con knows about the cached money and wants it for his own purposes. This really isn't the kind of story I normally enjoy, but the smooth prose and the nicely drawn characters held my interest. 4/39/17

To Fear a Painted Devil by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1965 

Patrick is not a nice man. He is cheating on his wife, who is also cheating on him. He has almost driven a neighbor out of business because the man struck his dog. As it happens, none of his neighbors are nice people either and when he is badly stung at his wife’s birthday party, no one is particularly broken up. But he dies during the night, and although it seems to be natural causes, one neighbor and a doctor are both suspicious of the circumstances. Fairly good mystery although Rendell cheats and withholds a lot of information necessary to the solution. 3/28/17

The Interlopers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1969 

Matt Helm is back for one of his best adventures when he is drafted into a project to pass altered intelligence to a Russian spy ring. This takes him on a road trip through the Northwest and parts of Canada into Alaska, and there are multiple competing parties with competing motives. He also has a secret assignment to kill a particular Soviet agent who is believed to be planning a major assassination in the near future. Helm gets partnered with a dog in this one, a Labrador puppy. The plot kept me guessing about who was who right until the end. 3/27/17

Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong, Soho, 2007   

Inspector Chen is dealing with career decisions and health problems when a serial killer begins dressing his victims in the dress of the title, a style that is currently out of fashion. It is clear early on that the murders have something to do with events during the Cultural Revolution, but it is a stroke of luck and instinct that puts Chen on the right trail. This is a fairly good police procedural that is even better because of its evocation of the culture and people of 1990s China. This was the only one in the series I hadn’t read, but hopefully the author will write some more. 3/26/17

Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg, Poisoned Pen, 2015 (originally published in 1934)

The author of this pretty good mystery died in World War II, alas. An experienced pilot at an aerodrome goes into a fatal spin and is found dead in the wreckage. But the cause of death was a bullet to the brain, even though there is no weapon, there were no passengers, and witnesses saw no other aircraft. And then there is a question of rigor mortis, which is inexplicable because the injuries from the crash are estimated to have followed the bullet wound by only a few minutes. This is all tied up with an ingenious drug smuggling scheme that spans multiple countries. The author unravels it all  for us, and the solution is quite satisfactory. 3/23/17

The Menacers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1968 

The Matt Helm series began to improve noticeably with this installment. The plots became more complex and the action sequences more intense. Someone appears to be faking incidents where UFOs are killing people in Mexico, except that the UFOs are supposed to be some kind of US secret weapon. Helm has to figure out who is on which side as conflicting agencies, including Mexican agents, hope to unravel things. A recurring enemy agent with whom he has occasionally gone to bed in earlier books is killed in this one, by her own people who suspect her of disloyalty. As usual its mildly misognynistic, but the story is very good. 3/21/17

From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1964 

Ruth Rendell’s first novel introduced Inspector Wexford. It is basically a police procedural although it cheats slightly in having a couple of minor coincidences provide vital clues. An ordinary housewife is strangled by parties unknown but her death appears to be connected to a mysterious lover she had when she was much younger. For much of the novel, the reader’s suspicion is divided between two men – the husband and a know ex-boyfriend are clearly not the murderer. Rendell then provides a letter about Doon which takes great pains never to use a pronoun, which is a dead giveaway that Doon was actually a woman, and other internal evidence makes it quite obvious who the killer is. Wexford figures it out shortly afterward. Good but not great, but then again, it was a first novel. 3/16/17

The Claws of the Cougar by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1957)

The protagonist reluctantly goes to a small town in South America to convince his cousin, a painter, to come home. When he arrives he stumbles into a mystery involving a woman and a spoiled painting, then finds his cousin’s body, apparently attacked by a cougar that has been prowling the neighborhood. Later that same night a local women is killed, also apparently by a wild animal. But the local police chief is skeptical. He has a list of unanswered questions and he is troubled that he cannot find any animal tracks near either victim. Every time I read another novel by this author, I am astonished that he is not better known. This one has an interesting mystery and a large cast of colorful characters. 3/16/17

The Betrayers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1966 

This was the longest Matt Helm thriller to date, but that’s not a good thing because it drags considerably from time to time. He is in Hawaii where a local agent appears to have gone over to the Chinese. There are two femme fatales, one of whom is an innocent bystander, and a variety of thugs, misguided agents who don’t know their boss has switched sides, and others who do. Helm lectures us about how much you can about a woman from whether or not she wears a hairnet while swimming or high heels at a party. 3/11/17

The Devastators by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1965 

Matt Helm is on the trail of a rogue chemist who may be developed a new biological weapon. He travels to London where he has to compete with Russians, Chinese, and British agents. Although he is just suppose to be cover for the real assassin, he is forced to assume her role when she is kidnapped shortly after arriving. An old sometimes enemy returns and it’s not clear where everyone’s loyalties lie. This was a pretty good adventure, though the plot line is hardly anything new. 3/9/17

A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong, Soho, 2002  

Inspector Chen is assigned to work with an female American officer to arrange for a Chinese woman to join her husband in the US, after which he will testify in an important case involving smuggling of people. But the woman has disappeared and at least one criminal group is actively searching for her. Chen also has a mysterious body found dead in a local park. This is one of the best in the series, with Chen working his way through political obstacles while trying to understand what is going on. 3/8/17

Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashimo, Little Brown, 2015 

This is a very long mystery novel which opens with the unsolved murder of a man found in an abandoned building. The bulk of the story follows the life of the dead man’s son – who becomes involved in underaged prostitution – and the prime suspect’s daughter, who is adopted after her mother’s apparent accidental death and who also has a brush with crime, the theft of the code for a computer game. I had a pretty good idea who the killer was though not the motive. I’ve liked previous work by this author, but this time I thought it took far too long to develop things, particularly as the resolution did not have much of a punch. 3/6/17

The Ravagers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1964 

Matt Helm has to play bodyguard to a woman who is transporting secret documents to the Soviets, and without her knowing about it because they are faked to mislead the enemy. This puts him at odds with various other agencies who think she has real stuff and want to stop her, and they all have problems because she’s in Canada and outside their jurisdiction. There are some nice twists in this one because more than one person is not what he or she seems to be, and Helm is even forced to kill one of the American agents. One of the best in the series. 3/5/17

Skyprobe by Philip McCutchan, Berkley, 1966 

The science is a little off in this spy thriller in which Commander Shaw spends most of his time imprisoned by the bad guys who alternate between torturing him and explaining their plans in minute detail. The Americans have sent a revolutionary manned satellite into orbit, but one member of the crew is a spy and saboteur. An international organization has a device that can seize control of electronic equipment from a distance and they plan to bring the satellite down in such a way that it will set off a nuclear war. He escapes in time to stop them. Rather dull. 3/4/17

Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1980 (originally published in 1936) 

A woman screams from her bedroom. Everyone else in the house   rushes to the door, which is locked. Her throat has been cut and there is no other exit from the room. Enter three famous amateur detectives – this is really a spoof of detective tales – each of whom concocts an elaborate and convoluted story that explains who the killer is and how it was done. Meanwhile, Sgt Beef sits listening attentively, but assures them from the outset that he knows the answers already. When they finally finish, Beef presents a simple, direct, and correct solution and arrests the murderer. Amusing, but perhaps overly long for its content. 3/3/17

The Shadowers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1964 

Despite some rampant misogyny, this is one of the better Matt Helm adventures. Intelligence has discovered that the Soviets have placed assassins to knock off key American scientists at a strategically important time, but Helm manages – after some miscues – to track down the head of the organization and kill him. This results in chaos within his organization and most of his agents are neutralized. Some very odd treatment of sexuality that mixes stereotypes with Hamilton’s own prejudices against assertive women. 3/1/17

The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North, Poisoned Pen, 2016 (originally published in 1961)

A young woman is found murdered one night in a small English village. Sergeant Cluff, who is unpopular with his peers despite his habit of finding the solution to mysteries, investigates and eventually sorts things out. This is written in a sparse, jerky style that I found very offputting. At times it felt more like an outline than a story, and it was not unusual for me to have trouble figuring out just exactly what was going on. None of the characters have any particular depth and the mystery feels routine. I have another book by the same author that I will try at some point, but I don’t think North is someone whose other work I will pursue. 2/28/17

Death Ship by Jim Kelly, Crème de la Crime, 2016

Detectives Shaw and Valentine return when a mysterious explosion disrupts a beach in a town where a controversial new pier is being constructed. There has been sabotage as well as public outrage, and the recent disappearance of a Dutch tourist who did a lot of SCUBA diving adds to the mystery. This is a well done police procedural although perhaps not quite as well constructed as the previous books in the series. A lot of the solution results from luck and coincidence rather than detection. As far as I know, Kelly no longer has an American publisher, which is America’s loss. 2/26/17

The Dead Line by Philip McCutchan, Berkley, 1966

This is the weakest of the Commander Shaw novels to date, slow paced, with a ridiculous plot about the Chinese assassinating American and British officials and smuggling their bodies to China where they can be publicly mutilated. Neither government seems to have any objection to this, at least not officially. It’s part of a communist plot to manipulate all the people of color in the world into rising up against the white race. Various characters proclaim themselves unprejudiced, but the author’s condescension and general characterization of Blacks in particular shows his true colors. 2/25/17

The Ambushers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1963 

Matt Helm is sent to Central America to assassinate a rebel leader, which he does efficiently enough. But he also discovers the presence of a Nazi war criminal and a functioning Soviet nuclear missile. He eventually has to allow himself to be captured in order to get inside information, a device that recurs rather too often in this series although it’s not bad if you take the book as a single unit. Much mayhem results, naturally, and the villains get put in their place. 2/21/17

Moscow Coach by Philip McCutchan, Berkley, 1964 

 A better than average Commander Shaw novel in which he is sent into Russia to prevent the assassination of a Russian official by a British national. Once there, and after various adventures, he discovers a plan to also destroy a critical dam and potentially cause a war between Russia and China. The story is pretty good up until the point where we discover that the man who sent him on the mission is actually the assassin, a development that is simultaneously completely implausibly and blindingly obvious. McCutchan flirts with writing a good book but does not quite succeed. 2/20/17

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty, 7th Street, 2017, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-259-1

Sean Duffy returns to investigate a somewhat more traditional murder mystery this time, once again set against the backdrop of the violence in Ireland in the 1980s. The victim is found dead in front of his house, having been killed with a crossbow. Unfortunately, the conventional premise doesn’t prevent Duffy from finding his own life in danger yet again. This is a kind of blend of murder mystery and crime thriller, with some political shenanigans thrown into the mix. My favorite of his novels to date. 2/19/17

Murderers’ Row by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1962   

This was the best so far in the Matt Helm series. A prominent American scientist has been abducted and is going to be smuggled out of the country. Helm is only supposed to play a peripheral role, but the death of another agent leaves him in the middle of the case. Posing as a gangster, he is twice hired to murder the same person, by a rival and by her husband, before he is unmasked and taken prisoner. Much less misogynistic than some of the earlier books, with a genuinely competent though insane female villain. 2/18/17

The Oxford Murders by Adam Broome, Ostara, 1929   

This early murder mystery fuses the atmosphere at Oxford University with African mythology. The arrival of an African prince and his retinue so that he can be educated at Oxford brings a degree of disturbance to the otherwise staid atmosphere. Murder stirs the pot even more violently. Although this had an interesting premise and is reasonably well constructed, I found the prose and occasional racism tiring or irritating or both. It’s another case where the book is more interesting historically than as entertainment. 2/17/17

A Case of Two Cities by Qiu Xiaolong, Minotaur, 2006   

Inspector Chen is assigned to investigate a high profile corruption case and one of his potential witnesses ends up murdered. Then he is diverted to participate in a literary conference in the United States, but is it really a diversion or is he supposed to pursue his case there as well? This was rather slower than the other novels in the series and I found my attention wandering at times. On the other hand, the discussions about the availability of Chinese literature in America were interesting to read. I’d say it was the weakest in the series so far but I still have two more titles to read. 2/16/17

Warmaster by Philip McCutchan, Berkley, 1963

A collision at sea leads to the discovery of a dead American intelligence agent. Commander Shaw is sent to the US where he learns of the Warmaster missile project, essentially the MIRV system, whose secrets are known to a German scientist who has been kidnapped by the Russians. This lead Shaw to discover a plot by neo-Nazis to seize control of both American and Russian missile systems, precipitate a nuclear war, and then take over the world in the aftermath. This is another one where Shaw is successful mostly through luck, the intervention of others on his behalf, or the jaw dropping incompetence of his opponents. He even gets a guided tour of the control room while the chief villains are explaining their plans in great detail rather than simply shooting him. 2/16/17

The Madman by Mark Hansom, Dancing Tuatara, 2014 (originally published in 1938)  

This is a terrifically bad novel about a man who suspects his host is a homicidal maniac, but in due course we discover that it is the narrator himself who is crazy and who murders four people before the ending. And it ends with him about to claim his fifth victim. Incredibly implausible throughout with bad prose, bad characterizations, a plot that does not proceed logically, and errors of fact as well as of logic. There is an accompanying essay claiming that Hansom was actually Norman Berrow, which is total nonsense given the style and quality of Berrow’s work. 2/15/17

The Silencers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1962 

Matt Helm is present when a rogue agent is murdered. He ends up partnered with her sister to attend a rendezvous where an enemy agent hopes to obtain information that will allow him to interfere with an underground nuclear test. Helm is teamed up with a woman who is so petty and spiteful – not to mention outright stupid – that it is somewhat difficult to believe he would so encumber himself. The plot involves an attempt to divert an American missile and cause it to kill a group of scientists. The plot is foiled, although not directly by Helm. Some rough spots but basically a good story. 2/14/17

The Thief by Fujimori Nakamura, Soho, 2012 

A pickpocket gets pressured into participating in an armed robbery. Although the victim is not hurt, a short time later he is killed and the pickpocket begins to suspect that he is in over his head. Although supposedly his services are no longer required, the mastermind has more in store for him, ultimately designed to result in his death. The chief villain is nicely portrayed in this crime novel, but I never found the protagonist or his situation particularly interesting. 2/13/17

The Man from Moscow by Philip McCutchan, Berkley, 1963 

Rumors that the Russian government is about to undergo a coup by a group with a secret new weapon bring Commander Shaw to Moscow. After various fairly mundane adventures, he discovers that the new government plans to explode multiple nuclear weapons in an underwater fissure which will cause devastating earthquakes in the British Isles and lay the country to waste. Naturally he defeats them in James Bondish fashion, and the end of their big plan somehow brings about a collapse of the coup. 2/13/17

The Removers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1961 

There’s quite a bit of coincidence in this Matt Helm thriller. Helm gets a letter from his ex-wife and discovers that her new husband is a reformed gangster who is being pressured to come out of retirement and recover some missing narcotics. The bodyguard of his nemesis is a communist spy whom Helm’s organization has targeted for assassination, but only after they discover the nature of his current assignment. Kidnappings, gunfights, and revelations follow in an otherwise plausible story, although Helm’s ultimate escape is a bit of a stretch. 2/12/17

The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams, Poisoned Pen, 2015 (originally published in 1862) 

Arguably the first detective novel, depending on your definition, this is the epistolary report into the death of a woman who was a firm believer in hypnotic treatment. The unraveling of the story is very slow, though logical. Unfortunately, it was too slow for most modern readers and I found my attention wandering more than once. Fortunately, it is comparatively short. An interesting effort though, and I don’t recall any other epistolary detective stories at novel length. 2/11/17

Bluebolt One by Philip McCutchan, Berkley, 1962  

For some unconvincing reason, the control system for an orbiting nuclear weapons platform is located into the African nation of Nogalia, which is undergoing considerably unrest. Commander Shaw is drawn into this when he witnesses what appears to be a murder on a train, which leads to a secret voodoo cult in London which is connected to a planned attack on the control station. There is the usual mix of captures and escapes, with some major plot holes, and a good deal of rather blatant racism. McCutchan’s prose is fine but he is scientifically illiterate and has a tendency to leave gaping holes in his plots. 2/10/17

The Wrecking Crew by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1960   

The second Matt Helm novel is pretty good if you can get past all the misogyny, and there’s a lot of it. He’s off to Sweden to track down a master spy whom no one has ever seen except his own operatives. There are three beautiful women, two of whom die before the book is over, a rival intelligence agent who doesn’t like Helm at all, assassination attempts, beatings, photographs of sensitive defense facilities, double crosses, and triple crosses. If Helm  wasn’t such a horrible person, this would have been much better, but I take what I can get. 2/8/17

Redcap by Philip Mc Cutchan, Berkley, 1961

Commander Shaw’s second adventure involves an unlikely nuclear monitoring system. All the nuclear powers have agreed to have a multi-national group oversee a device which could instantly destroy their nuclear stockpile. Like that’s going to happen. The premise aside, it’s a pretty good thriller although Shaw triumphs repeatedly through the intervention of others rather than because he’s good at his job. Lots of villains in this one, and a Chinese plot to take over the world. Marginally SF. 2/7/17

Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1960 

The very first Matt Helm novel opens with him living a quiet life with his wife and children in New Mexico. That changes when a former fellow agent from the war walks into a party and shortly thereafter leaves a dead body in his bathroom. Helm finds himself drawn against his will into a web of espionage and double crosses, with a few surprise revelations and the eventual kidnapping of his own daughter. The presence of a wife and child is rather surprising given that this launched a long spy series, but by the time the second book opens, he is divorced and on the prowl for beautiful women. 2/6/17

Gibraltar Road by Philip McCutchan, Berkley, 1960

The first adventure of Esmonde Shaw, British spy, involves a secret project to build a submarine base in Gibraltar. The plan involves a revolutionary type of atomic engine, which is only understood by one person. When that man is kidnapped by Soviet spies, the machine begins to overheat, cannot be turned off, and could cause a nuclear explosion that would destroy Gibraltar. None of this makes any sense. There is no chance of anyone creating a machine that manufactures its own fuel and therefore runs perpetually, but cannot be turned off. There is no way that the British government would base an entire strategy on an untested device, nor that it would not require documentation of the machine such that it is absolutely dependent on a single person. The prose is actually quite good but the plot is a shambles. It does have two strong female characters, one good and one bad, which was quite unusual for this sort of spy story. This series alternate among straight spy novels, marginal SF, and obvious SF, with this one falling into the middle category. 2/5/17

Mr. Bazalgette’s Agent by Leonard Merrick, British Library, 2013 (originally published in 1888) 

This is the first British novel to feature a female detective, although it really isn’t much of a detective story. Facing homelessness, an ex-governess takes a job tracking a man who embezzled a large amount of money, searching for him in various European cities. Although she does a creditable job, she never actually succeeds in finding him, although for a while she thinks she has. More interesting historically than as fiction. 2/4/17

When Red Is Black by Qiu Xiaolong, Soho, 2004 

A former member of the Red Guard is killed in her apartment. Inspector Chen is on vacation but he participates through his proxy, another detective. Clues include a mysterious manuscript found in a safety deposit box and inconsistencies in her past and in her published book. It does not appear to be a politically motivated crime, but Chen can never be sure of that. This was actually quite slow, the first book by this author that I struggled with. There is a little too much speculation about the writing and too little actual detecting. 2/4/17

Lonely Magdalen by Henry Wade, Arcturus, 2013 (originally published in 1940)

A prostitute is found murdered in a park. The police assume that she has been living under a false identity, but there seems to be little to go on to identify her positively. The prime suspect is a professional thug, but the timing seems to put him out of the running. Inspector Poole eventually finds an obscure clue that leads him eventually to the discovery that she was the wayward daughter of a prominent family. This takes us halfway through the novel, which was actually an excellent police procedural. But then there is a very lengthy flashback to her early life and Wade was not a good enough novelist to make this story particularly gripping. The resolution was mildly disappointing as well. 2/2/17

Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong, Minotaur, 2015 

Inspector Chen is in trouble. He has been transferred to an honorary position without explanation and shortly afterward, an attempt is made to trap him in a sex scandal. None of his current cases seem politically dangerous and his past enemies are largely incapable of wielding such significant power. So who is responsible, and more importantly, how can we survive their attention? Murders, mistresses, corruption, a missing businessman, and the apparent death of a foreign businessman all become part of the mystery as Chen must rely on his friends to help him escape a death trap. 2/1/17

Assignment Tyrant’s Bride by Will B. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1980 

Sam Durell is sent to another fictional African country, this time to kidnap/rescue the unwilling bride of the local dictator. The strong man also plans genocide against one of the tribes in his country so the CIA is clandestinely supporting a general in exile, who happens to be the real wife of the woman in question. Civil war breaks out and Durell largely fails to save the day, although he does rescue the unwilling wife and thwarts part of the dictator’s plans. There are so many repulsive characters in this one that I didn’t care who came out on top. 1/31/17

Assignment Death Ship by Will B. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1983   

The very last Sam Durell thriller is also the worst one. A new plague shows up on a cruise ship, followed by a demand for a large payment or the bug will be released in a major city. The government immediately figures out that it must be connected to a missing biochemist working for a private company. Durell goes to the man’s private island, is shot at by his wife, repels an attack by Cubans working for Russia, runs around a lot, and ultimately saves the day in some of the most ludicrous scenes and bad writing I’ve encountered recently. The author also failed to do rudimentary research. Examination of a process by federal authorities does not automatically place the process into the public domain. Horrendously bad. 1/31/17

Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs, British Library, 2016 (originally published in 1942)

The village busybody is found drowned in the cesspit beside the vicarage. Almost everyone in the village had reason to wish her dead. The ensuing investigation uncovers adultery, fraud, impersonations, a secret will, a fake charity, and other bits of the underside of what seems a charming community. The author uses a light touch and occasional bits of humor, although the latter chapters become increasingly grim. It’s quite late in the story before you can make an educated guess about the identity of the killer, but then a single line pretty much gives it away, including the motive. This was my first Bellairs and he wrote over fifty books, so I’ll be watching for others. 1/29/17

The Bishop’s Sword by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1948) 

Another really excellent mystery from a writer who should be much better known. Inspector Carolus Smith is back, this time to deal with multiple problems. How did an intruder disappear from a locked room? How was a precious artifact removed from a sealed case without the case being opened? How does a man locked in a jail cell manage to pay a visit to a police officer at his home with information that only the incarcerated man could have known? Why did the burglar unlock multiple doors and windows? Why were the stolen pearls discarded just outside the house? What mysterious weapon was used to kill the gardener? How can seven men go into a shallow cave and only six come out? I figured out some but not all of the solutions, but there is no serious cheating. One of the characters, incidentally, is Michael Strange, who supposedly went to Tibet and learned various new powers including astral projection. Did Dr. Strange’s creators read this book? 1/28/17

The Counterfeit Detective by Stuart Douglas, Titan, 2016, $9.95, ISBN 978-1783299356  

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are off to New York when they learn that they are being impersonated by two people working as supposed consulting detectives. They arrive to find an empty office that is obviously just a front, a group of clients who refuse to talk about what they hired the bogus Holmes to do, and then find that at least one of the people they have spoken to has been murdered.  It is rather obvious that they are being blackmailed. Predictable shenanigans follow. It’s not a bad adventure although the subsidiary mystery on the ship from England is trivial and boring. 1/28/17

Assignment Tiger Devil by Will B. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1977 

A Russian scientist tries to defect but the Greek ship carrying him away from Russia disappears, then shows up with a new crew at the Suez Canal. Sam Durell has to deal with a spoiled and murderous playboy as well as a human rights worker who  might be working for the Russians, not to mention a beautiful woman with a mind of her own and a security guard who most certainly is working for the Russians. 1/26/17

Assignment Mermaid by Will B. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1979  

A Russian scientist is reportedly defecting to the West, but the ship on which he is traveling disappears, then reappears in the Suez Canal, far from where it should be. Sam Durell and friends decide to intercept the ship, assuming correctly that it has been taken over by Russian agents. There is also a missing shipment of processed uranium ore which appears to be on its way illegally to a white dominated African nation. I can’t imagine how the government would use nuclear weapons in a small nation against an insurgency, but the author seems to think this makes sense. They get thwarted after several people double cross one another, but the story never really makes a lot of sense. 1/26/17

Assignment Sheba by Will B. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1976 

This is the first of six novels written by Lawrence Hall to continue the popular Sam Durell series. It takes place in Ethiopia where Durell is sent to contact a local CIA agent who may be working for the opposition. He is caught in a guerilla attack and presumed dead, but of course he has survived. He is briefed after the fact – a ridiculous assumption that only serves to advance the plot – about a possible nuclear explosion in the Ethiopian jungle. This takes him into the realm of a renegade corporation, professional criminals, and double agents of various hues. Not very good. 1/23/17

Assignment 13th Princess by Will B. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1977  

Sam Durell has to convince a princess to temporarily leave her turmoil ridden sheikdom. This is a dreadful book, filled with logical inconsistencies, poor and contradictory characterization, an endless stream of gratuitous action sequences that do not advance the story, and a confused attempt to address political realities in the Mideast. Durell is partnered with an Israeli spy who pretends to be his wife even though his cover is blown before he arrives and everyone involved knows who he is. There are so many bad scenes in this one that I am surprised the series continued for four more titles.  1/23/17

The Riddle of Monte Verita by Jean-Paul Torok, Locked Room International, 2012 

This is a 2007 French mystery novel involving two locked room murders, both of which take place before the story itself begins. An expert on detective fiction is attending a conference on the subject in Switzerland just before the outbreak of World War II. He and his wife meet a number of odd characters, including a Nazi criminologist who tells the protagonist that his wife murdered at least two and probably three earlier husbands, two of whom were found dead in locked rooms and therefore officially listed as suicides. It turns out that he is lying, but the protagonist doesn’t find this out until after the Nazi has himself been murdered, apparently by an unknown woman in a locked room. Although I had guessed most of the solution, this is quite good. 1/20/17

Assignment Afghan Dragon by Edward S. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1976

Sam Durell travels to the border area between Iran and Afghanistan when the disappearance of a recently discovered artifact threatens rather improbably to lead to a Chinese invasion and a war with the Soviets. Hardliners on both sides send teams to recover it and Durell is caught in the middle. There are some minor problems with the plot but this was actually one of his better books. It was also the last thing he wrote before his death. The series was continued for a short period by another writer using the pseudonym Will B. Aarons. 1/19/17

Assignment Unicorn by Edward S. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1976

A gang that uses drugs to enhance their strength and reflexes has been targeting CIA cash runs to foreign countries. There is an obvious leak and the CIA finance officer “commits suicide”, but Durell and others smell more than one rat. It is all part of a rather elaborate and indirect attempt to assassinate the President, but there is a lot of running around and several deaths before we figure out what is going on. This was one of the best of the Durell novels, but Aarons would write only one more before his death. 1/17/17

Assignment Quayle Question by Edward S. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1975

Someone has been using murder and extortion to coerce the owners of various media related companies to sell out to a Japanese corporation whose management is shrouded in secrecy. Durell is directed to find Rufus Quayle, a reclusive entrepreneur who is likely to be the next target on the villains’ list, which he eventually does, but only after battling assassins and a traitor in his own unit. Quayle’s daughter has been kidnapped and Durell is determined to find her. This is a mild departure in that there are multiple viewpoint characters, which is not the case in any of the previous books. 1/15/17

Murder at Sorrow’s Crown by Steven Savile & Robert Greenberger, Titan, 2016, $9.95, ISBN 978-1783295128   

Holmes and Watson are investigating the disappearance of a British naval officer whose fate the Admiralty seems determined to keep secret. They find a tenuous connection to the late Benjamin Disraeli which leads them to believe that he was murdered, despite the assumption that he died of natural causes. This was a fairly entertaining adventure story, but the mystery isn’t particularly interesting and a lot of the solution results from happenstance rather than deduction. Holmes poses at one point as a waiter and just happens to be assigned to the table where the plotters – whose identity he did not previously know – just happened to be talking about their conspiracy. 1/14/17

Death of Anton by Alan Melville, Poisoned Pen, 2015 (originally published in 1936) 

There are some strange things going on inside a travelling circus. When the tiger tamer is found dead in their cage, apparently mauled, it looks like an accident. Unfortunately for the killer, a Scotland Yard inspector is in the audience and he notices the bullet holes in the dead man’s chest. He also suspects that the circus is just a front for another and more insidious crime. This is told in a very lighthearted manner that actually does work quite well despite the seriousness of the plot. There is a bit too  much coincidence, but not enough to really spoil the story. 1/11/17

Assignment Black Gold by Edward S. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1975   

Sam Durell visits another fictional African nation torn by a persistent rebel group. The leader of the rebels is the son of the man who led the fight for independence. The father is generally believed to be dead but is actually living as a kind of hermit. His adopted son is loyal to the regime and coerces Durell into finding the old leader and convincing him to reappear publicly and call for the rebels to put down their arms. This is all connected to an oil platform which seems to have failed to find any oil and which has been plagued by industrial accidents.  I had some unanswered questions at the end of this one, but they were mostly about peripheral issues. 1/7/17

 Assignment Sumatra by Edward S. Aarons, Gold Medal, 1974 

The two co-rulers of a mythical Southern Pacific nation hate each other. One is a moderate and the other would prefer to initiate a wave of violence throughout the region. Durell is part of a team assigned to protect the moderate, but the two people he is working with are ruthless and actively fond of violence. He doesn’t like them or their methods. He disobeys orders and implements his own plan to protect the more moderate one of the pair, but there is another player as well, an ambitious man who wants to install a military dictatorship. And the woman with whom Durell is clearly is not playing with a full deck of cards. Fast paced and fairly well done, but with the usual plot shortcuts, coincidences, and unexplained leaps of logic.

The Baddington Horror by Walter S. Masterman, Ramble House, 2013 (originally published in 1934)

Although there are lots of hints of the supernatural in this one, it is all explained rationally at the end. A tyrannical retired judge is murdered by a man he sent to prison, but his face was mutilated and he has a missing brother, so readers will suspect early on that a substitution has been made. The solution is rather too implausible for me – with secret rooms, a substitution in a busy household, and lots of events that would almost certainly have revealed the truth that never quite do so. The weakest of the novels that I have read by this author. 1/1/17

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