Last Update 3/30/18

The House of Whispering Pines by Anna Katherine Green, 1910 

The protagonist has just discovered that he loves his fiancé’s sister and has asked to break off the engagement. Then he finds the fiancé dead in the house of the title, just after seeing the woman he really loves sneaking away. Then two other men arrive and find him and the body and they draw the obvious conclusions. It all gets straightened out at the end. I’ve read a couple of books by this author that have aged reasonably well, but that’s not the case this time. The prose is thick and treacly, the plot not all that interesting, and the characters are never really brought to life. 3/30/18

Kill with Kindness by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1968   

There is another hodge podge of cases in this one, but uncharacteristically several of them come together as one man is a rapist killer, his brother is a drug dealing conman also linked to a murder, and their mother is a fake nurse who kills her in home patients after getting them to sign wills in her favor, often without knowing what they are doing. More characteristically there are several errors – search warrants granted for no particular reason, an autopsy that cannot determine if a fresh corpse had recently been drinking – and a handful of familiar diatribes against lenient judges, mixed with regret that police have to investigate the murders of people who are “no loss”, and a complete lack of understanding of the effects of marijuana. 3/30/18

Murder on Amsterdam Avenue by Victoria Thompson, Berkley, 2015

This installment in the Gaslight mystery series is set shortly after the end of the Spanish American War. Frank Malloy has left the police force following his enrichment by an inheritance and is preparing to marry Sarah Brandt, former midwife, now back in the good graces of her aristocratic family. They are prevailed upon to look into the death of a rather bland young man by his father, and it is obvious from the onset that he was poisoned, probably by a family member or servant. The victim’s mother was from Georgia and there is still resistance to her acceptance into society, and that proves to be a more significant factor as the story progresses. Nicely plotted and told. There is some rather forced dialogue early on but it smooths out after a while. 3/29/18

Chance to Kill by Dell Shannon, Pyramid, 1967   

Another routine collection of criminal cases, although this time the main one – the murder of a police woman on her day off - is actually solved partially by deduction, although coincidence certainly helps. The other cases are mostly solved by people confessing or making blunders that expose what they were doing. There is some criticism of racism, accompanied by racial stereotyping that rather spoils the effect. The author also goes on at length about the squalor of high brow literature and the unwelcome necessity of investigating the murders of people she thinks are “no loss.” Slightly above average for the author. 3/27/18

Rain with Violence by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1967  

Another mishmash of cases with no central focus. A rapist confesses as soon as the police ask him questions, even though they have no evidence. Two killers keep a witness alive and tied up for no good reason and she eventually escapes. A prostitute who drugs and robs her clients accidentally kills one with an overdose and is turned in by one of her friends. Two elderly women are murdered in their home but the intruder does not steal any money or other valuable items. None of these are solved by the wits of the police and there are too many plots to keep track of. 3/27/18

The Case of the Suicide Tomb by Robert J. Hogan, Altus, 2017 (originally published in 1935) 

The fourth Wu Fang adventure, a pale imitation of Fu Manchu. This time he is trying to get access to a burial vault in the American southwest that contains the last victims of a strange plague. The plague, presumably, would work as a weapon of intimidation. He has more problems than usual however because there is a sinister mystery connected to the vault which may even be worse than his own plans. At the end, it appears that he has been captured by his enemies, but since there were further adventures, obviously it did not stick. 3/26/18

With a Vengeance by Dell Shannon, Pyramid, 1966 

A series of apparently random killings suggest a psychotic, but Mendoza suspects that there is a connection that they just are not seeing. As the death toll rises, they find only the vaguest connections among the villains, but finally the survivor of an attack mentions having almost been witness to a rape years earlier and that leads him to the husband of the woman who was attacked. Motivation is pretty thin on this one and as usual it is luck rather than procedure or skill that leads to the arrest. And Mendoza is criminally incompetent this time because he makes no effort to protect a man who is nearly killed, and who is subsequently attacked again only hours later. 3/25/18

Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell, Scribner, 2016   

Rendell's final novel is somewhat disappointing. A rather disorganized man sells some of his late father's weight loss pills to a friend, who promptly kills herself by taking them. His tenant knows about this and starts blackmailing him, even though the sale was perfectly legal. The woman who found the body is illegally living in the dead woman's apartment, at least until she is kidnapped. 3/21/18

The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell, 2014  

This is another character study with only the faintest trace of a mystery. During World War II a man kills his wife and her lover. He cuts off one hand from each and buries them in a tunnel that was used as a playground by local children. Sixty years later the hands are found and an investigation is launched. We know who the killer is from the outset, of course, and most of the story is about the children, now senior citizens, and what happened to their lives during the interim. We don't know the identity of the lover until the end, but he's not a notable character and there really isn't much to the revelation. 3/1/18

All Men Are Liars by John Stephen Strange, Doubleday, 1948 

Generally speaking, I don’t care for court room dramas, but I found this one quite enjoyable. A mechanic is fatally wounded on a city street. Dying, he asserts that he was shot by a man named Lester Ward, who obviously denies it. There is no other real evidence and the police can find no motive, but the case comes to trial anyway because there is some circumstantial evidence and Ward has no alibi. Things unravel fairly logically. Technically the story cheats since there is no way for the reader to figure out logically who the real killer is. Too much information is withheld until the end, one of the witnesses turns out to be delusional, and we never find out why the dying man lied in his final moments to implicate an innocent man. Still enjoyable despite its faults. 3/20/18

Coffin Corner by Dell Shannon, Morrow, 1965

This one was a pleasant surprise, and evidence that Linington was capable of writing much better than she usually did. An elderly woman is poisoned but no one can figure out how it happened. She lives with two brothers and an extensive cast of oddballs in a private residence hotel. She had been hiding the fact that she was very wealthy and it seems likely that someone recently found out, but no one can find a will. Two other cases – a murder designed to look like suicide and the deliberate running down of a traffic cop – circle the main one.  Linington should have written like this more often, but she seems to have disliked elaborate plotting. 3/18/18

Death by Inches by Dell Shannon, Morrow, 1965  

A torso is found in a park. A liquor store thief kills an attendant for no reason. Someone is breaking into the homes of elderly people, sometimes with lethal consequences. Luis Mendoza and friends solve all these cases, sometimes oblivious to the fact that they are breaking the law themselves. One detective provides details that only the killer, and author, could have known. Another characterizes a perfectly grammatical sentence as just the opposite. A man dies in a struggle with an intruder, but since his heart stopped, it was a natural death and no charge can be brought against the burglar. Apparently Linington really thought that was true. Disappointing resolution and lectures about soft headed judges round out the problems with the book. 3/18/18

The Copper Peacock by Ruth Rendell, Mysterious Press, 1991 

Another collection of stories, nine in all, including a really nasty cat lady, along with various murderers. There is a nicely done longish story about a man who contrives to make his wife's death look like an accident caused by his toddler son, and years later when he tires of his mistress, he begins to lay the groundwork for another incident. The title story is rather touching but not really a mystery. A man becomes beguiled by his cleaning lady, but their friendship ends when she gives him a rather ugly bookmark as a present. When she is killed by her lover, he feels decidedly guilty. All quite readable. 3/17/18

Piranha to Scurfy by Ruth Rendell, Vintage, 2000

Two novelettes and a handful of short stories. The stories are just okay. The title novelette is one of Rendell's best. A very disturbed man who writes critical letters to authors becomes haunted by a new horror novel that leads to his own demise. The second novelette has much of the feel of Shirley Jackson. An entire village is part of a plot designed only to allow people who believe in complete sexual freedom to live within its borders. It's also a very good story, although the ending is somewhat frustrating. 3/15/18

City of Endless Night by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Grand Central, 2018, $28, ISBN 978-1-4555-3694-8  

The latest Pendergast novel is about a serial killer, though an unusual one. His targets are all rich and powerful people, and some of the have state of the art security equipment and personnel. Nevertheless they all die as planned and the police – D’Agosta is back - and for a long time even Pendergast are unable to identify the killer or guess his motive. And why are all of his victims decapitated and their heads taken away?  As the body count rises, so too does the tension. The final confrontation is exciting and well-conceived than a rather convenient coincidence. other than The story flew by and kept me reading until late at night. This is one of the better novels in the series. 3/14/18

Mark of Murder by Dell Shannon, Morrow, 1964 

A rather minor Mendoza story with the usual problems – mass search warrants issued with no justification except to help the plot along. There is a serial killer and the murder of a chiropractor who was performing abortions. Not much suspense and nearly zero mystery in either case. The detectives make amazing leaps of intuition to solve the crimes, assisted by good luck and convenient plot turns that expose the perpetrator.  3/13/18

The Death-Bringers by Dell Shannon, Morrow, 1965   

A potpourri of cases including a bank robber who kills a police officer, the murder of a college student in her home, and the shooting of a gas station attendant. None of the cases are particularly interesting but the author’s penchant for stupid legal and logical errors is absent this time. She makes up for it by providing another lecture about lenient judges, stupid politicians, and laws that favor criminals over their victims. I would have thought the author would have grown tired of giving the same silly speech over and over but apparently she never did. 3/13/18

Blood Lines by Ruth Rendell, Crown, 1996  

Two novelettes and a handful of short stories, the latter of which are frequently vignettes. One of the longer pieces is about two teenagers who reappear after a gap of twenty years, but are they really who they claim to be? The ending is quite surprising. The other is a Wexford mystery about the murder of a man who was supposedly the ideal husband, but who was actually a wife abuser. The identity of the killer, however, comes as quite a surprise.  3/12/18

The Fever Tree by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1982 

Ruth Rendell's short fiction almost never involves a detective of any sort, and they are more properly crime and suspense stories than mysteries. For some reason, almost every story in this volume has had its original title changed, including the title story. Several of them involve the murder of a spouse or significant other, and in many cases the killer gets away with it. On at least one occasion, the reader will side with the killer. No clunkers, but no real stand outs in this volume. 3/10/18

The Fallen Curtain by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1976 

This was Rendell's first collection of short stories. "You Can't Be Too Careful" is the most interesting – a woman with OCD tries to adjust to a roommate – but I found the ending implausible. "The Double" flirts with the supernatural, the legend that if you meet your double you will die within a year. Rendell's quality level is generally quite good, but there are no real standout stories here. 3/10/18

The Hanging Captain by Henry Wade, Perennial, 1981 (originally published in 1933)

At first it looks like Captain Stretton hanged himself in his study. The timing of various events seems to clear the two chief suspects – his brother who is also heir to the estate, although it is heavily mortgaged, and the neighbor who has been romancing the captain’s wife. There are various problems with the two alibis which complicate matters further, and the local priest also becomes a suspect, though not a very plausible one. I figured out two separate explanations, one for each of the suspects, and one of these turned out to be correct. The byplay between the Scotland Yard inspector and the local police is also of some interest. Another very good mystery from this largely forgotten author. 3/8/18

Means of Evil by Ruth Rendell, Mysterious Press, 1991

This is a collection of five short cases handled by Inspector Wexford. In the first, a murder made to look like suicide follows a faked murder attempt designed to fail and cast suspicion on the wrong person. In the second, an elderly woman dies under mysterious circumstances, but the culprit is not the obvious one. Next someone steals a baby, but substitutes a different one.  Wexford solves a murder while vacationing in the fourth and in the fifth, he disproves a theory about a 19th Century crime by a clever ploy. A verey good collection. I wish Rendell had written more short fiction than she did. 3/7/18

Root of All Evil by Dell Shannon, Morrow, 1964 

A woman’s body is found at a construction site, dead of codeine poisoning. She had been living well with no visible source of income and the police suspect that she was involved in something illegal with two friends. Fingerprints in her apartment match those of a fugitive spy. The spy turns up dead in a motel room a few days later and an anonymous call links them both to a cold murder case from several years earlier. A fairly good mystery this time marred by racism, some McCarthyism, and a few demonstrably false statements which the author expects us to accept as factual. 3/6/18

Double Bluff by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1963 

Multiple instances of factual errors and confusion about police procedure doom this otherwise potentially interesting puzzle. A woman has disappeared along with her car and the husband is the prime suspect, but Mendoza is convinced that he is innocent although he may have been involved with concealing the body. You cannot get a search warrant based on unsupported “intuition”. Several references to the author’s “meticulous” research only illustrate that the people making those comments do not know what they are talking about. 3/4/18

No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell, Scribner, 2013

This was the last Inspector Wexford novel. A female pastor is strangled in the vicarage. There are conflicting stories about her past, and about the father of her seventeen year old daughter. Burden, who has Wexford's old job, is convinced that the gardener did it, but Wexford believes there is a more complicated answer. There are a couple of reasonably good red herrings but no really significant plot twists. About average for a Wexford novel. I will miss the character, as well as the generally engaging plots. 3/3/18

Dying to Live by Michael Stanley, Minotaur, 2018, $27.99, ISBN 978-1-250-07090-6

The latest case of Detective Kubo of the Botswana police force. An elderly bushman is found dead in the desert, possibly murdered. The autopsy finds some odd things. His internal organs are in extremely good shape and there is a bullet embedded in his flesh, but no scar.  Then an American researcher disappears. The bushman's body is stolen from the mortuary. A local witch doctor vanishes as well. They find his grave near a businessman's house, but the grave is empty. Are all these things linked or are they separate cases? Kubo and his associates track down the truth using police procedures and a touch of insight, while Kubo himself has to deal with the possibility that his adopted daughter might be fatally ill,  a tension that threatens to destroy his marriage. Sucked me in within twenty pages and I didn't put it down until I finished it two hours later. Another fine entry in the series. 3/1/18

Ben on the Job by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1952) 

I started to get bored with this series during the last book. Ben the Tramp is such a one note character that his cowardice, mangled language, and incredibly bad luck are no longer amusing or entertaining. This final adventure was published after a considerable lapse of years, and it’s slightly less over the top. Ben gets into trouble with the police, not entirely innocently, and does his usual bit about finding an empty house to hide in. But once again he finds a body and despite his intentions to avoid involvement, he is eventually instrumental in solving the crime. 2/27/18

Death of a Busybody by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1963 

This novel is so offensive it probably could not get published today. A nasty busybody is found strangled. Detective Mendoza immediately and for no reason assumes that one of her acquaintances is gay and that he is the killer. He physically assaults an innocent man, neglects to pursue other lines of inquiry, makes a totally unnecessary scene at a funeral, and commits other unprofessional acts, all of which have the obvious approval of the author, who believes that gays are almost always professional criminals.  2/26/18

The St Zita Society by Ruth Rendell, Scribner, 2012  

Although this really isn’t a mystery at all, it's an entertaining book. The title refers to an informal organization of the servants working in a posh neighborhood. We see their often interesting lives as well as those of their employers. One of these discovers that his wife is having an affair with a famous actor and pushes him down a staircase, necessitating the hiding of the body, although that doesn't go well. Then there is the mentally ill gardener who believes God talks to him through his cell phone, and acts when God tells him to kill a demon masquerading as one of his acquaintances. Except that he kills the wrong woman. Quite enjoyable. 2/25/18

Knave of Hearts by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1962 

A man is executed for a rape and murder but his wife insists that he was innocent. A new witness comes forward and vindicates him. The wife then points out that several similar cases followed and the police reluctantly look into her theory and find that it has a sound basis. We see part of the story from the killer’s point of view, and his is the most deeply drawn character I’ve encountered in Linington’s novels. This one is pretty much error free other than the fact that no one bothered to question the sister of one of the victims, who has crucial information. On the other hand, the author repeats her contempt for women who don’t share her lifestyle. 2/24/18

Detective Ben by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1936)

Ben the Tramp returns to find another body, this time on London Bridge. The killers are after him as well but he is rescued by a woman who turns out to be on the run from a gang of international criminals. Now Ben is stuck with her and vice versa. They have the usual round of adventures before Ben almost inadvertently turns the tables on their tormentors and rescues himself and his companion. I really got tired of Ben’s quirkiness this time, but I only have one more book to read in the series. 2/23/18

Extra Kill by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1961

The death of a policeman seems to be the result of gang violence until a rookie cop convinces Mendoza that there is sufficient reason to look at the case more closely. Sloppy police work abounds before he determines that the dead officer might have seen something that he shouldn’t have, particularly since another murder took place at the same location and time when he responded to an unrelated domestic disturbance. Unfortunately lazy writing and misunderstanding of police procedure and the law abounds in the Mendoza novels.  2/21/18

Blood Moon by Gary Disher, Soho, 2009 

I have no complaints about this police procedural set in Australia. The characters are complex and interesting and the array of cases – an assault on a chaplain, the murder of a government official, and overtly racial incidents, with some complications involving a horde of vacationing teenagers – are well constructed and solved through reasonably proper police techniques with no outrageous cheating of the reader. It’s part of a series and if I happen to notice the others, I will probably pick them up, although the truth is that I generally don’t care for the form.  P.D. James was so good that everyone else working this particular vein seems vanilla to me.2/0/18

The Child’s Child by Ruth Rendell, Center Point, 2012 

This was the last book to appear under the Barbara Vine name. It is also the least interesting and feels very awkward. A woman and her gay brother jointly live in the house their grandmother left them. The brother is gay and has an obnoxious boyfriend who also turns out to be mentally unstable. Most of the book consists of a novel the narrator is reading, which bears strong parallels to her own situation. Slow moving, no mystery at all, and unfocused. I was very disappointed in this one because the first few chapters are quite good. 2/19/18

The Ace of Spades by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1961

A stolen art collection, a drug overdose that was obviously murder, a gangster who gets out of prison and finds the world so changed that he feels uncomfortable, and a rich femme fatale without any common sense all play a part in Luis Mendoza’s second outing. Once again he relies more on hunches than evidence, and once again there are some minor problems with the author’s misunderstanding of police procedures. Not much mystery either, as the reader pretty much knows everything from the outset and the process of discovery is not remotely interesting. 2/16/18

The Vault by Ruth Rendell, Scribner, 2011

The last but one Wexford mystery is one of the best. A man becomes curious about an old coal vault on his property and takes a look. Inside he finds four dead bodies, three of whom have been there for more than a decade but one for only a couple of years. Wexford is retired but the London police ask him to consult on the case, and he uncovers a series of increasingly confusing incidents in the past, not all of which may be relevant to the case. Once again I figured out a good proportion of the solution in advance, but it's all rather cleverly done and very enjoyable. 2/14/18

Case Pending by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1960  

This was the first Luis Mendoza novel and it was meant to be a standalone. Instead it become Elizabeth Linington’s most popular series. Mendoza notices a similarity between two separate apparently random murders. He relies more on instinct than actual facts and suspects an oversized thirteen year old with mental problems. His investigation overlaps with a plan by a government inspector to murder a blackmailer, and the cover up of the murder of the teenager’s father. I didn’t find Mendoza very likeable but the mystery is reasonably well done. The novel was nominated for an Edgar. 2/12/18

Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell, Scribner, 2011

Although there is a mysterious murder late in the book, this is basically a dark comedy about a vain man who gets caught up in an affair that endangers his life. He tries to extricate himself, without success, while interacting with various oddball characters in the apartment house into which he has recently moved. He is the one who is murdered and the outraged husband is the obvious suspect, but what about his recent obsession with the Asian woman living across the street. This one was okay but unremarkable. 2/11/18

Pro Bono by Seicho Matsumoto, Vertical, 2012 (from the 1961 Japanese edition) 

A woman tries unsuccessfully to convince a high priced lawyer to defend her brother, who is accused of murder, and he dies in prison. Some months later, the lawyer has an attack of conscious and begins to look at the case on his own, which eventually results in the dead man’s vindication and identification of the real killer. This was a decent mystery, but I had a problem with the translation. There seem to be two strategies for translators. One is to convert the prose as it is, even when that means that some of the sentences feel awkward to English language readers. Others attempt to convey the essence of the words but in a more accessible idiom. This is one of the former and the prose feels stilted, awkward, and artificial. 2/8/18

The New Girl Friend by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1985 

The title story from this collection won an Edgar, but most of the others are just as good. These really aren't mysteries for the most part. They're crime stories, involving insanity, silly mistakes, obsession, impulses, and other motives. There is never any question about who is responsible. The collection is relatively short and goes by quickly. Rendell's interest in psychology often works better at shorter length because the suggestions are more effective than her more detailed descriptions. "Father's Day" is a particularly impressive look at obsession. 2/8/18

The Legacy of Deeds by Nick Kyme, Titan,2017, $14.95, ISBN 978-1785652066

This Sherlock Holmes adventure opens with the massacre of everyone at an art gallery when through a rather overly contrived trick poisonous gases are released from the paint in the artwork. Somehow this is linked to the murder of a servant of a visiting Russian aristocrat. The general plot is okay but the details are frequently wrong. Holmes' abilities to interpret often ambiguous clues correctly is a given, but in several cases here the author does not even attempt to explain the chain of reasoning. Holmes is able to anticipate the movements of the person he is "following" so well that he can get to the destinations ahead of time and prepare elaborate disguises and other tricks. The Irregulars are able to track down a man based only on his initials, "S.D.", with no other information and in less than a day. Holmes also makes an inexcusable error by insisting that madmen cannot plan their murders in detail in advance. There is also a terrible logical flaw. The murdered servant was in disguise, but was identified simply because he was wearing military boots. He was lying face down and the police did not turn him over to examine his face, nor did the person who identified him. This is explained by their desire not to disturb the corpse until Holmes had looked at it, but at the time it was discovered, they had no reason to believe Holmes would even be involved, so the reasoning is nonsensical. Very disappointing. 2/5/18

The Wine of Life by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1985 

The last Jesse Falkenstein novel opens when a client dies, apparently a suicide, the night before he is supposed to sign his will. Falkenstein learns that he was not the child of the couple who raised him and was never adopted, so his sister cannot inherit his estate. He spends the rest of the novel trying to track down the mother, which turns out to be very difficult because the pregnancy was kept secret. This eventually leads him to the solution of two separate murder cases. There is a very contrived ending to allow the money to go where the dead man intended. There is also a horrendous misunderstanding of how probate law works that invalidates the entire plot. And the truth is discovered through coincidence rather than the otherwise generally well-conceived investigation. 2/4/18

The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards, Poisoned Pen, 2017, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-4642-0906-2  

Another collection of vintage crime stories, this time involving police investigators. There is a mix of familiar names – Edgar Wallace, John Creasey, Christiana Brand – and more obscure ones. Oddly the only story I disliked was the John Creasey, whom I ordinarily enjoy. The solutions are obvious only a couple of times and several of them are quite clever. Once again Edwards has put together a fine collection of stories. I recommend all of the anthologies he has produced for this publisher. 2/2/18

Crime at Christmas by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1983  

Once again a hodge podge of crimes with no central focus. The police seem to forget steps in the investigation that seem obvious and at other times they take days before interviewing important witnesses. None of the individual cases are particularly interesting and a lot of time is spent talking about stray animals and a power outage. As usual, the suspects all confess as soon as the police come to see them. The author had her formula down pat, but by now she was frequently repeating things from earlier books. If I never hear the metaphor about making bricks without straw again, I won’t miss it. 2/1/18

Chain of Violence by Lesley Egan, Doubleday  1983

Lots of procedural errors in this one – involving evidence handling, fingerprints, search warrants, and even a failure to take pictures at a crime scene. Some of the crimes are rather implausible. We are supposed to believe that a Vietnamese teenager would accept that being filmed having sex with a strange man is part of a normal high school curriculum. This was the last and probably the weakest of the Vic Varallo novels and there are so many cases this time that it is hard to keep them straight. 2/1/18

The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell, Scribner, 2009 

This is a rather atypical Wexford novel. For most of his career, he has believed that a man named Targo has been killing people, even though he is never a serious suspect. Targo appears to be taunting Wexford as well. The latest victim is Wexford's part time gardener, which makes it even more personal. There is a good deal about Wexford's youth in this one, not to mention an escaped lion. Nevertheless, I thought this was his weakest adventure, slow paced and with virtually no mystery at all in the plot. 1/31/18

The Conjure Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher, Ann Arbor Books, 1992 (originally published in 1932)    

This is the first known mystery novel by a Black writer, set in Harlem. The conjure man is a kind of psychic who denies having magical powers although he insists that he can read a person’s future in his or her face. He is assaulted and choked to death with a handkerchief during one of his sessions and the police gather all of his clients of that evening, plus his landlord and landlady and the doctor who was called to the scene. The first half of the novel consists of their interviews, but the story takes a surprise turn at that point when the body disappears, even though there are police officers watching all the exits. There are a couple of rough spots but overall this is pretty good though perhaps a bit slow at times, particularly early on. 1/29/18

Malice by Keigo Higashino, Minotaur, 2014 (from the 1996 Japanese edition) 

This mystery has an unusual structure. At the one third mark, we know who the killer was and more or less how he did it. So do the police and he has been arrested. But his motive is murky at first since the victim, a successful writer, was supposedly a close friend. The investigation uncovers three motives – an affair with the dead man’s wife that ended with her suicide or possibly even murder, evidence that the killer was actually writing the novels and that the victim was taking credit for them, and further evidence that the dead man was blackmailing his eventual killer. But the detective in charge is suspicious of all three motives and uncovers the truth – that none of them are really true and the motive is darker than any of them. Not Higashino’s best but still excellent. 1/28/18

Portobello by Ruth Rendell, Arrow, 2008 

There is no real way to call this a mystery even though it is marketed as one. There isn't even very much crime. A man addicted to lozenges finds as packet of money and advertises for the owner instead of turning it in. The real owner – who is in the hospital – calls and gets the money, but there is also a burglar who responds, primarily to case the house of the man who found it. Things get a little more complicated after that, but all of the conflict involves tensions between the various characters. I struggled to finish this one. 1/27/18

Little Boy Lost by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1983  

There is a standard mystery theme here. A young boy was kidnapped and presumed murdered twenty years ago. A young man shows up in the present and claims to be the missing boy, which makes him the prospective heir for a lot of money. Lawyer Falkenstein and everyone except the mother believe he is an imposter right from the outset, and he is confirmed in his opinion after he consults a psychic who assures him the real son is dead. Despite this nonsense, this is an okay but not outstanding variation of a plot probably best done in Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey. 1/26/18

The Miser by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1981 

An elderly miser and his wife are beaten to death in their home and the daughter who looked after them for years is arrested. Falkenstein has to find the truth, as well as locate a large portion of the man’s wealth, which he has managed to conceal. Once again, the story is marred by factual errors that the editors should have caught. For example, the miser removes his savings from the bank so that it cannot be taxed. Savings have never been taxed. I hope the author had an accountant because she sure wasn’t financially competent. The police never even consider alternate perpetrators even though the evidence is all circumstantial. The lawyer/hero also displays a remarkable ignorance of simple contract law that even a layman would understand. 

Random Death by Lesley Egan, Doubleday,1982   

This is another mosaic novel with about ten separate cases ranging from a high school drug ring to murder by prowler to burglaries performed by raccoons. There is a suicide that is misconstrued as murder, murder over a mild insult, and murder by accidents. The guilty parties are generally immigrants and often children and some of them were high on pot at the time. There is a really vicious mischaracterization of welfare recipients and a short speech about how the rising crime rate is due to foreigners. There are also a number of procedural errors including not questioning an eye witness to a murder until the following day, not notifying next of kin, and not checking alibis. Linington had markedly deteriorated by this point, which was near the end of her career.

Devils in Daylight by Junichiro Tanizaki, New Directions, 2017, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-8112-2491-8

This novella had an interesting premise but for some reason I just never felt drawn into the story. The narrator receives a call from his possibly unbalanced friend, who thinks he has deciphered a note he found in a theater, thereby uncovering an elaborate murder plot. The code is based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold Bug," and is quite elaborate. It turns out that he has indeed stumbled into something deadly, but all is not as it seems. Various actions by the characters struck me as unrealistic and the translation is rather stiff. 1/24/18

Don’t Point That Thing at Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Overlook, 2004 (originally published in 1972) 

The author was editor of Science Fantasy magazine but wrote very little in the genre himself. He is better known for a series of novels that began with this title about a shady art dealer who has various adventures, sometimes spoofing the James Bond subgenre. He is Charles Mortdecai and his assistant is Jock Strapp. This one involves murder, espionage, art theft, a secret British police organization that is above the law, and the obligatory beautiful but potentially dangerous woman. Although this was amusing, it was not sufficiently interesting to cause me to look up the sequels. 1/24/18

Sleep No More by P.D. James, Knopf, 2017, $21, ISBN 978-0-525-52073-3 

Since all of the author’s mystery novels end up with the villain being unmasked and captured, it is interesting that all six of these stories involve criminals who get away with it.  A young boy helps cover up the murder of an unpopular teacher. Another youngster helps conceal the murder of his nasty uncle. A young woman has allowed her father to be executed for a murder she committed as a child. An adulterous couple murder the woman’s husband, although the pale partner discovers that he may be a lesser victim. Another man murders the rich snob who stole his wife, and discovers that his clever plot was obvious to his ex-wife, who was perfectly happy to become a rich widow. An elderly man pretends to have committed a murder in order to blackmail his two disagreeable and stingy children. But was it a pretense or did he really do it? All six stories are nicely done.

The Birthday Present by Ruth Rendell, Penguin, 2008

This was another Barbara Vine, but an atypical one with a more straightforward plot and less psychology. A Member of Parliament is having an adventurous affair with a young women, and the latest twist is that for her birthday he has sent two mock kidnappers to tie her up and deliver her to his rendezvous. Unfortunately, she and one of the kidnappers are killed in an auto crash and the other is brain damaged. He tries to cover things up to protect his career, but naturally things don't go the way he planned. This one was okay, but had a lot of wasted potential.

Motive in Shadow by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1980

This was a surprisingly good title by this author with a single mystery and a pretty good one. A wealthy woman dies but at the last minute she changed her will and left the family business to a distant relative she had never even met. Jesse Falkenstein investigates and finds various contradictions and mysteries in her past, uncovering them one by one. There is a really nice reversal at the end and the author doesn’t cheat this time, which was a nice change. Her nuttiness about psychic phenomena is present but thankfully muted. 1/20/18

 A Choice of Crimes by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1980

Once again we have a web of unrelated crimes, most of which get solved by luck. Several villains confess as soon as they are questioned. One leaves fingerprints. Two are insane. The most potentially interesting is the death of an old woman, killed for her inheritance, but the plot hinges upon the author’s belief that doctors issue death certificates without actually examining the bodies and confirming identification. It is also depressing that her police heroes consider dropping murder cases when the victim is a woman with multiple boyfriends because they are obviously not worth investigating.  1/29/18

Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell, Crown, 2007 

A dog digs up a body in a field and the subsequent investigation turns up a second in a nearby abandoned house. One died eight years previously and the other eleven. The killer of one is identified fairly easily – but he has since died and may have shot the other man by accident. But no one knows who the victim might be. On the other hand, the second man is identified as one who went missing a decade earlier, but in this case, there is nothing to suggest who killed him or why. There are some nice though minor surprise reversals at the end. 1/18/18

Death in High Provence by George Bellairs, Penguin, 1963 (originally published in 1957) 

A British police detective is asked to take an unofficial look at a supposed automobile accident in France which killed two people. There are some odd aspects but he is curious enough to take his wife on a working vacation to look into them. The community, however, is completely dominated by a local aristocrat. When one drunken man says too much, an attempt is made to kill him and then he mysteriously disappears. Inspector Littlejohn also looks into an old shooting accident that was almost certainly a duel and eventually uncovers two separate murderers. A lot of the story is advanced by coincidence but it’s still pretty good. 1/17/18

The Thief by Ruth Rendell, Arrow, 2006 

This is a novella rather than a full length novel. Polly's childhood response to people who annoyed her was to steal something of theirs, a habit that she has carried over into her adult life. After an encounter with a really awful man on an airplane, she impulsively steals his bag, which contains a large sum of money. The result is that her boyfriend leaves her and the villain gets his money back and the satisfaction of having ruined her life. Terrible ending. 1/16/18

The Hunters and the Hunted by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1979

Egan has a good concept for the focus of this police procedural, but blows it. A woman is concerned that her ex-husband, who killed his parents and was sent to a mental institution, has been released after only four years. She is certain that he will come after them, but even after providing evidence to the police, they refuse to believe her when she reports three separate attempts on her daughter’s life. She would have had grounds to sue the city and the supposedly smart detectives would have received reprimands at a minimum. A few minor cases circle the main story but none of them are particularly interesting. 1/16/18

Moghul Buffet by Cheryl Benard, Soho, 2003 (originally published in 1998) 

This appears to be the author’s only mystery novel. A visitor to Pakistan disappears from his hotel room in Peshawar, after which there is a series of murders, which are eventually solved. Although there is some dark humor in this, it is also a somewhat pointed commentary on the restrictions placed on women in Muslim countries. The mystery element is moderately interesting. Although I managed to finish this despite the annoying present tense narration, I could not help noticing how much better it would have been in a more accessible format. I know I sound repetitive on this issue but I really think present tense books should have a warning label. 1/14/18

Look Back on Death by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1978

Jesse Falkenstein looks into a very cold case when he becomes convinced the man convicted of murdering his aunt is innocent. The dead woman was about to give a large amount of money to a fake spiritualist, had hinted that she was about to marry a man she refrained from identifying, and she employed a housekeeper who was suspected of theft and possibly other crimes. The author introduces a bunch of “genuine” psychic events this time and assures the reader that these kind of things have now been scientifically proven which is of course nonsense. Leaving that out, it is one of her better puzzles and somewhat more of a conventional detective story than a police procedural. Until the end! The case is solved by a séance in which the dead woman provides clues to the identity of the killer, who was never even mentioned previously and who is a random neighbor. 1/13/18

The Babes in the Wood by Ruth Rendell, Crown, 2002

Although this Wexford novel reads well, the ending is disappointing and rather a cheat. Two teenagers and their adult female babysitter disappear one weekend. Weeks later the sitter is found in her car at the bottom of a quarry. There is no sign of the teenagers until one of them calls an ambulance for her grandmother, with whom she has secretly been living. She tells an obvious false story of the dead woman's boyfriend having thrown her down a staircase, along with a less convincing explanation of why she and her brother left with the killer. The boy eventually turns up as well and the whole story comes out. The killer is a minor character whom the reader could not reasonably have concluded was the murderer, and the complete failure of the police to consider that the teenage boy might be responsible was completely unconvincing.  1/12/18

A Dream Apart by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1978

An elderly invalid is stabbed to death in her home. Her daughter in law says she was out for a walk, but we know that she actually blacked out and does not know where she was. The mystery this time is fairly well conceived but marred by several quite inexplicable goofs that did not require expertise to check, like how one would leave fingerprints on a pair of scissors. There are some minor additional crimes added to flesh things out, and a surprisingly large part of the book is told from the point of view of one of the suspects. The solution comes out of nowhere involving a character and a motive that had not previously been hinted at. 1/11/18

The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell, Crown, 2006 

Heather and Ismay are sisters whose stepfather drowned in a bathtub when they were teenagers. It was officially called an accident, but Ismay and her mother are convinced that Heather killed him. Years later, both sisters are involved with men and the two hate each other. Ismay's beau leaves her for another woman, who is promptly murdered, and she assumes that Heather has struck again. A blackmailer, a homeless junkie, and various other repellent characters complicate matters. Nicely written, but unappealing and the end just fizzles out. 1/9/18

The Blind Search by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1977 

There’s some actual – and unnecessary – psychic phenomena in this mystery novel. Lawyer Falkenstein is employed to find out why a woman who abandoned her child six years earlier suddenly wants her back. But he is unable to find out where she and her boyfriend have gone., In fact, he hears of several boyfriends, one of whom ends up murdered. The solution is reasonably clever this time, but there is no possible way for the reader to guess what’s going on because too much information is withheld. The author’s usual rants about categories of people she dislikes is muted this time, which is another plus. There are some subplots about other crimes but they are not particularly interesting. 1/9/18

A Reckoning in the Back Country by Terry Shames, 7th Street, 2018, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-367-3

This is the latest Samuel Craddock mystery, a series set in a small town. Craddock is the local police chief and he believes that a recently discovered body is linked to a group operating an illegal dog fighting exhibition. For various reasons, the local people are less than cooperative and the dead man turns out to have been leading a secret life as well, so Craddock has to unravel puzzles inside of puzzles. Some personal developments also disturb his concentration. And naturally he finds the answers in the end. Despite the annoying first person present tense narration, which seems particularly inappropriate this time, I managed to find this one reasonably enjoyable. 1/7/18

Paper Chase by Lesley Egan, Harper, 1972  

This is one of the best of the Egan titles, with an interesting puzzle – the protagonist's secretary gets murdered – although the solution is pulled out of thin air. There is a secondary plot about a serial rapist that is reasonably well done, but he only gets caught because he stupidly repeats an unnecessary step in his stalking routine that tips off his next prospective victim. The rants against people she doesn't like are generally missing and there's a subplot about dogs that goes on too long. 1/5/18

Scenes of Crime by Lesley Egan, Doubleday, 1976

Another mosaic police procedural with most of the same tropes as in the author's earlier work. An accountant is found bludgeoned to death in his apartment. A serial rapist mentions an unknown woman's name during each attack. An elderly woman dies of an overdose of a drug to which she should have had no access. Three children are found dead in a wooded area. The police work is sloppy, the solutions come mostly by luck, and there is no real focus to the plot. 1/5/18

The Blood Doctor by Ruth Rendell, Shaye Arehart, 2002

A member of the House of Lords decides to write a biography of his great grandfather, who was a physician who specialized in diseases of the blood like hemophilia. His researches uncover some unpleasant facts. A surprising number of the doctor's friends and relatives died in strange accidents over the course of his life, which is eventually tied to the doctor's desire to experiment. The dark theme is trivialized, however, because of the author's extended discussions of hemophilia, the operation of the House of Lords, and other matters. The researcher also has tension in his own marriage because of their inability to have a child. This is my least favorite Rendell by far, particularly because those segments that take place in the present are written in present tense. 1/3/18

End in Tears by Ruth Rendell, Crown, 2005   

Inspector Wexford discovers that a recently murdered teenager narrow escaped death only a few weeks before. He is interviewing all of her friends in search of a motive when one of those friends disappears and is later found murdered as well. There is a clearly illegal adoption/surrogacy operation going on and this seems to be central, although it turns out to be largely a red herring. A solid police procedural, although the solution results from chance and coincidence a bit more than I found comfortable.  1/2/18

Naked Came the Farmer by Philip Jose Farmer et al, Mayfair, 1998

Philip Jose Farmer wrote the opening installment of this round robin mystery. Contributing are a lot people whose names I didn’t recognize, but there is also Nancy Atherton, Dorothy Cannell, and a couple of others whose short work I have seen from time to time. This really wasn’t very successful. Farmer’s contribution is a kind of spoof of the mystery genre and the other writers attempted, with varying degrees of success, to carry on his tone as well as the story line. More of an oddity than anything else. I had never heard of it until I stumbled on a copy completely by chance. 1/1/18

Malicious Mischief by Lesley Egan, Harper, 1971

This is a very unfocused novel with lots of separate and unrelated cases, most of which are solved by informants, luck, or the stupid confessions of dumb criminals. One involves an assault on two young women, one of whom dies. Another is a series of dognappings for ransom. Another man is found dead in his house after meeting an unknown individual. There are also vandals and holdup men. The author makes some minor procedural errors and indulges in diatribes against classes of people she dislikes. 1/1/18

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