Last Update 2/21/18

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