Last Update 1/20/18

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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