Last Update 6/30/17

The Howling Beast by Noel Vindry, Locked Room International, 2016 (from the 1934 French edition)

A visitor to an old castle in France hears strange howls in the night. He is on the run from the police himself and takes refuge with an old friend, who seems reluctant to allow him to stay.  A locked room murder and various nefarious deeds follow, but the story is so chaotic and disorganized that it was hard to stay focused on the plot.  Not as good as the first book I read by Vindry, and I found that one hard to follow as well. 6/30/17

The Singing Room by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1948)

As much as I enjoy Berrow's work, the four novels about his husband and wife amateur detective team – the Revels – are too silly for me. Witty banter can provide an extra dimension to a story, but Berrow overdoes it to the point where the book is about the banter and the mystery is almost irrelevant. This time they are house guests and witness, or rather hear, some strange goings on before a murder is committed and they must solve the crime. 6/26/17

Make Death Love Me by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1979

A branch bank manager impulsively decides to take advantage of a badly botched robbery to steal some of the cash himself. The robbers, however, have taken his assistant hostage and he eventually begins to feel loyalty toward her and attempts to track down her abductors. The two stories alternate, one a tragedy, the other a dark comedy in which the thieves find that their captive is more than they can handle. Nicely constructed, more humorous than anything I’ve previously read by Rendell, and cleverly wound up at the end. 6/26/17

The Invisible Circle by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2014 (French version 1996)

This variation of Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie never really gets off the ground. Seven people – most of them strangers to one another – are invited to a creepy old castle. Their host tells them that one of their number will murder him before the night is over. He also is a King Arthur fanatic and the murder weapon is a sword somehow drawn from a stone. The pretenses by which he lures them to his island estate are so flimsy that I cannot imagine that any rational person would have shown up, and mayhem that ensues is sometimes incoherent and never very believable. This is the weakest Halter novel I have read. 6/25/17

Betrayal at Iga by Susan Spann, 7th Street, 2017, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-277-5

A Hiro Hattori mystery/adventure set in 16th Century Japan. Hattori is a ninja who has fled his enemies accompanied by a Portuguese priest. They hope to find a safe place, but more violence is threatened when the murder of a negotiator between two clans upsets that process. Hattori and the priest have to solve the crime to avert a major conflict. And the killer will strike again before they solve the mystery. Generally I don't care for historical mysteries, but the setting for this one is nicely done and the mystery itself interesting enough to hold my attention. 6/22/17

A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1977

The victims are identified and the killers are named in the first two pages of this taut psychological thriller. A reasonably nice family hires a woman who uses false references and various tricks to conceal the fact that she is illiterate, about which she is so defensive that she will kill to keep her secret. The well meaning family members try to make her happy, and in doing so seal their own fate. No real mystery here, but the atmosphere is tense throughout. 6/21/17

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North, Poisoned Pen, 2016 (originally published in 1960)

This was my second try at this series. It was better than the first but still not good enough to keep me looking for more. A woman marries a much younger man, who disappears at the same time as she is found dead, apparently a suicide. Cluff is an unorthodox policeman who relies more upon his instincts and understanding of human psychology than on physical clues. He eventually figures out what happened, but this is more of a story of character and tragedy than a murder mystery. 6/20/17

Dead Certain by Adam Mitzner, Thomas & Mercer, 2017, $15.95, ISBN 978-1477822593

Two sisters who are otherwise fairly close have been keeping secrets from each other. The first is a successful attorney, very proper, except that at night she sings in obscure New York City nightclubs. Sister two, the younger, then reveals that she is secretly a writer and has just sold her first novel. This sounds like good news, but younger sister disappears a short time later and appears to have vanished from the face of the earth. Fortunately, older sister has a quasi-relationship with a police detective who agrees to help her find the missing woman, but the investigation reveals details that have an eerie similarity to events in the as yet unpublished book. It appears that the writing sister has been engaged in a risky, not to mention risque, life style and it may have caught up to her. The solution, of course, is to map correspondences from the characters in the novel to people in the real world. But can they figure out the solution to the puzzle before it's too late? I found this one surprisingly engaging and difficult to set aside. 6/19/17

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton, Poisoned Pen, 2016 (originally published in 1936)

Miles Burton was a penname for Cecil Street, who is better known as John Rhode, a prolific mystery writer and collaborator with John Dickson Carr.  This one involves a murder rigged to look like suicide, a man shot to death in a private railroad compartment while traveling through a tunnel. But the police are suspicious because the train slowed in response to mysterious lights, the dead man’s wallet has been substituted, and other evidence suggests that this was a cleverly planned murder. It cheats a little. We know early on that two people were involved, but one of them is not even a character in the story until the closing chapters. His partner is fairly obvious by midway and the police figure out the method quite early as well. Entertaining but not among the author’s best work. 6/15/17

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell, Arrow, 1976 

This is more of a dark character study than a mystery. Arthur Johnson is mentally ill, though he hides it well. He devotes his murderous impulses to a manikin in the basement of his apartment building until someone throws it out. Then he decides to find a new victim from among the living. His life is further confused when a man with a very similar name moves into the apartment building and there is confusion about mail and other matters. Arthur’s dementia is well described and positively creepy and there is a kind of inevitability once the story begins that is satisfied, though not as one might expect. 6/14/17

A Killer in the Street by Helen Nielsen, Curtis, 1967  

This is a fairly routine crime novel in which the protagonist witnesses a gangster killing a man in a parking garage. Rather than go to the police, he and his wife relocate to the Southwest, but years later the murderer comes looking for them, determined to eradicate any possible threat. Mayhem follows before the villain is thwarted. One of the author's least interesting efforts. Nielsen ended up writing a lot of stuff for television, which reduced her output, but I also suspect that it led to habits of superficiality in her later novels. 6/12/17

Death on the Riviera by John Bude, Poisoned Pen, 2016 (originally published in 1952)

Two British policemen travel to the Riviera to help the French police with a counterfeiting case that is probably being run by two Englishmen. Their investigation also impinges on a cigarette smuggling ring and the occupants of a rented villa, where a lovers’ triangle eventually leads to violent death. More crime novel than mystery, although the murder mystery – which comes at the end – is mildly interesting. I guessed the solution though, despite the fact that it is somewhat of a cheat. 6/11/17

Art in the Blood by Bonnie Macbird, Collins, 2016, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-00-812969-9

This Sherlock Holmes adventure never really caught my interest. A young boy has disappeared in France and his mother has been assaulted. For some recent, this attracts the attention of a rather jaded Holmes and he and Watson are off on a whirlwind adventure that takes them back and forth across the English Channel. Watson felt right but Holmes never seemed quite real to me and the mystery itself was not that interesting. 6/10/17

The Mystery at Stowe by Vernon Loder, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1928)

House party murder mysteries were once almost a genre by themselves. This early one involves a woman found dead in her bedroom with a poisoned dart in her back. Her body is discovered by a woman she hated because of her role as an explorer, which fascinated the dead woman’s husband. The police suspect her, but an old friend shows up in the nick of time to discover flaws in their reconstruction and eventually reveal the truth. The bereaved husband’s behavior after the murder keeps things churning, but when we find out the truth, his actions seem totally illogical and out of character. 6/9/17

The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2012 (French version 1991)

There are some intriguing elements in this quite good murder mystery set in 1930s London. A man is abducted from his room by men wearing masks used during the Black Plague. The secretary of a prominent mystery novelist reports that he overheard his employer and a famous actor exchanging accusations and plotting to commit a murder as a kind of contest, after which he is shot dead by the writer, apparently while burglarizing his study. The two cases are related, of course and the path by which the protagonists discover the truth is twisted and inventive. One of Halter’s best novels. 6/8/17

Shake Hands Forever by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1975

This might have been one of Rendell’s very best novels if she hadn’t included a sequence when Wexford is ordered not to pursue his investigation of a widower because he complains that he has been harassed. Of course the murder of his wife – although it turns out to be someone else entirely – would automatically make him a primary suspect. There are some clever twists in this one but it was spoiled for me by the ham-handed efforts by the author to make the investigation more difficult. By this point, Rendell should have known better, but apparently her readers were not demanding enough. 6/7/17

The Threateners by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1992 

Matt Helm is after a South American drug lord this time, although primarily because he has offered a bounty for the life of a writer who exposed part of his operation. The dead man’s widow is his unreliable ally, and there is yet another rogue intelligence agency willing to commit murder just to promote the career of their boss. And once again, the boss risks his life in the field, and in fact becomes a prisoner of the drug lord during the final chapters, which involve a multi-sided battle that ends with Helm getting his man. Okay, but more plot holes. 6/6/17

 The Damagers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1993 

The last published Matt Helm novel – another one was written but has never been in print – was quite different from the others and is actually one of his best, although once again we have the director of an agency putting her life at risk by going into the field to prove her theories. This one is about terrorists with a nuclear weapon which is known to be somewhere on the East Coast. Helm has to track it down before it is detonated, while dodging the attentions of the son of a man he killed way back in one of the earliest books. 6/6/17

Black Hawthorn by John Stephen Strange, Doubleday, 1933

The matriarch of a wealthy family dies, apparently of a stroke, but later an autopsy proves she was stabbed. Her oldest son claims to have found an incriminating document, but he is killed in the presence of a police detective when the lights go out. The woman's will is destroyed when an unknown person starts a fire. An exhumation proves that the dead woman's husband was also murdered, although it wasn't detected then. Obviously someone in the family is responsible, but who? Nicely done traditional murder mystery. 6/5/17

The Demolishers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1987 

Hamilton really started to lose control with this one. Several plot branches hinge on events that make absolutely no sense, particularly the behavior a special Presidential task force on drugs. And what kind of a task force has only five members? Matt Helm’s son is killed by terrorists so he and his daughter in law participate in a wide ranging plan of revenge and suppression. Her father is a highly placed gangster, so they have unlikely allies, but they also have trouble with the task force, which makes them unlikely opponents. Just when Helm needs a bomb of his own, he runs into a computer nerd who happens to have an entire room full of them that he manufactured for fun. The story is interspersed with rants about hippies, modern music, gun control, inappropriate women’s clothing – which for Hamilton means pants, and other irrelevancies. It’s sad to watch a good writer begin to disintegrate and there are still three books left in the series to read. 6/4/17

The Frighteners by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1989 

There is a complicated plot at the beginning of this Matt Helm adventure that doesn’t make any sense if you actually think about it, but once that is out of the way, this is one of Hamilton’s better novels. He is impersonating a rich Texan suspected of trafficking in arms in Mexico, but there is another rogue US intelligence agency at work as well as various vigilantes from both sides of the border who have grudges against one or more of the villains. The closing chapters are very well done and include an exciting series of battles on a rocky hillside.  6/4/17

Murderer’s Trail by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1931)

Ben the Tramp returns for a new adventure. He has an unlucky encounter with a dead body and a killer in the fog and hides in the coal storage of a moored ship. Unfortunately, an accident renders him unconscious until it departs, and the killer is on board, along with his co-conspirators in a plot to kidnap one of the passengers. I was somewhat disappointed with this one. The story takes too long to cohere and Ben’s antics are less amusing than usual. The motivations of some of the characters are also ambiguous.  Not one of Farjeon’s better novels. 6/3/17

Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling, Locked Room International, 2015 

This Swedish murder mystery involves a locked room murder in a small and rather shady boarding  house. The detective in charge of the case describes it to his father, who confides in two friends of his. The three men compose a club devoted to murder mysteries. They submit their solution, which is wrong. The detective – who is not particularly competent – comes up with his own, and he is also wrong. Finally one of the threesome thinks things through and solves the murder. Entertaining, but the translation is occasional somewhat awkward. 6/3/17

The Face of Trespass by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1974

This is more psychological suspense than mystery. Gray is a writer who has undergone mental stress and financial difficulties for some time and has been unable to work for years. He once had an affair with a woman who tried to convince him to murder her husband, although there is evidence suggesting that he may be imagining this. Events surrounding the illness and death of his mother in France precipitate a crisis that ends with murder, although he is judged to be mentally unfit and not responsible. But the author has a surprise for us. Rather slow but it packs a powerful double punch at the end. 6/2/17

One Thrilling Night by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1937)

A drunken house party turns into a major crime scene when a valuable bracelet is stolen during a game of hide and seek with the lights out. Scotland Yard sends a detective who eventually solves the case, but not before one of the guests is murdered and another seriously assaulted. The puzzle seems quite mundane for the first half of the novel, but in the second half contradictions and difficulties with the timeline of events makes the puzzle more complex and interesting. This was toward the low end of Berrow’s quality line, but even the low end is quite high. 6/1/17

Some Lie and Some Die by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1973 

There is a major rock concert taking place in town and while Wexford is tolerant, his assistant Michael Burden is very disapproving. The body of a woman is discovered in the aftermath, although it turns out that she has been dead since before the concert opened. There is a connection to the star attraction, Zeno Vedast, and more connections with the local town emerge as the investigation proceeds. A rather complex puzzle gets unraveled neatly at the end, but in this case the chief villain has technically committed no crime and the actual murderer is insane. 5/31/17

The Detonators by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1985  

This is a fairly good Matt Helm adventure, but it’s another one where things are contrived so that no one tells Helm things he needs to know. A supposed anti-war group is planning to explode a nuclear device in the Bahamas in order to scare the world into banning nuclear weapons. Helm teams up with the daughter of a retired agent who was framed as a drug smuggler, except that things are not what they appear to be. Fairly good, although the author’s manipulations are sometimes intrusive. 5/30/17

The Vanishers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1986 

This was almost certainly the worst of the Matt Helm novels. The plot is so convoluted that even Hamilton loses track of who wants to do what and there are unanswered questions, inexplicable actions, and a host of coincidences just to make it even more of a mess. The story appears to be about another peace group that wants to use violence to make their point, but the story is so chaotic that it’s not entirely clear what they wanted to accomplish. Hamilton seemed to be trying to make a statement about people whose politics he disliked, but apparently he wasn’t very clear about what politics he did like. 5/30/17

The Infiltrators by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1984 

Matt Helm teams up with a woman wrongfully convicted of espionage to foil a plot that involves a coup against the US government. A rival intelligence agency has gone rogue, along with some people in Helm’s own outfit. Big name lawyers are hiding secrets. A retired admiral may be a party to the plot. And everyone wants Helm and the woman dead. The action sequences are good as always, but this one is filled with plot holes. Among other things, Hamilton seems to think that if the President is assassinated, a committee decides who should replace him. Had he never been told about Vice-Presidents? 5/29/17

Polecat Brennan by Philip McCutchan, Hodder, 1994 

Commander Shaw’s girlfriend is being held hostage by a terrorist who plans to kill the heads of state of England and France during a ceremony in the Channel Tunnel. He gets caught himself a couple of times as well in this murky and not entirely sensible story about a plan to cause chaos in which neo-Nazis can seize power across Europe. The author had certainly grown tired of his formula by now because the story is dull and repetitious. 5/28/17

Burn-Out by Philip McCutchan, Hodder, 1995 

Another terrorist has arrived in England and Commander Shaw is assigned to track him down. He discovers that a group of Arabs is financing a threat against a British oil refinery, becomes their prisoner a couple of times but also escapes readily enough. He defuses the situation by making the names of the backers public, which somehow shames them into backing down. This was the last book in the series and it’s arguably the weakest. 5/27/17

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne, Poisoned Pen, 2016 (originally published in 1931)

A woman is found murdered, presumably by an axe, in a locked room in a decaying castle. Is it the brother she dominated for decades? The nephew who desperately needs her money? The mysterious butler? The nephew’s wife, who clearly hated the dead woman? Or is the local doctor the wife’s secret lover? Just as a Scotland Yard detective admits he is beaten and appeals to a talented amateur for help, the detective himself is murdered in similar fashion. This was a pretty good mystery although I found the solution not completely plausible. 5/26/17

Cast the First Stone by James W. Ziskin, 7th Street, 2017, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-281-2

Ellie Stone is a reporter during the 1960s who has a penchant for finding herself in the middle of crime stories, which she has to solve. This time she is sent to Los Angeles to interview the latest heartthrob actor but when she arrives she discovers that he has mysteriously disappeared. Even worse, a man associated with him is found murdered. Ignoring the parameters of her assignment, or at least loosely interpreting them, she sets out to investigate in a complex world of Hollywood celebrities and the darker side of that industry. This has been a consistently entertaining series since the outset and it does not falter this time. 5/25/17

The Lady's in Danger by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1955)

An American private eye vacationing in England is\ hired by an older woman whose adopted daughter – heir to a fortune – is being menaced by unknown parties. The family is staying at a remote country house but the detective establishes himself in a local inn where he discovers too many suspects. One man booked a room but never showed up. Another checked out suddenly when he found out another American was staying there. Then the family lawyer disappears and our hero is knocked out while patrolling the grounds. This was above average for Berrow. I guessed most of the surprise solution well in advance, but it was more instinct than logic. 5/24/17

The Bell in the Fog by John Stephen Strange, Dolphin, 1936

A convalescing journalist is sent to a remote island in Maine to recuperate, but on the first morning he is there, he finds a man stabbed to death on the beach.  There was also a letter stolen from a mail pouch and rumors of a smuggling operation based on the island. Naturally the protagonist cannot lie in bed resting when such a juicy story is unfolding around him, and before long there is a second murder to spice things up. I had never heard of this writer before but this was quite good and I've set about tracking down other books with this byline. 5/24/17

The Spatchcock Plan by Philip McCutchan, Hodder, 1990 

Commander Shaw’s girlfriend is kidnapped by a known terrorist working with the Libyans. He has to work unofficially to get her back since the government will not negotiate, and he does so after a series of less than thrilling adventures. He also thwarts a terrorist attack, but only after a rather boring series of captures and escapes. None of the characters acts sensibly and the entire plot feels forced and artificial. 5/23/17

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Scholastic, 2015 

This is a young adult mystery novel. Two young girls created a comic strip together – Princess X – but it ended when one of them supposedly died in an accident. A year later, the survivor starts to see references to Princess X and realizes that her friend is still alive. There's a lot of nerdy internet stuff but no fantastic content, the first straight mystery from this author. It's a reasonably good story not written down particularly and with an interesting premise. 5/21/27

An Eye for an Eye by Leigh Brackett, Bantam, 1957 

An abusive husband is divorced by his wife, so he kidnaps the wife of her lawyer and demands an exchange. He is obviously insane and the lawyer is not too balanced either. He fails to inform the police and tries to run his own investigation, which fails. Eventually he tells the authorities and a staged exchange is set up which results in the kidnapper’s death. Predictable, but tense while it lasts. 5/20/17

The Annihilators by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1983 

Central American rebels kidnap Matt Helm’s latest romantic interest and then kill her when he refuses to assassinate the leader of their country. Although an old friend is ultimately responsible, Helm is determined to track down everyone responsible and make them pay. This was a much better novel than its immediate predecessors, with a nice twist at the end, and some nuanced politics. Hamilton tends to be libertarian, but not as right wing as were most other spy novelists. 5/20/17

The Tiger’s Head by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2013 

A string of petty thefts plagues a small English town. Someone is killing women, cutting up their bodies, and leaving them around stuffed in suitcases. A bank manager is leading a secret life. A rich man is murdered in a locked room, apparently by a genie. All of these separate threads are connected to the same community and the reader will reasonably assume that they will come together for the climax. Guess what! They don’t. There are three murderers and two thieves, plus a psychopath who gets caught before he kills anyone. Although there are a couple of nice twists, the chaotic ending was very disappointing. 5/18/17

The House Opposite by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1935)

A Ben the Tramp novel. Ben is sheltering in an empty house when he encounters a virtual chorus of odd characters including a carefree Australian, an Indian with an evil aspect, a couple of beautiful women, an apparent drunkard, an elderly criminal, and a man who seems to enjoy pretending to be dead. Most of these people gather in the house across the street from Ben’s refuge, but most of them also seem particularly intent upon convincing him to leave, or killing him. Ben’s stubbornness trumps his cowardice this time and a clever blackmail and murder plot goes awry when he gets caught up in its coils. 5/18/17

Murder Being Once Done by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1972

This was an excellent mystery novel marred by a device near the end intended to put us off track but which is not supported by the story. A young woman of uncertain identity is found strangled in a cemetery. Her real identity seems likely to reveal the reason she was murdered and it eventually does, but not in the way the reader might expect. Wexford is on a medically enforced vacation in this one, but finds it impossible to remain idle. The story unfolds logically and convincingly except when one of the characters attempts to commit suicide for no particular reason. 5/17/17

Greenfly by Philip McCutchan, Magna, 1987 

A faction within the Soviet Union is planning to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the West after using a telepath to help activate a British submarine so that it fires on Soviet territory. The logic behind this doesn’t make sense even within the context of the story and it all depends on someone being able to project himself into the mind of another person at a considerable distance. If the bad guys had this power, they could have found much easier ways to accomplish their goals. 5/15/17

The Boy Who Liked Monsters by Philip McCutchan, Hodder, 1989   

This is a rather low key and conventional Commander Shaw spy novel. After the discovery of a mummified British diplomat on a merchant ship, Shaw uncovers a plot to kidnap the grandson of an American diplomat involved with sensitive arms negotiations with the Russians. He gets captured himself – three times! – and eventually is held with the boy on another vessel, although they have to abandon ship in a storm and fall back into the clutches of the bad guys right away. A little on the dull side but much more convincingly done than a lot of other books in this series. 5/15/17

A Study in Murder by Robert Ryan, Simon & Schuster, 2015 

Dr. Watson has been captured by the Germans. An old enemy of Sherlock Holmes arranges for him to be sent to one of the worst of the prison camps where three prisoners die suddenly and inexplicably during a séance. An arrangement is made by which Holmes will exchange himself for Watson, which will please the old enemy and provide a propaganda victory for the Germans, but an old friend of Watson, plus Mycroft Holmes and others, are determined to prevent this. There is a tragic and unexpected conclusion to this one which I suspect will have further consequences in the next book in the series. Although relatively long, it doesn’t feel like it as the story rushes past.  5/14/17

The Revengers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1982 

Someone is sinking ships in the Bermuda Triangle region. When Helm is assigned to act as bodyguard for a journalist who has published a series of controversial articles, he discovers links to a current Senator who was formerly a gangster whom Helm had some trouble with in an earlier book. Then a woman Helm likes is driven to suicide and the case becomes personal. The basic story is pretty good but the book – much longer than any of the previous ones – and a lot of it is padding. 5/14/17

The Spaniard’s Thumb by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1949) 

A young woman inherits a large house that comes with an apparent family curse. The basement is not in use and a locked room therein seems to be the source of strange noises in the night. A psychic investigator is looking into the matter when he is murdered, crushed to a pulp, and his companion injured by what he claims looked like a giant thumb. A local detective is skeptical of the supernatural and eventually figures out the truth. Berrow cheats a bit – there is a secret passage – but its existence is so obvious so early that it doesn’t really spoil the story.  About average for this author, which is not bad at all. 5/13/17

Silent Partner by Leigh Brackett, Putnam, 1969 

Brackett’s last mystery novel was actually an espionage thriller. A playboy type is the silent partner in an Iranian based export business. When the third partner dies in a suspicious accident, his heir goes to investigate for herself, and she promptly disappears as well. Then a mysterious assault leaves the playboy in the hospital, after which he is convinced by the CIA that he needs to help them uncover a plot to split Iran in half, with the secessionists underwritten by the Russians. He soon finds himself a captive in Iran and discovers that he is more courageous than he realized. Okay, but nothing out of the ordinary. 5/11/17

One Across, Two Down by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1971   

An unhappily married couple has taken the woman’s wealthy mother in to live with them even though she and the husband hate one another passionately. He is secretly meddling with her medications, hoping that she will die and leave them all of her money. He thinks he has a solution when another woman dies of a stroke and he plays games with the bodies, and ultimately he gets caught and punished for a murder he didn’t commit. This one was great fun. 5/11/17

Dick Donovan, the Glasgow Detective by J.E. Preston Muddock, Mercat, 2005   

This is a collection of stories about a private investigator in Scotland that originally appeared in the Strand at the same time the Sherlock Holmes stories were appearing. The series was quite popular at the time, but has faded since then. The stories range from clever to pedestrian. Coincidence and luck sometimes bring about the solution, although on other occasions it is genuine deduction. Donovan tracks down murderers, swindlers, thieves, and other criminals. A few are pretty dull and a few quite interesting, with most lying somewhere in the middle. 5/9/17

No More Dying Then by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1972   

A five year old boy disappears and the police suspect there might be a connection to the disappearance of an older girl some months earlier. Inspector Wexford’s subordinate, Inspector Burden, is not recovering well from the loss of his wife to cancer, and much of the novel deals with his deteriorating relationship with his children and sister-in-law.  Wexford pursues the older case and eventually solves it, but the solution comes from so far out the main story that it is not particularly satisfying. The abduction itself is then solved in a very perfunctory fashion by a coincidental meeting. This was the weakest of Rendell’s early novels. 5/7./17

The Terrorizers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1977

Matt Helm gets amnesia while working to uncover a terrorist ring in Canada. His instincts survive, however, as he gets confined in a sanitarium where he has to kill three people to escape. His memory returns only when he decides to resign his job and marry a woman, who promptly gets killed, causing him to revise his plans rather drastically. The amnesia gimmick is old and not very well employed here, but the rest of the story is okay. 5/7/17

The Dead Can Wait by Robert Ryan, Simon & Schuster, 2014 

Second in a series of novels about the adventures of Dr. John Watson, set during World War I. Holmes is retired and suffering from the early symptoms of dementia. Watson is back in the army, serving in the trenches, although he has been sent back to England at Winston Churchill’s request to look into the deaths of an entire crew at the experimental tank development facility. Two German spies are also in the area and we see part of the story from their point of view. This is a fairly long novel but the plot speeds right along incorporating adventurous episodes as well as detection. Watson is not Holmes, but he’s clever and resourceful. Holmes appears in the final quarter of the book and shows he is not entirely over the hill. Good fun. 5/5/17

Nearly Nero by Loren D. Estleman, Tyrus, 2017, $24.99, ISBN 978-1-5072-0327-9

This is a short collection of stories about a man who became obsessed with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, so he patterned his life after the fictional character, even recruited an employee named Woodbine to take the place of Archie. They then set out to solve crimes. The opening story is the best, "Who's Afraid of Nero Wolfe?", but they are all amusing and well told. The author is one of those I've always meant to sample and I've just moved him a little higher on the list. 5/4/17

Stranger at Home by Leigh Brackett, Mercury Press, 1946 

Brackett ghost wrote this novel, which originally appeared as by the actor George Sanders. The protagonist was in Mexico with three friends, all of whom are in love with his wife, and one of them attempts to kill him. He recovers but his memory is gone for four years. The night he returns to his home, one of the three men is killed, possibly the result of an accident. More murders follow before the truth comes out. This is a rather standard crime novel and the mystery is not particularly clever or interesting. 5/3/17

The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2005 

Several people report that they have visited a street on foggy nights that promptly disappears. They see things there that happened in the past and sometimes in the future. An amateur detective decides to solve the mystery, which has some interesting twists and turns, although the solution is forced and quite implausible. This is the weakest Halter novel I’ve read so far as his work is otherwise quite well constructed. The supernatural touch, though eventually rationalized, is very effective. 5/2/17

A Guilty Thing Surprised by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1970

A happily married woman goes for a walk one night and is found dead in the woods. Everyone seemed to love her except for her brother, whose relationship with her is not entirely clear. She was mentoring a young man who may have wanted the money she left him in her will, and he is lying about where he was at the time of the murder. But other neighbors and servants are also acting suspiciously. Inspector Wexford figures out the truth in a logical, though less interesting than usual, investigation. 5/1/17

The Retaliators by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1976 

Matt Helm is framed by having large sums of money deposited in his bank account in this frankly awful entry in the series. Despite the transparently obvious frame up, a rival intelligence agency kills one of Helm’s colleagues and tries to take him captive. The plot also hinges on an attempt by a cabal of millionaires to use mercenaries to seize the Baha peninsula and set up their own nation. As if the US and others would stand for such a thing. Hamilton seemed to be getting steadily better with each book, but the last two have been among his worse. 4/30/17

13 West Street by Leigh Brackett, Bantam, 1957 

This crime novel, originally published as A Tiger Among Us, was filmed with Alan Ladd in the lead role. An average businessman is attacked and savagely beaten by a group of young men while out for a walk. When he eventually recovers, he sets about identifying them since the police have had no luck. This predictably causes them to take steps to discourage his investigation which eventually escalates to murder. The manner in which he discovers who they are is more luck than detection, but this was never meant to be a traditional detective story. It is quite suspenseful and I vaguely remember the movie from the 1960s. 4/29/17

The Best Man to Die by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1969

On the night before his best friend is to be married, Charlie Hatton is murdered while walking home from a pub. Inspector Wexford himself discovers the body. Hatton has too much money for a simple truck driver and it is suspected early on that he has been arranging for truck hijackings. Elsewhere, the sole survivor of an automobile accident insists that she and her husband were alone, despite the presence of a third body. Are the two cases linked? Of course they are. Pretty good working out of the truth although there are some obvious tells along the way that give away most of the solution. 4/28/17

The Terminators by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1975 

Matt Helm is on loan to another agency working in Norway when his new partner dies within minutes of meeting him. He decides to continue the mission anyway with another woman drafted into the part of his girlfriend. This one smells screwy to the reader as well as Helm. It is pretty clear early on that Helm’s friends are lying to him even more than his enemies. The plot is incredibly contrived – an international incident and several murders are essentially part of a quest for vengeance against a corporation that refused to sell the chief perpetrator a few gallons of gas on one occasion. Not dismal, but far below Hamilton’s usual standards and a bit preachy at times about the value of living a risky life and the evils of mandatory safety devices and environmental protection. 4/25/17

The Measure of the Moon by Lisa Preston, Thomas & Mercer, 2017, $15.95, ISBN 978-1503937574  

A young boy happens upon a savage assault, after which he is threatened that he and his family will all die if he tells anyone what he has seen. A photographer with marital problems tries to lose herself in the investigation of a mysterious photograph taken a century earlier. Their two separate stories are seemingly unrelated, but naturally their paths will ultimately cross, with the possibility of solving their problems, or making them worse. Old crimes and new will be brought out of the darkness. There is nothing indicating that this is for younger readers, but there is a selection of apparent study questions at the end which seem to be intended for a school environment. Well paced and engrossing. 4/24/17

No Good from a Corpse by Leigh Brackett, Collier, 1964 (originally published in 1944) 

Leigh Brackett’s first mystery novel was a Chandleresque detective story. Ed Clive is a tough private eye who takes it personal when the woman he loves is murdered while he is lying unconscious a few feet away. The man the police like for the crime is an old enemy, but Clive is sure he didn’t do it. Brackett might have established herself in that genre – the book got her the job of doing the screenplay for The Big Sleep – but she chose not to pursue that course. This is in many ways her most memorable novel. 4/23/17

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, Pushkin Vertigo, 2013 

I was disappointed to discover that this is the only one of this author’s many mystery novels to have appeared in English translation. It has an unusual structure. The first one hundred pages are two friends discussing a forty year old murder mystery, multiple mysteries in fact. An artist was murdered in his locked studio, a woman was killed and apparently raped in her apartment, and six young women all disappeared the same day and were later found at different sites, each dismembered in a different way. They decide to solve the crime and naturally succeed. The solution is quite clever, though gruesome, and the story revolves around what has to be the biggest red herring in all of literature. Not perfect, but very good. 4/21/17

Oil Under the Window by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1936)

A jewel thief sends an announcement to his victim, then steals a valuable necklace as scheduled. Scotland Yard sends a detective, who discovers a dead body and a warning about the next theft. But how did the thief get into the house in the first place? And why did he kill the chauffeur? Although well enough written, this was very disappointing because it was glaringly obvious who the killer was right from the outset, and none of the red herrings were remotely convincing. Berrow is one of my favorites, but even he had his off days. 4/20/17

Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura, Soho, 2014 

This Japanese crime novel told me more about contemporary Japan than it did about crime. There is a tradition in some Japanese families to tell one son that their mission in life must be to wreak havoc in the world. The protagonist is a young man who has been given this role, and he is given a decadent and often evil upbringing to hone him for the task. But he is a weapon that turns in the hands of its creator, and the outcome is destined to be very different from what they expected. Some nice twists and turns along the way, but I never became particularly invested in the characters so it was emotionally flat. 4/20/17

The Secret House of Death by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1968

The weakest of Rendell’s early mysteries involves the murder of a man and woman, apparently adulterous lovers. It’s too obvious too early that the husband is responsible, and although there are a few interesting bits along the way, I found this one more boring than not. The plot is transparent and not very credible and some of the characters act so stupidly that it is hard to believe they are that dumb. The most irritating character never gets his comeuppance and I felt cheated at the end. 4/19/17

The Intimidators by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1974 

Matt Helm has a two part mission this time. He is supposed to help a millionaire who is looking for friends lost in the Bermuda Triangle and he is also supposed to assassinate a well known Russian assassin currently in the Bahamas. The first part goes too easily and he realizes that it was a trap designed to capture him. The second involves kidnapping as part of a minor civil war on a small island nation. The story is rather slow for the first two thirds but picks up in a major way for the final third. 4/19/17

Calamity in Kent by John Rowland, British Library, 2016 (originally published in 1950)

This was Rowland’s last detective novel - he switched to nonfiction for the rest of his life. He should have done so earlier because this one is dreadful despite an interesting opening. A dead man is found in a locked lift at a resort. A recuperating news reporter is on the scene and sees a chance at a scoop. He is on good terms with the investigator from Scotland Yard and pretty much solves the mystery himself. There is little good to say about this. The freedom of action he is given is absurd, the police are incredibly incompetent and lazy, the various suspects act in such stilted, artificial ways that they have no personality at all, and the resolution is dreadful both technically and because it makes no sense for the killer to have actually drawn attention to his deeds rather than conceal them. 4/16/17

The Intriguers by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1972 

After three good adventures in a row, Hamilton delivers a clunker. It’s the old government conspiracy plot. A villain in the pay of an ambitious senator has combined all of the intelligence agencies – including the CIA and FBI which would not even be legal – into a single organization. He is using agents of several of those groups to murder people in Helm’s organization. Helm’s boss figures out an elaborate counter plan that includes, among other things, the simultaneous assassination of around thirty highly placed government agents. Leaving all of this nonsense aside, the boss – Mac – sends his own daughter to deliver instructions even though he doesn’t trust her. She turns out to be a completely unbelievable jerk who switches sides a couple of times and her arguments are so inconsistent that they are laughable. A thoroughly bad novel. 4/14/17

Wolf to the Slaughter by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1967

A woman has disappeared, leaving bloodstains behind, but no one can find the body. A trail of cryptic clues eventually leads Inspector Wexford and company to a solution, but it’s a convoluted path with multiple suspects, confusing crimes not directly associated with the murder, and other distractions. I thought this one slipped somewhat in quality from the previous couple of novels and that Rendell tried to fit too many subplots into the storyline. There is absolutely no way for the reader to guess the killer, as this is more of a police procedural than a detective story. 4/12/17

No. 17 by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1926)

This was the first of several adventures of Ben the Tramp, an unemployed merchant marine sailor who stumbles into a mysterious criminal plot. All the trappings of melodramatic detective fiction are present – the face at the window, secret passages, the creepy house, multiple impersonations, lurking figures, etc. Ben provides the comic relief – he’s an incorrigible coward and a constant talker – but there are detectives and crime lords and fugitives and innocent bystanders to flesh out the story. This was a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to his next outing. 4/11/17

The Eleventh Plague by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1953) 

Berrow wrote some excellent detective stories.  His general crime fiction isn’t as good. This one is set in Australia and the title refers to marijuana, whose effects were grossly exaggerated and inaccurate when this was written. A private detective is drawn into the case of drug smuggling when one of his ex-clients starts smoking pot, goes insane almost immediately, and throws herself in front of a truck. It is never really clear why he was still following the tribulations of a woman he was no longer professionally involved with, or why the police detective pulls him into the case of the smugglers. The story sort of staggers along until the bad guys are caught, but there’s never much mystery or much detection or much at all actually. 4/10/17

Sins of the Fathers by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1967 (aka A New Lease on Death)  

A vicar approaches Inspector Wexford asking if it is possible that he arrested the wrong man on his very first case more than a decade before. Wexford is indignant, but as the vicar talks to more people involved in the case, it seems that there is some question whether or not the convicted – and now executed – man really did kill his elderly employer with an axe. There are a number of reversals in this one, expectations that turn out to be false, revelations that you’re not likely to anticipate. Wexford is actually a minor character as the vicar is the primary protagonist. 4/9/17

Don’t Jump Mr Boland! by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1954) 

An enigmatic man suddenly bolts in front of his neighbor and others and runs directly to a high cliff where, according to one of the witnesses, he jumps to his death. But there is no body at the foot of the sheer cliff. Even more puzzling. There is a dead body in his house, a small time crook who died at least 12 hours previously. The missing man must have known he was there. This all gets tied in to a feud between two crimelords and there are more murders before it is all straightened out. I guessed the gimmick for the disappearing body instantly, which meant I also knew who the killer was and pretty much why. It’s about average quality for Berrow, but there are some plot holes. Why would the man who wanted to dispose of a fake identity do so in such a way that it would bring national attention to the event rather than simply dropping out of sight? 4/6/17

The Poisoners by Donald Hamilton, Gold Medal, 1971

This time Matt Helm is sent to investigate the shooting death of another agent who was on leave at the time. On a rather unbelievable hunch, he thinks it might be connected to the disappearance of an environmental scientist. He is soon mixed up with some gangsters who object to a drug deal one of their associates is undertaking without authorization, and there is also a Chinese spy and a rogue Russian agent involved. There are quite a few surprises in this one and although the plot contrivances are occasionally clunky, it is entertaining as a whole. 4/5/17

The Mystery Train Disappears by Kyotaro Nishimura, Dembner, 1990   

A special train from Tokyo with 500 passengers, many of them children, is designed as a tourist vehicle, but the train inexplicably disappears between stations and a ransom demand is delivered. How could an entire train disappear and how could 400 people be held secretly? The author provides a reasonably credible explanation in this unusual mystery novel that is somewhat artificial stylistically but otherwise quite entertaining. 4/4/17

Vanity Dies Hard by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1966 (aka In Sickness and in Health

Alice Whittaker is puzzled when she goes to visit a friend in her new house and discovers that the address does not exist. The reader will be way ahead of the protagonist this time. The woman disappeared on the night she supposedly moved away, but no one really noticed. Letters to her are being rerouted to another location. When Alice tries to investigate, she suddenly becomes very ill – poisoned – and it seems quite obvious that her husband is responsible both for the poison and for the disappearance and cover up. 4/3/17

This Drakotny by Philip McCutchan, Harrap, 1971 

 Drakotny is the Soviet leaning prime minister of Czechoslovakia, whom the West would prefer remain in power because he promotes stability. When they get wind of an assassination plot, they send Shaw to identify the assassins and warn Drakotny, who doesn’t believe him and has Shaw tortured. It turns out he was right and the assassination nearly succeeds. This was far more conventional than most of the novels in the series and despite a few small plot holes, this was one of his best outings. 4/2/17

MORE REVIEWS