Last Update 4/25/17

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