Last Update 5/22/18

A Stone's Throw by James W. Ziskin, 7th Street, 2018, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-419-9

Latest in the Ellie Stone series. Stone is a rare female investigative reporter during the 1960s. Her latest case begins with an apparently routine accidental burning of a barn. The local sheriff has already dismissed the case from further consideration, but Stone finds some puzzling aspects and looks deeper. She turns up a couple of bodies, clearly murder victims, and the authorities have to reconsider their initial verdict. They're not far from a race track, so it's a sure bet that horse racing is involved in some fashion. But when Stone uncovers evidence that some races have been fixed, she is putting her own life in jeopardy. This series has been uniformly good though perhaps occasionally too predictable. 5/22/18

The Whispering Cup by Mabel Seeley, Pyramid, 1940 

After a scandal that was not her fault costs Solveig Nayes her job, she returns reluctantly to her home town where an old rival once stole her fiancé. A friend is trying to dig up some dirt on the rival when she suddenly disappears. Her body turns up in a grain elevator and all the clues point to her and the old rival’s husband. The plot strongly suggests that the old rival is the killer, but then she turns up dead as well, thrown into the same grain elevator. The resolution involves two separate murderers, but it is sufficiently telegraphed that most readers will have figured that out before it is revealed. 5/19/18

No Holiday for Crime by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1973 

More routine police work, this time with a Christmas theme. Someone is hijacking trucks and somebody else has dumped a young woman’s body at a construction site.  There’s a copycat killer, a case of fatal child abuse, and the usual array of robberies and assaults. There is no central case and some of the subplots are obviously just filler. There is a mild break in the usual pattern in that one of the men arrested refuses to talk for several chapters, although eventually he confesses. Mendoza vetoes photographs at one crime scene because he already “knows” what happened, although in fact he does not. 5/17/18

The Man Who Made Maniacs by Jim Harmon, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1961) 

I recall enjoying some short stories by Jim Harmon many years ago, but I wasn’t even aware of this novel’s existence. It’s a not very coherent muddle about a man accused of being the head of a sadistic sex cult. He argues that just because he wrote a book about them does not mean he’s a member. But the evidence, and subsequent events, are ambiguous. So badly written that I really didn’t care, and when the murder plot begins to emerge, I was already anxious for it to be over with. 5/15/18

The Crying Sisters by Mabel Seeley, Popular Library, 1939 

A librarian somewhat implausibly accepts a job watching over a strange man’s toddler son for a few weeks at a string of cabins on a lake. The man sneaks out each night to prowl the area and eventually a dead body turns up. The librarian suspects her employer, although the reader will not, and eventually she learns about an undiscovered murder from the past, a contested legacy, and the danger in presents in the present. Death will strike again and old secrets will finally come to light. The suspense is steady and it is unlikely that the reader will guess the identity of the villain. Very similar in structure to the author’s first novel but the ending is too rushed. 5/13/18

See Also Proof by Larry D. Sweazy, 7th Street, 2018, %15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-279-9

During the 1960s a freelance writer and recent widow She gets caught up in the investigation of the disappearance of a local girl which quickly leads to the discovery of an actual murder. Although she does not seem to be getting anywhere, someone is afraid that she has and it isn't long before she realizes that she may be the next victim. No one is going to come riding to the rescue so she is going to have to overcome her squeamishness and stand up for herself, unless she is willing to die without resisting. Fairly good mystery puzzle and the nicely developed protagonist raises it above the somewhat overly familiar story line. Sweazy is a consistently entertaining author.5/12/17

The Great Darkness by Jim Kelly, Alison & Busby, 2018, £19.99, ISBN 9780-7490-2161-0  

The setting for this mystery novel is London during the early days of World War II, when the blackout was in effect even though Germany had yet to begun bombing the British Isles. The protagonist is a police detective whose injuries in the first world war left him with eyes sensitive to light. He spends most of his waking hours in the darkness and knows several other people who prefer the night whom he thinks of as nighthawks. One night he notices a party of soldiers burying something in a remote area and becomes curious. He is also interested in the body of a man supposedly killed in an accident with a barrage balloon whose shoes are on the wrong feet. His inquiries about the runaway balloon bring him into contact with an army officer of questionable character, whom the reader knows is involved with something shady, though as yet undescribed. A conscientious objector is murdered before he can divulge something that he knows. All of these strands will be drawn together. Not as focused as was the case with Kelly's earlier novels but still quite engrossing. 5/11/18

The Listening House by Mabel Seeley, Pyramid, 1964 (originally published in 1938) 

This is a marvelous example of the rooming house murder mystery. A young woman rents rooms in a building run by a nosy, unpleasant, and possibly demented woman who suspects that her tenants are going through her things. When she dies, it is not clear whether or not she was murdered because she was locked up with her cats for almost a week and the cats got hungry. There are locked rooms, long buried secrets, blackmail, attempted murders, and other delights before we finally learn what has been going on and who the killer is. I hadn’t read this in more than fifty years but I remembered some of the scenes even before I read them again. This was Seeley’s first and arguably best novel. 5/9/18

With Intent to Kill by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1972 

There are far too many separate cases in this police procedural, so many that I had to make notes to keep track of which was which. People are beaten to death in bathtubs, shot in parking lots, shot while walking the dog, shot by a sniper, shot and dumped in someone’s backyard, shot by drug addicted thugs, shot while trying to issue a ticket, inadvertently suffocated by parents, or commit suicide. There is slightly more effort to fill in background detail about the recurring characters, but none of them are particularly interesting people so these sections just sap what energy the story possessed. Mendoza tells the reader that it is fortunate that most hippie types die young. 5/8/18

Murder on Union Square by Victoria Thompson, Berkley, 2018, $26, ISBN 978-0-399-58660-6 

The latest in this gaslight mystery series involves the murder of an actor in his dressing room. Frank Malloy finds himself accused of the crime since he was the one who found the body, so he and his associates have to track down the real killer. Before he does so, a second murderis committed which suggests that two people were involved. Nicely done as always and it’s only toward the end that the identity of the killer becomes slightly obvious. There is a nice red herring and the recurring characters are all distinct and interesting. This series has been very consistent in quality since the first book appeared. 5/7/18

Murder With Love by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1971 

There is an earthquake in this Luis Mendoza novel, adding to the usual complications, although it really has little to do with the plot.  The central case is the shooting of a doctor, his wife, and his nurse by an unknown assailant. A police officer is badly beaten in his home by drug addicts. There is a mercy killing and a hotel room murder. The author gives a brief endorsement of Velkowsky’s pseudoscience. There are some minor factual and procedural errors and uncharacteristically only one case is unsolved by the halfway point, which required the addition of new subplots in the second half. Maybe slightly above average for a Shannon novel. 5/6/18

Death in the House of Rain by Szu-Yen Lin, Locked Room International, 2015, from the 2006 Taiwanese edition 

A man kills his wife, apparently because she was unfaithful, and is then killed himself, along with his daughter. The police believe that the wife’s lover was the second killer, but he commits suicide so they simply close the case. A year later another group of people arrive at the same house and begin dying in impossible situations. I didn’t really enjoy this. Parts of it read like a treatment for a horror film – shallow characterizations and minimal descriptions – while others dwell at length on elements that are not important. Some of the explanations are clever, others are too contrived. 5/5/18

Dead Man's Shoes by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1987 (originally published in 1958)

Carolus Deene is a history professor whose hobby is solving crimes. When a rich man is murdered near his home in England, and the likely killer jumps or is thrown from a ship en route back from Tangiers, his curiosity is aroused. The dead man's heir seems to be a likeable characters genuinely sad about the death of his uncle. His servants have no strong motive and his mistress none at all. The second dead man is a mysterious figure whose character is sometimes contradictory. I guessed the solution early this time, but Bruce's prose is delightful. 3/4/18

Mark of the Laughing Death and Other Stories by Francis James, Dancing Tuatara, 2013   

Editor John Pelan goes to heroic efforts in his introduction to this collection to try to make these stories seem better than they are, but the truth is, they are dreadful. They are drawn from the weird detective pulps where the formula was to create a crime situation which appeared to be supernatural as well as melodramatic, then provide a rationalized explanation at the end. Sometimes these explanations were essentially science fiction, but sometimes they just don’t make any real sense at all. I couldn’t manage more than one a day and I only finished through curiosity rather than because I was being entertained. 5/1/18

The Ringer by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1971 

Another batch of routine crimes, this time complicated somewhat when one of Mendoza’s subordinates is investigated after being identified as a leader of a car theft scheme. Is it an attempt to frame him, apparently at random, or does he have a near twin who really is a crook? The interaction with Internal Affairs is sometimes well done but sometimes somewhat naïve. Mendoza certainly would not be allowed to conduct a parallel investigation of his own, particularly since he is in homicide and not larceny. The other subplots are predictable and as usual the solutions owe more to luck than intelligence or even thorough police work. That said, this was one of the author’s better books. 4/30/18

The Green Mummy by Fergus Hume, 1908  

Hume was one of the earliest mystery writers but, alas, not a very good one. This convoluted effort – which relies on entirely too many coincidences – involves the theft of a South American money after it is purchased by an eccentric British scientist. The attendant involved is murdered. The mummy itself turns up some time later in the garden of the woman the scientist plans to marry, but two valuable jewels are missing, suggesting the motive. And the real owner of the mummy shows up to claim it, insisting that the mummy is one of his personal ancestors. Choppy prose and a fumbling plot don’t help. 4/27/18

The Assignment by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Random House, 1986 

This is technically a mystery but is more an example of surrealism. A film maker is asked to film a documentary about the rape and murder of a psychiatrist’s estranged wife in an unnamed Arab country. She arrives and is immediately caught up in a web of confusion and cross purposes with spies spying on other spies and government officials battling each other rather than actual enemies. Then she discovers the woman was not murdered after all, but she herself is in danger. The book consists of 24 chapters, but each chapter is one very long extended sentence.  4/26/18

The Execution of Justice by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Pushkin Vertigo, 1985  

A prominent citizen walks into a restaurant, shoots one of his friends to death, and then continues his day as though nothing had happened. The police arrest him, of course, but although he insists he had no motive, he will neither confess nor deny the crime. After his conviction, he hires a lawyer to find an alternate solution to the crime and, rather improbably, the lawyer succeeds. The killer is freed but the lawyer decides that it is a moral requirement to kill his former client. The novel is filled with bizarre characters and situations, and while there is an element of mystery, the novel is more a satire of the legal system.4/26/18

Unexpected Death by Dell Shannon, Morrow, 1970 

The major case in this one is a woman who disappeared from a restaurant and ended up dumped dead in an alley. A migrant worker poisons all five of his children to collect on their insurance. A woman is found raped and murdered in her apartment and police believe it was done by someone she knew. A teenager murders his parents in a fit of rage. This one is very sloppy. There is the usual over reliance on coincidence, but on more than one occasion the police “know” things they could not possibly know and the discovery of proof that marijuana causes mongolism is a fantasy of the author’s imagination. The characters are unusually shallow even for a Dell Shannon novel. 4/25/18

The Quarry by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Black Cat, 1951   

A seriously ill police commissioner is facing retirement and convalescence when a chance conversation about a photograph leads him to suspect that the owner of a posh medical clinic in Zurich is actually a Nazi war criminal. He is right, of course, as he discovers when he arranges to be sent there under an assumed name. But the ex-Nazi knows his real identity and guesses his purpose and has already murdered one of the man’s acquaintances when he tells the commissioner that he only has hours left to live. Excellent buildup but a disappointing ending which includes a deux ex machina escape and the offstage end of the villain. 4/24/18

Murder in the Bowery by Victoria Thompson, Berkley, 2017

As the 19th Century draws to a close, Frank and Sarah Malloy discover that their latest client is lying to him. He is supposedly looking for a long lost brother, a homeless thirteen year old, but in fact he is a gangster trying to track down the boy because he may have witnessed a murder. The case is a particularly unpleasant one because a young woman is found dead almost at the same time as the boy’s body turns up. There is a connection to a powerful gangster boss, an established but crumbling family, a dying man, incest, and other complications, all while Sarah is planning to open a free maternity clinic. There is some withheld information that makes it very difficult to anticipate the ending, but the story is otherwise as nicely done as usual. 4/23/18

The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Signet, 1959

Although the police have badgered a man into confessing to the murder of a young girl, a senior detective believes he was innocent and that the killer is still at large. Because he gave his word to capture the real killer, he gives up his job and begins running a gas station on a road where he believes the killer travels regularly. He also entices an unmarried woman and her daughter to keep house for him, using the latter as bait.  But things don't work out according to plan. This is another of the author's books suggesting that justice is more important than the letter of the law. 4/22/18

The Big Get-Even by Paul Di Filippo, Blackstone, 2018, $26.99, ISBN 978-1504783910

I’ve always enjoyed heist stories, so this tale of an elaborate confidence trick was right up my alley. The protagonist is an ex-lawyer and ex-convict who has managed to kick the drug habit but has not gotten his life back together. Quite by chance, he connects to another ex-convict who has a plan to get even with his former employer, who ratted on him resulting in a prison term. Since the proposed target of the plan is a criminal himself, the reader’s sympathies gravitate to the conspirators, who grow to five. The plan is to buy some worthless land and start the restoration of a motel, while planting information that will make the mark believe that the property is going to be bought by a casino developer. Naturally things don’t go quite as expected. Among other things, their parole officer wants to keep an eye on them which forces them to make more than token efforts toward restoration. I can tell no more without spoiling the plot, which slowly but inevitably builds up toward the climax. But it’s not entirely the climax you’re likely to expect. There are nicely drawn characters, a believable sequence of events, and a satisfying ending. 4/21/18

Crime on Their Minds by Dell Shannon, Morrow, 1969 

Although somewhat above average for the author, this one is marred by another major factual error – police cannot search mail without a warrant. The two main cases involve a confidence man found shot to death in his car and a landlady and one of her tenants killed in an apparent break in during which several pieces of clothing are stolen. There is another case that has tinges of voodoo, but not in an interesting way, and a routine shooting incident in a bar. The double murderer leaves his prints so the solution is pretty obvious. The confidence man was also acting as a fence for a burglar. The author does not know what mea culpa means. 4/19/18

Traps by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Ballantine, 1960 

Another clever short mystery novel. A salesman is stranded when his car breaks down and accepts an invitation to a dinner party with a retired judge and two lawyers. He agrees to participate in their game, a mock trial, as defendant, but insists that he has never broken any serious laws. Through clever questioning and reasoning, and helped by the salesman’s growing drunkenness, they ferret out a story wherein he caused the death of his predecessor, though indirectly so that the law cannot touch him. At the end, he hangs himself. Cleverly done, but the end is not entirely satisfactory as it is not clear whether he felt remorse or had some other reason for suicide. 4/18/18

The Case of the Black Lotus by Robert J. Hogan, Altus, 2017 (originally published in 1936)

The sixth adventure of Wu Fang, oriental mastermind, is much like the earlier ones. In fact, it has nothing at all new to say. Wu Fang and his minions are engaged in the systematic murder of prominent citizens and the authorities and our hero are out to stop him. After various light weight adventures, captures and escapes and rescues, his plan is foiled and we last see him supposedly being killed when a wall collapses on him. I wouldn’t bet on it. This series got very old very fast and I'm not surprised that the magazine did not last longer. 4/16/18

Murder in Morningside Heights by Victoria Thompson, Berkley, 2016 

A young instructor at a women’s college in 1899 is stabbed to death on the campus. Frank Malloy is hired to investigate the crime and prevent a scandal, first by the victim’s parents and then by the head of the school. He and his wife and an associate have to pick through a web of personal rivalries and secretive suspects to discover the truth. The atmosphere and characters are fine as always, but the mystery this time is not so hot. For one thing, the solution is telegraphed at least twice. For another, the killer is very obvious. There are no serious alternative possibilities, and even the motive is hinted at a bit too obviously in advance. 4/13/18

The Judge and His Hangman by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Avon, 1955 

A terminally ill Swiss police detective has been trying to bring a criminal mastermind to justice for forty years without success. The murder of one of his subordinates seems to provide another opportunity, but he concludes that in this case, his nemesis was not responsible. Nevertheless, time is running out for him so he decides to manipulate the situation to bring some form of justice for both this murder and his enemy’s part crimes. The structure of the novel is very unusual, avoiding most of the tropes of the detective novel. It works quite well despite, or perhaps because of that fact, and there is a neat surprise ending. 4/12/18

The Red Tower by Mark Latham, Titan, 2018, $14.95, ISBN 978-1783298686   

Dr. Watson is trying to decide whether or not to move back to 221B Baker Street after the death of his wife when he is invited to visit an old friend. The friend has become obsessed with spiritualism following the death of his mother, and it is obvious that the sinister Madame Farr and her assistants are fakes, although very clever ones. When the friend’s sister is found dead in a locked room, Watson calls for Holmes to help, and Sherlock arrives promptly and solves the mystery – as well as explaining events at the séance – all in a remarkably short time. This was quite pleasant even though it involves a secret passageway. We are told that one probably exists early on, so it’s not a complete cheat, but the fact that the crooks were able to find its secret in a matter of days when the family had not done so in many years is a bit of a leap. 4/10/18

A Perfect Shot by Robin Yocum, Seventh Street, 2018, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-417-5

A one time athletic star is now the owner of a brand new restaurant. Unfortunately, his brother in law is a mobster and there is immediate pressure to allow illegal gambling on the premises. Although he resists, the protagonist is outmaneuvered and frustrated in defeat, as well as upset that the process involved a murder. So he comes up with a plan to get revenge. This involves stealing some tapes from the bad guy that will get him in trouble with his superiors. This type of suspense novel is generally not my cup of tea, but the prose was so good that I liked it quite a bit, although I'm not at all sure that I liked the protagonist. And a change of pace is sometimes very welcome. 4/9/18

Whim to Kill by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1971     

Still another catch all novel with about ten separate cases, none of which take center stage. One of the recurring characters is kidnapped by three escaped convicts for a while, but we never see anything that happened among them until he wanders in from the woods, having escaped. There is no explanation why they would have taken a police officer hostage and kept him for days. There are several cases of police incompetence this time including failing to look up the license plate of a missing vehicle and instead stopping every car of that make in Los Angeles, failure to ask rudimentary questions that would have avoided wild goose chases, and a scene of crime team that misses a scorch mark and bullet at a murder scene, both of which are obvious to a detective when he walks in later. Very minor. 4/8/18

Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue by Victoria Thompson, Berkley, 2015

The two recurring detectives are away on their honeymoon, so it is the job of their young governess and a friend on the police force to investigate when a young woman is wrongly accused of murdering her husband. But contradictory evidence turns up and the accused wife turns out to be a pretty appalling person. And then a second murder throws the investigation into confusion. Quietly competent, a fair puzzle, and a plausible resolution. This is a consistently entertaining series, though at times it feels like a sanitized version of the period. 4/6/18

The Case of the Green Death by Robert J. Hogan, Altus, 2017 (originally published in 1936) 

Another adventure of Wu Fang, a bargain basement Fu Manchu. This time he has a death ray of sorts, but his plans go slightly awry when his nemesis traps him and he is taken into custody. But with an army of minions at his beck and call, Wu Fang is unlikely to stay confined for long, and pretty soon he is free and wreaking mass murder with his new toy. About as lightweight as they come, but certainly never a dull moment. 4/4/18

Schooled to Kill by Dell Shannon, Doubleday, 1969  

Another rather dull police procedural. One of the subplots is identical to one used in two previous books and the others all have similarities as well. Clearly Linington was running out of ideas. The major case is a child rapist/murderer, but there are juvenile killers, an accidental shooting, a sniper, a lost dog, and an attempt to murder a witness. There is an active shootout at one point, a comparatively rare moment of actual action. For the first time ever in her books, the police are denied a search warrant. The protagonist dismisses a prime suspect, without checking his alibi, simply because his eyes look honest! 4/1/18

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