Last Update 5/23/20

Wheels Within Wheels by Carolyn Wells, Burt, 1923   

This is one of the author’s less awkward mysteries, with a few eyebrow raisers but mostly peripheral issues. She even manages some consistency in the personalities of her characters. A rich man is murdered and a young woman shows up claiming to be his daughter, who was presumed dead but whose coffin turns out to have been empty. Her existence would cut out the major heir and he is determined to prove that she is lying. The mother believes her but is mentally unbalanced and her judgment is seriously flawed. Various other characters are interested in money, or in sexual conquests. The dead man was poisoned, although there is no evidence of this until long after he was buried. The police miss some critical evidence that is in plain sight, and this is probably the story’s biggest logical flaw. It was sitting on the desk where the man died!  5/23/20

The Girl Who Was Possessed by Carter Brown, Signet, 1963 

Al Wheeler investigates the murder of a young woman who claimed she was possessed by a witch. The trail leads to an organized crime ring, a woman held hostage, a criminal who appears to have absconded with mob money, and a self avowed demonologist. Less sex than usual, the humor is not completely wacky, and the investigation is pretty straightforward, although I guessed half of the solution almost immediately. Slightly better than average. 5/21/20

The Vanishing Man by Philip Purser-Hallard, Titan, 2020

Another very satisfying Sherlock Holmes mystery from this publisher. Holmes is asked to investigate the disappearance of a man from a locked room with a glass door through which he was under near constant observation. He was demonstrating for a psychical research society consisting of level headed scientists and genuine whackos at the time. Before he can interview one of the witnesses, the man is attacked in his studio and carried off, his dead body discovered some time later. The solution to the locked room is ingenious, although I'm not sure it would really have worked. The writing is excellent and both Holmes and Watson display some genuine personality. The author has a second Holmes novel coming out later this year and I have already pre-ordered a copy. 5/20/20

More Lives Than One by Carolyn Wells, Boni & Liveright, 1923 

A woman is murdered at a costume party, and none of the other guests admit knowing who she was. The host of the party mysteriously disappears and the clues suggest a spur of the moment attack rather than premeditation. The killer was rather obvious early on, but Wells stumbles a lotless often than usual and this actually is one of her better efforts. It introduced a new detective, Lorimer Lane, who only appeared in one later book. Wells appears to have believed that bribing a law enforcement official is not illegal if it is done openly rather than in secret.  5/16/20

Spooky Hollow by Carolyn Wells, Doran, 1923  

The setting for this one is a faux Greek mansion in Maine which is rumored to host a harp playing ghost. It’s not a ghost, of course, but a rather contrived practical joke by the butler. Wells describes one of the characters as basically a kind man with lots of virtues and no faults. Then she spends several chapters describing him as a tyrant, a miser, dishonest, and cruel. His sister is the murder victim, and while a house guest mysteriously disappears the same night, it is very obvious that he killed her in order to conceal some sort of fiscal wrongdoing involving his niece’s inheritance. About average Wells, with the usual internal contradictions and logical failings. 5/16/20

Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon by James Lovegrove, Titan, 2020

This is a very fine Holmes pastiche set just before his encounter with Moriarty. A young woman comes to him with a story about a Christmas monster, a legacy in jeopardy, a creepy old castle where her mother committed suicide by throwing herself from a parapet, and other terrors. He and Watson visit the unhappy castle and uncover a web of interlocking secrets in order to discover the identity of a trickster turned killer. This had much of the atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles and even though it is relatively long, I sat up late to finish it in one sitting. 5/11/20

The Silent Executioner by Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre, Morrow, 1987 (original French edition 1911)   

This is the second Fantomas novel. Fantomas is a French master criminal, a kind of less grandiose Fu Manchu. He is largely absent from this book, as was the case in the first, but only because he lurks under multiple false identities and disguises. I was ready for that this time and figured out who he was most of the time. His arch enemy is Inspector Juve, who for some reason rarely calls for help from the Surete, and therefore misses his man more than once. There is one of those rooms where the ceiling comes down to crush people, and a giant boa constrictor trained to attack people in beds.  A bit contrived at times but fun. 5/6/20

Mr. Bowling Buys a Newspaper by Donald Henderson, Collins, 2018 (originally published in 1943) 

This was one of Raymond Chandler’s favorite novels, but I have to admit that I was not tremendously impressed. Bowling is a sad little madman who murders his wife, and others, against the backdrop of wartime London. He keeps expecting to get caught, but there is so much going on that the police – although eventually suspicious – are unable to make a case against him. And he would rather prefer to get caught because he is not enjoying life at all. Quirky, sometimes darkly humorous, and a very good depiction of conditions in the city at the time, but I just couldn’t immerse myself into the story and there was obviously no puzzle to hold my attention. 4/1/20

The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols by Nicholas Meyer, Minotaur, 2019 

Sherlock Holmes and Watson are off to Russia to investigate a document recently discovered by Mycroft’s agents, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is an obvious fake. Meyers does in fact get in some potshots at the dangers of fake news. The journey takes them into pre-revolutionary Russia where they tangle with the secret police and are exposed to some of the victims of the pogroms. Most of the actual adventure takes place in the last third of the novel, and since we know that the bogus document did not get exposed and suppressed, we sort of know in advance that Holmes will ultimately fail this time, even though he has technically found the man who faked them. Quite low key but surprisingly entertaining despite the real lack of any mystery or much suspense. 4/27/20

The Mezcal Crack-Up by Paul Di Filippo, Wildside, 2020, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-4794-5004-6 

The third and probably final caper of Stan and Glen, a couple of confidence men who ended the previous book with a nice chunk of cash apiece but enough publicity to force them to go straight. Stan invests his money in a rehabilitation clinic, which seems to Glen a poor investment, although Stan will eventually do quite well by it. Glen wants to open a bar, but that means dealing with a nasty and almost certainly criminal liquor supplier. Add to that mix a handful of idiosyncratic characters whose interactions will push the story in some unexpected directions, although it is inevitable that there will be a clash of wills, which mostly takes place in the form of a violent clash at a rave. A nice conclusion to a very entertaining though short series of sometimes comic adventures. 4/23/20

The Lover by Carter Brown, Signet, 1958   

Not one of the better Al Wheeler novels. He is sent to investigate a cult leader who worships the son and calls upon his followers to make sacrifices. When a beautiful woman is found murdered, the assumption is that someone took him a bit too seriously. There is too much humor in this one, most of it not very well done. Wheeler goes through the usual sequence before identifying the killer while his boss froths at the lips because things take so long. 4/23/20

The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple by Julian Symons, MacMillan, 1985  

When Symons is at the top of his form, he is excellent. When he is not, he is merely boring. This is one of the latter. There is an elaborate story about business partners angry with each other, anonymous letters claiming that there is an adulterous affair going on, and some foreshadowing of a couple of deaths that might be murder, or suicide, or accident. The story takes a long time coming to the interesting bits and I actually spent three days reading this in spurts because I was bored. The payoff was not good enough to justify the wait.  4/22/20

Secret Agent X Volume 4, Altus, 2010 w1502 

Devils of Darkness by Paul Chadwick, 1935 

Borrowing from Murray Leinster, this installment in the series uses a kind of darkness projector under cover of which they rob banks. They are all armed with whips for some reason. Secret Agent X gets kidnapped because he anticipates their next attack, and then uses the usual series of disguises to get captured and escape a couple of times while tracking down the mastermind – a mad horticulturist – and breaking up the gang. 

Talons of Terror by Emile C. Tepperman, 1935 

The evil Doctor Blood is sending madmen armed with talons to rip out the throats of prominent men and drink their blood. He will only spare those who pay the sums he demands. Secret Agent X impersonates some of the prospective victims and figures out who is behind the murders, and for the first time in his career considers using lethal force rather than his usual gas gun.  

The Corpse Cavalcade by G.T. Fleming-Roberts, 1935 

A gang of masked criminals rob a bank, or so it appears. The cash is still there when they leave. But it turns out to be counterfeit. The author never explains why they would do this. Other than that, it's the usual bit with lots of disguises as he tries to thwart the Seven Silent Men, who want to eliminate Secret Agent X as part of their reign of terror. I particularly liked the bit where one of the crooks signals to his compatriots by taking long or short puffs on a cigarette that turn out to be Morse Code. Very, very silly.

The Golden Ghoul by G.T. Fleming- Roberts, 1935

Another gang of extortionists is at large. They use various devices to paralyze their victims with a drug that leaves them unable to move but still alive and conscious. Secret Agent X has multiple false identities and one of them is threatened if he does not pay up. More disguises than usual - and they are pretty implausible as well. Apparently every man in this alternate world has the same height and weight.  4/21/20

The Mystery Girl by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1922   

The arrival of a young woman in a small college town is the catalyst for murder.  The new college president is found stabbed to death in a locked room but there is no murder weapon and some money is missing. One of the servants has mysteriously disappeared. The dead man’s will is missing. The police are baffled – not surprising since they forgot to look for tracks in the snow, forgot to take fingerprints, allowed one of the suspects to remove documents from the murder scene, and accept dubious evidence as proof.  4/19/20

The Vanishing of Betty Varian by Carolyn Wells, Burt, 1922 

A Pennington Wise mystery. A woman disappears from a house set against a cliff from which there is only one exit. Her father is found shot inside the house but there is no weapon to be found. An obviously bogus ransom note arrives although it turns out to be real.  The villain is completely transparent – in fact he is the only person whom it could possibly be. The solution is so full of cheats it is hard to describe. Several people have examined a dried well and found no loose stones, but when Wise looks, he finds the entrance to a tunnel leading to a secret exit. The kidnapped woman makes no effort to escape even when her keeper volunteers her as a double on a movie set. And the finished movie is showing in theaters only a couple of weeks after the abduction.  4/19/20

Cassady by Jeff Sutton, St Martins, 1979

A traffic cop whose wife was murdered fifteen years earlier inherits some money and decides to offer it as a reward for information that will close the case. Predictably, someone is tempted to provide some information and he has to turn detective for a while. This results in his exposure to a seamy underworld and a mesh of old secrets and present dangers.  Very large chunks of the book consist of dialogue, unusual for this author. Unexceptional. 4/16/20

House of Fear by Wadsworth Camp, Bruin, 2019 (originally published in 1916)   

The author was the father of Madeline L’Engle. This ages extremely well and is very suspenseful. It was probably inspired by The Phantom of the Opera. A theater has been closed for forty years after the star of a controversial play died on stage. He had vowed that no one would ever play the part except himself. There are various ghostly manifestations – footsteps, a phantom cat, flashlights that mysteriously stop and start working, strange telephone calls, etc. Eventually they rehearse the crucial scene and the actor promptly drops dead. More complications arise but a new actor is cast, and when he plays the scene, he collapses as well. But the director is an ex-police detective and he figures out who is behind the scares, which are reasonably well explained. Very nicely done. Recommended. 4/15/20

The Tigress by Carter Brown, Signet, 1961  

Al Wheeler investigates when a body is found in a grave scheduled to be filled the following morning. The body is that of the mistress of the man whose wife has just died in an accident. Wheeler tracks the wife’s history to an exclusive sex club where he meets, and beds, a variety of people. When the cemetery caretaker is also murdered, he begins to suspect the solution, not long after the reader will almost certainly have figured it out. Not bad despite there not being much of any mystery. 4/12/20

The Mystery of the Sycamore by Carolyn Wells, Burt, 1921  

Another typically inept mystery novel from Wells. A politician is killed and three members of a family all confess to protect one another. A mysterious bugler plays during the night, but it turns out that this incident is neither relevant nor explicable. The villain’s identity is obvious. There is withheld information, factual contradictions, outright lies, and other problems. Wells never seemed to learn to keep track of what she had already written or find plausible reasons for people to act as they did. 4/10/20

Busted Wheeler by Carter Brown, Belmont, 1979

Detective Wheeler gets framed and suspended by a ruthless businessman whose daughter is disappeared into forcing Wheeler to find her. She hated her father, whom she blamed for her mother’s suicide. She was also hanging around with a rough crowd, and her father had made quite a few enemies of his own. Wheeler gets into the thick of things pretty fast and is soon dodging aggressive thugs and aggressive women, but he manages to solve the case – and for the first time the solution of a Carter Brown mystery caught me by surprise.  4/10/20

Angel! by Carter Brown, Signet, 1962   

This is one of the better Al Wheeler mysteries. He is sent to investigate rumors of horseplay by a small plane and finds a group of friends who indulge in such things. Almost immediately the plane explodes, killing the pilot, but one of the others was supposed to have been flying it, so the time bomb presumably took out the wrong person. Some gratuitous sex and violence follow before Wheeler is able to figure out what is really going on.  4/8/20

Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #1 and #4 edited by Marvin Kaye, 2008/2010  

Since these have ISBN numbers, they are effectively anthologies rather than a magazine. The stories are all competent but none are exceptional. The best in the first issue were by Ron Goulart and Edward Hoch. In the second they are by Marc Bilgrey and Jean Paiva. There is some Sherlock related nonfiction but only some of it is particularly interesting.  The stories are not, as I expected, Holmes pastiches but independent ones. The Hoch is part of his Simon Ark series. Good enough that I might look for other volumes in the series but not good enough that I’ll make a major effort to do so. 4/8/20

The Luminous Face by Carolyn Wells, Doran, 1921  

A thoroughly disliked man apparently calls a doctor from his apartment and says he has been shot. But the corpse has two wounds in it, and the first one would have been instantly fatal. Wells betrays her ignorance of how fingerprinting is done and her inept detective is still considering suicide even though the second shot took place several minutes after death. It’s not a locked room this time and it appears that the only likely suspect has an ironclad alibi. The killer is painfully obvious and the dialogue is even more inane than usual. The solution involves a twin brother whose existence we have never suspected, the motive involves the fact that the killer and the victim came from the same small town, which we were never told, and worst of all Wells forgets to explain the second bullet. 4/5/20

The Murder in the Mill-Race by E.C.R. Lorac, Poisoned Pen, 2019 (originally published in 1952) 

Another very well crafted mystery. The daunting woman who ran a home for orphaned children in a small English village is found drowned. One of her charges died similarly almost exactly a year earlier. Inspector Macdonald quickly discovers that she was not the saintly person that the locals claim, but actually a nasty, domineering woman who may have been blackmailing someone. I had eliminated all two possible suspects by the climax, and one of them was indeed the killer, although I did not guess the motive. This is the best written of the novels I’ve read by this author to date. 

Case in the Clinic by E.C.R. Lorac, Surinam Turtle Press, 2012 (originally published in 1941)  

The premise of this one is a familiar one. A nurse has a history of having elderly patients die and leave her money and the death of her new husband from a mysterious heart attack raises even more suspicions. But the plot veers away from the predictable when the nurse herself disappears. A body turns up a few days later, but it is too mutilated for positive identification. There is a fairly ingenious murder device at one point. What seemed to be just a competent repeat of a familiar story becomes quite interesting as it progresses. 4/2/20

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