Last Update 5/26/22

Suicide Excepted by Cyril Hare, Perennial, 1983 (originally published in 1939) 

When an insurance company refuses to pay after a man appears to have committed suicide, his son and daughter and her fiancé set out to prove that it was murder. Their amateur investigations turn up another crime along the way, but each line of interest which they pursue leads o a dead end. It is murder, of course, and there are several people who had opportunity and appear to have motive, but not everything is what it seems. The solution to this one caught me completely by surprise. An unusually well contrived mystery. 5/26/22

Meet Me at the Morgue by Ross Macdonald, Bantam, 1953 

A condensed version appeared as Experience with Evil. It appears that the young son of a rich man has been kidnapped by the family chauffeur. A probations officer – completely inappropriately and probably illegally – decides to investigate independently of the police, who arrest the chauffeur’s wife based on no evidence at all. There are rumors of blackmail as well, and for a while it appears that the mother is in fact the most likely person to be the mastermind. But there are some surprises waiting to spring out at the reader. Not awful, but some of the basic structure of the story is so implausible that it was hard to take the rest seriously. 5/26/22

The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett, British Library, 2021 (originally published in 1952)

I cannot remember the last time I was so impressed by the prose as in this novel. Every page is a delight. The protagonist is an unlikely hero who is inadvertently present when a retired judge is murdered. Everyone else in the house is with him at the time the shot is fired, but it is also obvious that all three of his companions are part of a murder plot. But is it the right plot? And was it even murder? He stumbles his way through another murder and various other perils, occasionally being provoked into acting proactively. I had a pretty good idea what actually happened but the trip was even better than the destination. This is an excellent novel and I highly recommend it.5/23/22

The Brooklyn Murders by G.D.H. & Margaret Cole, Spitfire, 2021 (originally published in 1923)   

The first mystery by this husband/wife team is overall pretty good. Two men are found bludgeoned to death, on the same property but nowhere near one another. Each body is accompanied by clues that suggest the other was responsible. The police eventually conclude this was contrived to confuse them by a third man, and there are clues suggesting his presence as well. The plotting is less skillful here because there are elements of the obvious frame that would not survive even slight scrutiny, but the police accept them as facts without checking or even considering that they were faked. There are only four possible suspects. One is physically incapable of the crime, one is occasionally a viewpoint character and we know that he is innocent, the third is the man the police suspect and arrest early on, so obviously he isn’t guilty. That makes it rather obvious who is. 5/22/22

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald, Bantam, 1966 (originally published in 1956) 

Aka The Dying Animal. Archer turns down a job as a bodyguard for a terrified man and instead is hired by a frantic husband looking for his missing wife. This leads him to an ex-prize fighter turned actor, an ex-diver turned actress, a crimelord, a crooked movie producer, and a succession of dead bodies. He gets manhandled as usual but stubbornly stays on the case until he tracks down the missing woman, who turns out not to be the person he thought she was, while dodging gangsters, crooked cops, and nutcases. This was the first of his books to really fool me about who the chief villain actually was. 5/20/22

Watson’s Choice by Gladys Mitchell, Vintage, 2011 (originally published in 1955)

One of the author’s better mysteries. It opens with Mrs. Bradley and her secretary attending a Sherlock Holmes themed party sponsored by one of Bradley’s former psychiatric patients. The household is rife with tension and mystery. The master is planning to marry the governess, who disappears briefly and provides a bizarre story about a kidnapping. She has clearly been making passes at every male in sight and there are plenty of suspects when she is found stabbed to death. There’s a mysterious dog dressed to resemble the Hound of the Baskervilles, a suicidal and obviously unbalanced tutor, a bitter actor, a troubled marriage, and various other elements. Enjoyed this one enough to read it without a break. 5/19/22

Sexton Blake Detective edited by George Mann, Snowbooks, 2009 

This is a very large – over 700 pages – collection of Sexton Blake adventures varying from short stories to full length novels. Many of his major nemeses are included, and a good selection of the more significant writers are represented. There were literally thousands of stories in the series. These range from police procedurals to traditional detective tales to outright adventure. My favorite in the collection in fact is Cecil Hayter’s African adventure story, “The Inari Treasure.” This is a great sampler for people who want to peer into the Sexton Blake universe and get an idea of its diversity, as well as sampling some of its major writers like Skene, Sempill, Teed, Murray, and Evans. 5/18/22

Tom Brown’s Body by Gladys Mitchell, Vintage, 2009 (originally published in 1949)

One of the teacher’s at a rural boys’ school is murdered and his body left in a garden. Cause of death was drowning, which suggests a connection with a local reproduction of a Roman bath. Two boys who sneak out at night add some complicated clues to the mix, and another boy seems to pluck information out of thin air. Mrs. Bradley investigates – she knows who did it but has no way of proving it – and threads her way through the usual academic rivalries and boyish fantasies. I didn’t care for this very much. The investigation, and the plot, seem much too unfocused and part of the solution is revealed without adequate explanation. 5/16/22

Find a Victim by Ross Macdonald, Bantam, 1972 (originally published in 1954) 

Lew Archer finds a dying man while driving through New Mexico and decides to indulge his curiosity and find out who shot him. The local sheriff is oddly hostile. A local trucking company has lost one of their trucks and an expensive load of liquor. The local innkeeper and his wife are at each other’s throats, and their manager has mysteriously disappeared. Archer gets knocked around a lot before he finds out who the killer is, what happened to the stolen truck, and why the sheriff is behaving out of character. Good but not great. 5/15/22

Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino, Minotaur, 2021 

Twenty years after the police were unable to prove their case against a child murderer, a chance fire turns up the bones of a young woman who disappeared much more recently. The fire was in the house owned by the suspect’s stepmother. She had been dead for several years, but no one knew it. Her pension was deposited in her bank account and her bills were all paid automatically. The plot takes a sudden dramatic turn when the presumed murderer is killed under very strange circumstances. The conspirators responsible leave red herrings and other distractions to keep the police guessing. This is a blend of the amateur detective story and a police procedural. There are several surprising twists along the way. 6/13/22

What Beckoning Ghost by Douglas G. Browne, Dover, 1986 (originally published in 1947) 

This is the second quite good mystery I’ve read by this author. Years after a woman saw the ghost of her son, supposedly, the ghost appears again to a vagrant. A few days later he is found drowned in the local river and a few days after that, a woman whose marriage has begun to come apart at the seams disappears during a dinner party. She is also found drowned. The grumpy amateur investigator is a professional prosecutor, so the police don’t object as he unravels the case and solves the mystery of the disappearing ghost. Features an exciting chase through the London sewers. There’s no real mystery about the identity of the killer – the husband – and the real puzzle is how he made the ghostly appearances and then disappeared in front of witnesses. The solution is somewhat telegraphed but not fatally. 5/12/22

The Fiend with Twenty Faces by Edogawa Rampo, Kurodahan, 2012 (originally published in 1936) 

This mystery/adventure was the first in a series of similar books Rampo wrote for younger readers, sort of the Hardy Boys on steroids. It is clearly heavily influenced by the Arsene Lupin stories of Maurice Leblanc. The villain, an honorable one, is a master of disguise and has elaborate criminal plans. Normally he would be opposed by a private detective who is his intellectual equal, but that worthy is on vacation so his young assistants have to fill in for him. Kind of fun, though not entirely serious. The series was very popular in Japan and became a part of their entertainment culture that persists to this day. 5/10/22

The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald, Bantam, 1971 (originally published in 1952)

Lew Archer tracks down a woman with relative ease at the beginning of this one, and he suspects that she is involved somehow with the disappearance of the heir to a large fortune. Within a day or so, she has been murdered in a hotel room, another private investigator tries to get Archer to partner with him, a couple of mystery women muddy the waters – they turn out to be the same person later on. There’s another murder before long and Archer is convinced that the missing man is long dead. But what happened to the body? The answer to that question is pretty grotesque. Another solid private eye story. 5/10/22

Sherlock Holmes and the Three Winter Terrors by James Lovegrove, Titan, 2021 

Over the span of several years, Holmes solves three cases, all involving a particular family and all somehow related. They are actually three separate novellas involving the drowning of a student, a heart attack brought on by a ghostly apparition, and an apparent act of cannibalism. The third changes the resolutions of the first two somewhat. Lovegrove does Holmes quite well – a dozen novels to date – but I don’t think this is one of his best. In two of the three, I knew who the killer was almost from the outset and the surprise revelations at the end were largely unconvincing. 5/7/22

The Metal Monster Murders by David V. Reed, Armchair, 2021 (originally published in 1944) 

Despite the melodramatic title, this is not SF. Two men become obsessed with the idea that a junkyard has spawned a new kind of life. When people begin to become murder victims, they blame it on the creature. It is all rationalized at the end – hypnotism and insanity. The novel is strangely constructed. Its epistolary – letters and diary extracts – and much of the action takes place off screen. The characters do a lot of philosophizing. Henry Kuttner, Alfred Bester, and Manly Wade Wellman are all minor characters, presumably friends of the author. Not particularly good, but rather unusual. 5/4/22

The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald, Bantam, 1971 (originally published in 1951)

Lew Archer is hired by a woman to track down her wayward daughter, who appears to have run off with a gangster. He finds himself caught between rival factions of thugs and while the missing woman is easy to find, it is not as easy to extricate her from her situation. A stolen shipment of drugs, a parcel of cash, a shipwreck, and a couple more murders further complicate matters. The conclusion contains several twists, only some of which I saw coming. The plot depends on several coincidences occurring, which bothered me a little.

Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell, Vintage, 2010 (originally published in 1934) 

This is the weakest of the Mrs. Bradley novels I’ve read so far. It has an okay premise – one of the cast members of an amateur production of the Mikado goes missing in the middle of the performance and is subsequently found murdered – the investigation itself lacks focus or tension and Bradley makes leaps of logic that cannot be justified in context. I struggled to make it to the end, which had an okay but not particularly surprising or ingenious solution.  I find this series very variable in quality. 4/29/22

Murder in the Snow by Gladys Mitchell, Vintage, 2017 (originally published in 1950) 

Aka Groaning Spinney. The legend of a ghost mixes with murder, although the victim froze to death and is presumed to have died of natural causes. Then it turns out he left an insurance policy, and a wife that no one knew about. His housekeeper is missing and her body turns up later. She had been poisoned. The dead man lived with his cousin, who seems to have a perfect alibi, but his story about the disappearance of his pets does not ring true and Mrs. Bradley suspects he worked with a confederate. Although this was pretty good, I have a problem with Bradley’s intuitive leaps that don’t follow any logical progression, and the coincidences that frequently get her past a plot problem. 4/27/22

The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald, Bantam, 1970 (originally published in 1950) 

The second Lew Archer novel is very good, though perhaps a bit too imitative of Raymond Chandler. Archer is hired to find out who sent an anonymous letter to a woman’s husband. Before he can make any headway at all, her mother in law is murdered, drowned in a swimming pool, and various thugs show up, clearly employed by an oil investor who likes to take shortcuts to get what he wants. Archer gets slugged, sapped, tied up, confined to a nursing home, shot at, and threatened by the local chief of police. There are actually multiple murderers involved, some of whom go unpunished. One of them is confronted by Archer at the end, but he decides the killing was justified! I found this one morally and ethically questionable, to say the least. 4/24/22

Miscast for Murder by Ruth Fenisong, Doubleday, 1954 

I’ve been trying to chase down the last few books I am missing by this author, although the present title was rather disappointing. A professional woman with a fiancé and bright future spots her estranged father in a restaurant and decides to investigate and find out if he has abandoned his disreputable lifestyle. Not too surprisingly, there is a dead body in the man’s hotel room, and the subsequent investigation turns up more than the daughter expected. Tolerable but the story never really caught my interest. 4/23/22

Unquiet Spirits by Bonnie Macbird, Collins, 2017

This quite long Sherlock Holmes novel delves into his childhood as an enemy from his school days returns to cause fresh trouble. The title is a pun – the story directly involves a Scottish lord who owns a distillery and his castle is reputed to be haunted. Someone from the family may be involved in a plot to sabotage research into a disease that is affecting wine production. Someone else kidnaps a servant girl, whose frozen head later turns up on a desert tray. Holmes takes an instant and severe dislike to an intelligent young woman, which puzzles Watson. This was actually quite good and maintained my interest despite the considerable length. There is a small plot problem with the very late introduction of a pivotal character. There is also a genuine ghost, although only briefly and with no real impact on the story. 4/20/22

Corpse Cargo by Norvell Page (as Grant Stockbridge), 1934 

Another criminal mastermind – this time a woman – has found a new weapon with which to threaten the world. She calls herself Captain Kidd and she has a device that allows her to electrocute entire trains full of people at a time so that the bodies can be robbed. The plotting is really bad. I don’t care how many people she has in her gang, she cannot search one thousand bodies on a train in less than five minutes. It seems like everyone knows the Spider’s real identity by now, which makes his efforts seem silly at times. There is a bit of a mystery involved, but it’s so minor that it is not remotely interesting. 4/20/22

The Complete Miss Death by Gwyn Evans, Mark Hodder, 2021 

This collects the four novellas in which Sexton Blake battled Miss Death, a terminally ill young woman who decided to spend her dying days as a master criminal wearing a skeleton mask. In the first, she steals a book belonging to a master blackmailer and forces several prominent villains to make up her new gang. The second involves an elaborate, but not very convincing confidence scheme that Blake thwarts. Miss Death is a kind of Robin Hood. She steals from the rich and give to the poor, and she prohibits violence in her operations, although it occurs nonetheless. She dies fairly peacefully in the final installment, unusual for a Sexton Blake villain. 4/19/22

The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald, Vintage, 1998 (originally published in 1949) 

This was the first Lew Archer novel, filmed as Harper, and it’s remarkably better than the author’s first four novels. He is hired to track down a missing millionaire, who seems to have connections with a variety of criminals. It eventually becomes evident that the man has been kidnapped by a subset of his business partners. Throw in some thugs and other complications and you have a not unfamiliar plot, but very skillfully done. Archer gets knocked out a lot and never has any serious repercussions, and his relationship with the police is typically uncertain.  The final twist is telegraphed a bit but otherwise it’s a very solid plot and well carried out.  4/18/22

He Arrived at Dusk by R.C. Ashby, Valancourt, 2013 (originally published in 1933) 

This is one of those novels which appear to be supernatural almost to the end. The protagonist is hired to catalogue a library at a lonely house whose owner is in seclusion and never seen by anyone except his nurse. The family believes in the violent ghost of a Roman centurion who died in the area more than a thousand years earlier. There is a fortune involved, of course, and the mysterious accidental death of another relative. This really does feel like a traditional ghost story, until the author provides a rational explanation for everything that has happened. Okay, but a bit too slow moving for my taste. 4/16/22

No Patent on Murder by Akimitsu Takagi, Playboy, 1977

Japanese version appeared in 1965. A young woman who despaired of marrying someone she loves finally finds a man - an academic - who seems to fit her needs. But there are odd things in his life, some of them vaguely menacing, and it doesn't help that her family wants her to marry a lawyer whom she considers boring and unappealing. But as their relationship grows closer, the tensions cracks become more obvious and she wonders if she has let herself in for something terrible. And why did her prospective husband leave a much better job? Psychological suspense rather than detection in this one, from one of the most popular Japanese mystery writers.4/15/22

The Three Roads by Ross Macdonald, Bantam, 1948  

The last novel before Macdonald invented Lew Archer is unmemorable. A woman is nursing an amnesiac back to health and is determined to prevent him from investigating the murder of his wife, which is what caused his breakdown. He finds out much more than the police, and within a matter of hours, and is menaced by a man whom we are thought was hired by the woman to commit the crime in order to give her a free hand. There’s a twist – the protagonist has forgotten that he himself was the killer – but the twist is very predictable. The thug is killed by the police in a nonsensical confrontation and the couple decides that the world does not need to know the truth. I found this morally appalling. 4/13/22

Inspector Chen and the Private Kitchen Murder by Qiu Xiaolong, Severn House, 2021 

Chen has been kicked off the police force because he is politically suspect following his last couple of controversial cases, although the excuse is that he is on medical leave. An old friend interests him in the murder of an assistant chef who worked for a woman who gave very private dinner parties – apparently a recent innovation in Chinese society. The evidence points to the woman’s guilt, but working peripherally – he is not allowed to officially investigate – and with the help of friends, Chen is able to find the real killer without further complicating his own political situation. About average for the series. 4/12/22

A Surprise for Christmas and Other Seasonal Mysteries edited by Malcolm Edwards, Poisoned Pen, 2021 

A nice collection of holiday oriented mysteries, most from better known mystery writers like Ngaio Marsh, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham, and Cyril Hare, with a handful of more obscure writers. The quality ranges from excellent to ok, with no bad stories at all. I was particularly pleased to find a short story by E.R. Punshon – I enjoy his novels and had not realized there was any shorter fiction. Pleasant reading with a couple of real gems. 4/12/22

The Mystery of the Evil Eye by Anthony Wynne, Spitfire, 2021 (originally published in 1925) 

Aka The Sign of Evil. Shortly after mysteriously forbidding his daughter to marry the man of whom he had already approved, a prominent lawyer disappears. A talented amateur detective figures out that he was murdered and his body concealed in a recent grave at the local churchyard. Then the daughter disappears. Her former fiancé is the obvious suspect, but who was the clearly disguised man with whom the victim met shortly before his death? And why was a ward against the evil eye carved into the trunk of a nearby tree. This was the author’s first novel and there are several rough spots. The motivations sometimes are illogical, there are leaps of logic and coincidences, and the solution involves a madman. Wynne got much better later on. 4/7/22

A.S.F. by John Rhode, Spitfire, 2020 (originally published in 1924)

Aka The White Menace. This is an early and rather atypical Rhode title. It is a crime novel rather than a traditional murder mystery, and involves the sudden explosion of availability of dangerous drugs all across the British Isles. Government officials are understandably alarmed, but there are indications that the criminals responsible include some highly placed people. It all works out eventually, but I found the inconclusive meetings and conversations very offputting and barely made it to the end. 4/7/22

Blue City by Ross Macdonald, Bantam, 1947   

A young man returns to his very corrupt home town after years of estrangement from his father, the mayor. When he arrives, he learns that his father was murdered two years earlier and the crime was never solved. His stepmother – whom he did not know existed – has inherited everything and sold off much of it. She has a shady business manager who employs a variety of thugs and we are led to believe that she and the man conspired to murder the husband. But the solution is quite different. This was an improvement on the first two novels, but the protagonist solves everything within a day or so, survives several attacks, manages to witness two murders and get accused of a third. Some of the characters – particularly the real killer – act in ways that seem illogical. Filmed, badly, in the 1980s. 4/5/22

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell, Hogarth, 1984 (originally published in 1932)

Mrs. Bradley is a houseguest in a village where a young girl gives birth out of wedlock to a baby no one is allowed to see. A few days later she is murdered and the infant disappears. Bradley also suspects that a disgruntled wife who recently left to join a touring company never actually left at all and has also been murdered. The investigation turns up infidelities, blackmail, smuggling of pornography, assault and kidnapping, religious mania, some rather improbably antics that were a bit hard to believe, and more than one case of open insanity. Although Mitchell writes well, I had multiple problems with this one. There are two different murderers, plus accomplices. Some of Bradley’s deductions come out of nowhere. One of the murderers is allowed to go free because he was manipulated. The infant’s fate is never revealed. We have to guess about motives because the killer dies of a stroke when confronted. There is also some mild racism. 4/5/22

Jim Hanvey, Detective by Octavus Roy Cohen, Poisoned Pen, 2021 (originally published in 1923) 

These were the first few adventures of one of the author’s recurring characters, a massively overweight detective who seems to solve crimes in spite of himself, although clearly there is a sharp mind behind the façade. The six stories reminded me a bit of the Colombo television series. Self-effacing and unprepossessing, but he always solves the crime. His opponents were not professional criminals in these stories but amateurs, average people who decided to swindle or steal their way to a better lifestyle. Justice always prevailed. Not a great collection particularly but uniformly enjoyable. 4/2/22

Trouble Follows Me by Ross Macdonald, Bantam, 1972 (originally published in 1946) 

Aka Night Train.  Another story of espionage and murder. The protagonist is a naval officer who keeps stumbling on bodies. They seem to be – and are – connected to rumors of a leak of secret information from Hawaii. The conduit is obviously a radio station, although the method is not initially clear – and I’m not convinced that it would work. The protagonist and his romantic interest travel about while he investigates and she urges caution. The author slips up a bit. She is too insistent and not particularly likeable, so it’s no real surprise that she is the spy. Almost everyone involved gets killed. Too many coincidences and a telegraphed ending. 4/1/22

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