Last Update 8/22/17

The Sign of Fear by Robert Ryan, Simon & Schuster, 2016

This is the fourth in a series of adventures of Dr. John Watson during World War I (Sherlock Holmes has a couple of cameos). His latest case involves a man who appears to have come from the dead, a sunken hospital ship that may not have sunk after all, and the kidnapping of five members of a commission working on compensation for disabled soldiers. His old nemesis Miss Pillbody returns as well. I've enjoyed all four of these books a great deal, although I thought this one the weakest in the series. 8/22/17

A Fatal Inversion by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1987

This is one of Rendellís best novels, mixing elements of the detective story with her own preoccupations with psychological quirks. The bones of a woman and a child are dug up in a pet cemetery. The former owner of the property and four companions are involved with the deaths Ė we know this from the outset Ė and have avoided each otherís company for the ten years since they occurred. But we donít know how they died, who they are, or why it all happened. This is revealed mostly through a series of flashbacks. Itís reminiscent of A Dark-Adapted Eye, but less confusing. 8/20/17

The Labyrinth of Death by James Lovegrove, Titan, 2017, $14.95, ISBN 978-1785653377

A new  Sherlock Holmes adventure, although a good deal of the detecting this time is conducted by a new character. Holmes is employed to look into the disappearance of a young woman. It does not take him long to determine that she is using a false name to infiltrate a secretive society known as the Elysians, among whom a friend of hers disappeared a few months earlier. Holmes decides that she is smart enough to be left on her own to investigate, and much of the subsequent progress of the plot is revealed in a series of letters to Holmes. Watson is scandalized by the idea of allowing a woman to put herself in jeopardy, and when a new letter arrives suggesting that all is well after all, he correctly assumes that it was written under duress. He incorrectly believes that he can singlehandedly bring about a rescue and rushes off without Holmes. The rest of the story I will leave to your imagination. A good deal less melodramatic than some recent Holmes pastiches, and Holmes spends a great deal of time on the sidelines, but the mystery is engaging if not particularly mysterious. 8/19/17

The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2012 (from the 1993 French edition) 

A newly married woman hears rumors of a vampire witch who was executed and possibly buried in the grounds of the house. Although she does not believe in the supernatural, she becomes enmeshed in the legend and its consequences and finds her own life in peril. This one is a bit slow moving and I pretty much guessed the ending quite early, but it's one of Halter's better novels. 8/15/17

Talking to Strange Men by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1987 

The premise for this suspense novel is promising but I donít think the author developed it enough. A group of high school boys are engaged in an elaborate game of espionage which includes leaving coded messages about. A man depressed by the collapse of his marriage thinks they are real spies and begins decoding their cryptic communications. His sister was murdered a few years earlier, but this is incidental to the plot. Both groups go through various adventures before their stories collide more solidly. A child molester is accidentally killed and thatís pretty much the climax. Entertaining enough but I think that was a missed opportunity. 8/15/17

Little God Ben by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1935)

This is a comic adventure rather than a mystery. Ben, the tramp who solves crimes, is shipwrecked with several other people on an island of cannibals. Through chance, Ben is mistaken for one of their gods. This leads to a great deal of frivolous activity. As a plot element, Ben's strong accent and peculiar personality is entertaining. As the centerpiece of the story, these are wearing, repetitive, and occasionally annoying. 8/14/17

The Secret Dancer by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1936)  

One of this authorís lesser works. A rather chaotic live theater group becomes even more so when murder rears its ugly head. Fortunately, perhaps, there is a Scotland Yard detective in the audience. Berrow tries too hard to be witty and humorous, and the result is silly and sometimes verges on being incoherent. The mystery itself is not that interesting and the characters are too grotesquely distorted to be interesting.  8/12/17

Death of a Commuter by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1988 (originally published in 1967)

Carolus Deene is a teacher who uses his free time to investigate murders in this rather tongue in cheek detective series. This time he is looking into a commuter who is found dead of his car, apparently having committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. But the circumstances are peculiar and Deene spends some time investigating the dead manís family and neighbors, turning up some interesting tidbits while trying to keep a young and obstreperous student placed in his care under control. The lack of a more serious tone generally is a minus for me, but Bruce manages to carry this one off pretty well. 8/11/17

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1986

The first novel Rendell wrote as by Barbara Vine is a complex family saga. We know from the outset that there was a murder thirty some years earlier, and we know who the murderer was. But we arenít actually told the name of the victim until quite late. There are family secrets to be unraveled Ė children born out of wedlock, possible mental instability, the death of a child and the disappearance of another. Not all of the questions are answered. The opening chapters are quite difficult to follow Ė Rendell doesnít tell us many crucial bits of information until later and there is a quite large cast of characters. Itís worth persevering to the end, but it may be a struggle for some readers. 8/11/17

The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay, Poisoned Pen, 2015 (originally published in 1936)

The patriarch of a large family has planned for one of the guests at a holiday party to dress as Santa Claus for the children. He does not, however, expect to be murdered by a costumed enemy. As it happens, there was a duplicate costume that only the killer knew to exist, and he uses it to cast suspicion on an innocent man. This was a quite good detective story by an author who only wrote, alas, three of them. Above average characterization and a nice puzzle. 8/9/17

The Dead Shall Be Raised & The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs, British Library, 2016

Two novels featuring Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard. In the first, it has been long believed that two former friends quarreled, that one killed the other, and that the killer vanished. But many years later, the body of the missing man is found and he died the same night as his supposed victim. It's not long before the killer strikes again to protect his secret, but Littlejohn ferrets out the truth. In the second, a highly respected but uncertified doctor is found murdered in his treatment room. There is also evidence suggesting that he might have once helped a fugitive to change his appearance. These are both solid if undistinguished mystery novels, with reasonably interesting puzzles and a nicely methodical unraveling.  8/4/17

Live Flesh by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1986 

Ten years after he shot and permanently crippled a police officer, Victor is out on parole. Although he was never convicted of any other crime, he has committed violent rape in the past and is not certain he can resist doing it again in the future. On a whim, he looks up his victim and he and the police officer, paralyzed from the waist down, and the invalidís girlfriend form an uneasy kind of friendship which cannot, however, last for long. The climax is disappointing but the buildup is very well done indeed. 8/4/17

The Killing Doll by Ruth Rendell, Pantheon, 1984 

Another story of a fatally dysfunctional family. Pup is a young man who has played with magic all his life, although he is in the process of growing out of it. His sister Dolly is mentally disturbed. She believes implicitly in the magic, and when their father remarries and she creates an effigy of the wife, who subsequently dies, Dolly is convinced that her brotherís magic was responsible. She then tries to use it to help a friend by killing her husbandís lover, and has to keep making excuses when the magic doesnít work. Her grasp on reality steadily declines until she commits murder herself. But justice triumphs, after a fashion, as she stumbles into the lair of another crazed killer. One of Rendellís better novels along these lines, although not much mystery is involved.  8/1/17

The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell, Pantheon, 1984 

Although I enjoyed the first half of this one, the characterization of the main character seemed inconsistent after that. A woman loses her toddler son to a rare condition during surgery. Her mother, who is not mentally sound, kidnaps another boy and tells her she is babysitting. Even though she barely interacts with the boy during the next few days, she is oddly reluctant to return him when she realizes the truth. She sends her mother out of the country so that she wonít be committed and then finds one excuse after another not to go to the police. The real mother is a pretty awful person, and she eventually gets killed so the protagonist decides to keep the boy. This was in some ways the weakest book Iíve yet read by Rendell. 8/1/17

An Unkindness of Ravens by Ruth Rendell, Pantheon, 1985 

A bigamist is murdered, stabbed to death, but neither of his families claims to know anything about the matter. The dead man was a bit too fond of very young girls, which poses one possible motive. At the same time, a young woman stabs two other men for no apparent reason, and the bigamist was also stabbed to death. Are they connected? Inspector Wexler threads his way through one of the best of his cases. 8/1/17

Ben Sees It Through by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1932)

Ben the Tramp is just back in England after his adventures in Spain. A man he meets on the trip offers to put him in the way of a job and provides him with an address in London, but his benefactor is stabbed to death a short time later and the police seem to believe that Ben is responsible. He is in and out of trouble as everyone seems suspicious of him Ė the man he was sent to see, the killers, and the police. Fortunately his friend Molly is around to lend him a hand. Weakest of the first four Ben adventures. 7/26/17

Family Matters by Anthony Rolls, British Library, 2017 (originally published in 1933)

The premise for this murder comedy is delightful. A woman whose husband has become increasingly intolerable decides to use slow poison to kill him. The victim's doctor is a psychopath who decides to use a different poison to slowly murder his patient. The man himself is fond of dosing himself with odd chemicals. To the dismay of his two would-be murderers, the two poisons counteract each other, so they begin increasing the dosage, keeping the same balance. I thought this went on a bit longer than it should have but it is genuinely funny much of the time. 7/25/17

Murder Gives a Lovely Light by John Stephen Strange, Collier, 1941 

A seriously ill man dies in his bed, apparently of a stroke. But why did the maid who drank some of his hot chocolate also become violently ill? Does it have something to do with the sleazy Russian who has been pursuing his daughter? Did the business rival who embezzled money decide to prevent him from going to the police? Did the one time but now lapses friend recently returned to the country have a secret grudge? All of the separate strains are worked out by the end. I thought the real killer was pretty obvious, but I had fun watching the author reach the same conclusion. 7/22/17

Speaker of Mandarin by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1983  

Inspector Wexford returns from a visit to China during which he experienced odd hallucinations, only to find himself assigned to investigate the murder of one of the other tourists he met while he was there. The case take a number of twists and turns as one suspect after another appears to be the obvious solution, only to turn out to be a red herring. This was my favorite of Rendellís mysteries to date, although I still have a long way to go to the end of them. 7/22/17

Murder in the Melody by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005, originally published in 1940 

During the final moments of a radio broadcast, a gunshot is clearly audible. The protagonist happens to be with the detective assigned to the case when the report comes in, so he gets pulled into the story right from the start. The victim is an executive at the station, found in another manís office with a pile of cash. But everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, though obviously one of them does not. More murders follow, each demolishing the then most popular theory of who committed the crime. This one had a few too many irrelevant conversations for me, but the basic puzzle is well done. 7/20/17

Words Have Wings by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1946)  

Berrow wrote four novels about a husband and wife amateur detective team who solve murders, of which this is the longest. It opens with the discovery that a dead body has been hidden underneath their car and continues through a series of adventures in which they are menaced for spies from the Axis powers. This would have been much better if about twenty percent of it had been pruned away. There is too much about the details of the store where the wife works, and the medical center where the husband is sergeant-major. The banter is fun at times, but gets quite wearing after a while. Words may have wings, but some of them this time never get off the ground. 7/19/17

Master of the Moor by Ruth Rendell, Pantheon, 1982  

Although this was a fair suspense thriller and more atmospheric than most of Rendellís previous novels, I thought the ending was too explicitly telegraphed and came as no surprise at all. The murder of two women on the moors leads a local man who has a host of psychological problems to commit his own murder and try to blame it on the serial killer. Except that he hallucinates while in the process of killing his victim, who is not the person he thought he was killing. I didnít find the abnormal psychology particularly convincing in this one and I knew who the killer was almost from the moment he appears in the story. The film version of this is quite dull. 7/18/17

The Mummy Case Mystery by Dermot Morrah, Coachwhip, 2014 (originally published in 1933)

Morrah wrote only this single mystery, set mostly at Oxford University. Two professors of Egyptology who have feuded for years apparently reconcile their differences, but one of them appears to have been burned to death in his chambers. He had recently purchased a mummy from the other, but the mummy appears to be missing. Or was it the mummy who was found among the ruins? And what happened to the other professor? And who stole the mummy case Ė twice? A somewhat lighthearted puzzle solved by two members of the faculty, the solution of which I figured out in advance although it was probably clever in 1933. 7/16/17

The Middle Temple Murder by J.S. Fletcher, Dover, 1980 (originally published in 1918)

Although there is some clunkiness in this century old murder mystery, it remains entertaining, though it cheats rather outrageously. An unknown man is found murdered in an alcove. He is eventually identified by an enterprising journalist as a former embezzler who has spent many years in Australia. The embezzler had a young son who supposedly died but who turns out to be one of the other characters in the story. His partner in crime, also supposedly dead, faked his demise and is another of the characters. The police are unrealistically obtuse and some of the other interactions are awkwardly posed, but otherwise this was surprisingly good. 7/12/17

The Smokers of Hashish by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1934)

The recurring hero travels from Gibraltar to Tangier to see the woman he is currently wooing. Shortly after arriving, she is abducted from a night club and he spends the rest of the book tracking her down. The people behind the abduction Ė and two others Ė are also tied to the hashish trade. Berrow accepted the common misconceptions about marijuana at the time so parts of this are not very credible. Itís also not one of his better stories. The characters talk too much to no purpose, the mystery element is insubstantial, and it was a relief to finally reach the end. 7/11/17

The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1980

An accountant wins a big football pool and decides to give the money to needy people. Unfortunately that brings him into the orbit of a handyman who freelances as a killer. This is fairly short and readable enough, but I had a pretty good idea where it was going, and most of the interesting events take place toward the end so it was rather slow going. I can see why Rendell later adopted a penname for her psychological stuff, to differentiate it from the more conventional mysteries. Clever but slightly inconclusive ending. 7/10/17

Death Notes by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1981

A famous retired musician dies, apparently the result of an accident, but Wexford begins to believe that the woman claiming to be his estranged daughter and main heir is actually an imposter. He is pursuing that investigation when the woman ends up dead in her own storage locker, and his attention turns to the people he believes were helping her with the impersonation. Some nice twists in this one and an interesting puzzle. 7/10/17

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville, Poisoned Pen, 2015 (originally published in 1934)

This is a spoof of the live theater as well as of the detective story. The star of a musical comedy is shot by a real gun during the opening night performance, and the man who fired it is found hanged in his trailer a short time later. But was it really the prop gun that fired the fatal round. A detective notices that the trajectory does not seem to agree with the decision of the inquest and he makes further inquiries on his own. The humorous elements work quite well, which is not always the case with mystery/comedy combinations. 7/7/17

The Vampire Tree by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2016 (from the 1996 French edition)

A fairly good plot is mortally wounded this time by bad writing, and I don't mean the prose, which could be the fault of the translation. There are just too many instances where sections of dialogue are logically untenable. For example, we are told that a boy is suspected of committing thefts but no one can prove it, but we are also told that everyone knows he has a secret cache of stolen items hidden in a woodlot. It can't be both. Sometimes characters know things they could not possibly know, and sometimes their reaction to a line of dialogue seems to bear no relation to it. Occasionally their behavior makes no sense and frequently it is just too naÔve to be plausible. A newlywed woman becomes obsessed with the legend of a vampire witch who was executed nearby and begins to identify with her. Her husband is gaslighting her. 7/4/17

Fingers for Ransom by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1939)

When a violent storm causes two vacationers to take refuge at a small inn, they have no idea that the morning will start with a dead man found in a bathtub and the disappearance of his cousin. The police are sure that it was murder and kidnapping, but they cannot determine who was responsible and there is no ransom note. So the tourists continue their tour. But then one of them disappears as well and her husband is frantic to get her back. About average for Berrrow. The puzzle itself isn't that interesting but the plot carries the load. 7/2/17

A Sleeping Life by Ruth Rendell, Doubleday, 1978 

Inspector Wexford has a puzzling case this time. A woman is murdered, but while everyone locally says that she lives in London, no one has her address and no record of her existence turns up. Even with her picture in the newspaper, none of her friends identify her. A couple of promising leads end up as dead ends and the case isnít helped when some of the people involved tell elaborate lies. I guessed most of the solution to this one, at least in terms of identifying the dead woman. I didnít guess the killer, however, although there seemed to be only two candidates, one of whom turns out to be guilty. This was one of the better Rendells from this period. 7/1/17

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