Last Update 9/18/18

Two Nights by Kathy Reichs, Bantam, 2017

Sunday Night is an ex-police officer embittered by her past experiences. She somewhat reluctantly takes a job investigating a bombing that deprived an elderly rich woman of her daughter and grandson. The granddaughter disappeared at the same time but a recent attempt to access her bank account suggests that she is still alive. She somewhat easily attracts the attention of the terrorist cell responsible and before long we are launched into a series of violent encounters that reveal that an even bigger and deadlier event is scheduled for the near future. This differed considerably from the Bones novels for which the author is well known, much more action oriented, but it has only a couple of creaky spots. 9/18/18

Death in the Dark by Stacey Bishop, Locked Room International, 2016 (originally published in 1930)

This solo mystery – pseudonymously written by a controversial musician – includes three impossible crimes. In the first, a man is shot in the forehead in his apartment where five other people are present, but the shot was fired in absolute darkness in an instant when none of the others appeared to be in position to have committed the crime. The gun is found lying in the middle of the floor. The second murder is in the middle of a crowded room and the third involves a locked room. The puzzles are interesting, the solutions reasonably clever. The problem with this one is the prose, which is clunky and includes some terrible dialogue. The author also gets his facts wrong. You cannot change the rifling marks in one weapon to match those in another, for example. 9/16/18

Jack on the Gallows Tree by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1988 (originally published in 1960)

Carolus Deene is recovering from an illness when two elderly women who appear to have no common connections are strangled on the same evening. Both bodies were found with a lily in the victim’s hands. There is no obvious motive for both women to have died, but several motives for either one of them to have been killed. I was way ahead of Deene in figuring that one of them was to cover the other, since no one concerned had alibis for either, but it was still entertaining watching him work out the logic of the situation. And I did not guess which of the possible killers was responsible. 9/12/18

Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon, British Library, 2017 (originally published in 1939)

A burglar breaks into a house and finds seven dead bodies in the study. The owners of the house, a man and his niece, have gone to France. A reporter manages to locate them and break the news, but the household in France is a peculiar one and it is soon evident that something is wrong there as well. The solution is a bit hard to believe – eight people were marooned after a shipwreck. One of them stole they boat they built and the other seven were after him once they too had been rescued. It’s still fun though, and has at least one quite startling twist. 9/11/18

Death of a Prophet by John Bude, British Library, 2017(originally published in 1947) 

This is rather different from the other books I’ve read by this author. For one thing, it’s lightly humorous. For another, it’s much closer to detective fiction than a crime novel. A rather silly religious cult in rural England is troubled by internal politics which, in the second half of the book, results in multiple murders. The most interesting is that of a woman poisoned in her room, but the poison poses some perplexing problems that it would take too long to describe here and the timing is such that it is hard to find any plausible solution. The explanation is quite clever but the author cheats a bit, withholding some information that would give the reader a chance to guess the solution. It also involves the nearly identical but unknown brother ploy, which drives me nuts. 9/10/18

The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest, Collins, 2015 (originally published in 1913) 

The author was for a time head of the CID in the UK and was responsible, among other things, for the apprehension of the famous murderer Crippen. He wrote this – one of the first police procedurals – shortly after retiring. Robert Grell, a wealthy American explorer living is London, is reported to have been stabbed to death in his home. But the body turns out to be his virtual double and Grell himself has disappeared. The police quickly determine that he is voluntarily in hiding, but the evidence suggests that while he knows who killed the man, he did not do the deed himself. The bulk of the book is devoted to tracking him down, which is done methodically and sometimes cleverly. There are coded newspaper reports, physical altercations, and mild adventures in different locations. This was quite good and actually ages very well. Definitely worth picking up. 9/9/18

Information Received by E.R. Punshon, Dean Street, 2015 (originally published in 1933)

Bobby Owen is a constable in this, the first of 35 novels that chronicle his rise to chief inspector. His first murder case is the shooting death of a rather nasty man who is killed in the middle of a billiards match while his daughter and step-daughter are elsewhere in the house. Owen is the first on scene and makes a couple of minor mistakes, but his intelligence and attention to detail impress the investigating officer. There are actually two different crimes with two different criminals, one of which I figured out rather easily, although I had the wrong motive. The other is less satisfying and is easily solved by the police. It was a promising start to the series. 9/5/18

Furious Old Women by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1987 (originally published in 1960)

Here we have a very nice murder mystery. An elderly, rich, and obnoxious woman is found buried in a recently dug grave. Was her contentious campaign to shape the local church responsible? Is someone after her money? Carolus Deene, amateur detective, interviews a large cast of odd characters, ignores the uncooperative police, then deals with a second suspicious death. The solution is quite clever and I didn’t see it coming. Bruce is a very consistent, low key but entertaining genre writer. This is one of his better novels. 9/4/8

The Median Line by William Haggard, Walker, 1979

Colonel Russell is supposedly retired from the British Secret Service, but when he visits an old subordinate in a tiny Mideastern state, he finds himself in the middle of a potentially dangerous mess, even a small war. A neighboring state is secretly training an invasion army, and its stability is questionable following the murder of the chief of state by his mistress. Haggard has an odd writing style that often leaves out what I think are crucial elements and it is sometimes hard to tell what is going on and even more often impossible to determine why. His politics lean right but are not intrusive. This was about average for him, neither unpleasant nor memorable. 9/3/18

Death with Blue Ribbon by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1994 (originally published in 1969)

Carolus Deene takes up an unusual case when a local restaurant is troubled by thugs demanding extortion money (which the author incorrectly refers to as blackmail). This is followed by the murder of a famous restaurant critic after she has a mild case of food poisoning. Are the two cases related? I was slightly disappointed in this one because the case unfolds rather haphazardly and Deene is unusually showing signs of being an action hero rather than an academic who solves murder mysteries. 8/30/18

Sorrow in the Grave by Dell Shannon (1992)

Another posthumous novel, almost certainly an early effort which never sold.  Two people live on $7 per week of groceries, which suggests the 1960s.  When an elderly woman becomes incapable of managing her own affairs, several neighbors team up to hire a full time nurse. At first the nurse seems to be ideal, but the woman becomes increasingly isolated and one of the neighbors begins to suspect that the nurse has sinister plans. A police detective decides to look into her past and you can pretty much guess what happens after that. Not bad, and certainly better than most of her work, but also predictable and minor. 8/29/18

The Devil's Wind by Steve Goble, 7th Street, 2018, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-484-7

Idyll Hands by Stephanie Gayle, 7th Street, 2018, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-482-3

Today felt like a good day for a couple of mysteries, both in series of which I have read one previous installment, but otherwise about as far apart as they could be. The Goble novel is set in the days of pirates in the Caribbean. Spider John is a reluctant pirate who, after solving a murder in his first adventure, now sees a clear path to return to an honest life style. Unfortunately, events interfere with his plans when  ship's captain is murdered in his cabin. On top of everything else, it's a locked room mystery with a large number of strong suspects. But solving this crime is likely to be risky because the British Navy is determined to being piracy to an end and is not interested in explanations. There is a nice mix of mystery and adventure, the setting is well described, and Spider John is himself and interesting character. This is shaping up to be a good series, and I don't generally care for historical mysteries. The first Thomas Lynch novel by Gayle struck me as a mixed bag. It had a lot of good ideas but there were some awkward moments not uncommon in a first novel. The follow up feels more polished. A young woman disappears during the 1970s. In 1999 the remains of a young woman are found in the woods. Her brother was a police officer at the time and still works for the protagonist, Chief Thomas Lynch. Lynch makes a deal in which he looks into the earlier disappearance while his subordinate investigates the remains. This is mildly dubious because if there was any suspicion that they were his sister's, he should never have been involved in the investigation. The story alternates between the two investigations, which eventually lead to the killer. Significantly better than the first. 8/28/18

Murder by the Tale by Dell Shannon (1987)

This was the author’s only collection of short fiction. About half the stories feature her series character, Mendoza, and the rest are unrelated. The Mendoza stories read like excerpts from the novels and they are all very routine. Some are them are not even really stories. The unrelsated stories are somewhat better – two of them even involve the supernatural – but short fiction was clearly not something she was comfortable writing.  8/25/18

The Manson Curse by Dell Shannon (1990)  

This is pretty obviously a trunk novel that Linington was unable to sell and it was probably written in the 1960s. The posthumous edition used the most successful of her several bylines even though it does not involve Mendoza and is not a police procedural. The protagonist happens upon an old friend and discovers that he is obsessed with the family curse, which condemns the first-born son in every generation to die in childhood. His efforts involving his own son are driving his wife crazy and there is reason to believe he might not be entirely sane. Eventually we discover that this is not really what is going on, that there is a more nefarious – and considerably less rational – plan underway and it is only luck that a terrible tragedy is eventually averted. Much better than her monotonous police procedurals. 8/25/18

Mr. Kill by Martin Limon, Soho, 2011  

This mystery takes place in South Korea and features an MP investigator as its hero. A Korean woman is raped on a train by a man who threatens to cause more trouble before he disappears. The protagonist is pulled off that case to provide assistance to a USO tour which claims to have been experiencing a series of petty thefts. Naturally the two cases have a connection, although it’s a pretty tenuous one. The difficulties of dealing with superior officers and the army’s tendency to protect its own complicate matters. This is a rather longish police procedural with several wrong turns before the solution, but it was good enough to put the author on my watch list. 8/24/18

Blood Count by Dell Shannon (1986)

Still more formulaic police cases. A dead woman is found in a crashed car, but she was already dead when the accident occurred. Someone in an antique car is involved in multiple hit and run accidents. A young transient couple may have killed their baby. A man is found shot to death outside a bar and a mugger is more interested in shoes than in money. 8/18/18

Fatality in Fleet Street by Christopher St John Sprigg, Oleander, 2013 (originally published in 1933)

I was rather disappointed in this one because I really enjoyed the other mystery I’d read by this author. The scene is a newspaper building whose vitriolic owner is about to launch a campaign to start a war between England and Russia. He is murdered in the nick of time, but since the building was sealed at the time, the murderer is obviously among those present when the police arrive. Unfortunately this leaves twelve prime suspects, some of whom have secrets of their own to hide. The prose is labored, there are too many characters, and the puzzle is only mildly interesting. 8/17/18

The Wrong Letter by Walter Masterman, Grosset, 1926

Scotland Yard receives a call from someone who claims to have shot the Home Secretary. The newspapers were provided with details of the crime before it had even been committed, in a document that appears to have been sent by the police. The dead man is found in a locked room, shot through the head. Who can the killer be and why resort to such an elaborate series of pranks? Although this is not a lost classic and Masterman is largely forgotten, he was popular in his time and this novel even has an introduction by G.K.Chesterton. The solution took me by surprise and though it is slightly forced, it’s not a bad cheat. 8/16/18

Chaos of Crime by Dell Shannon (1985)

The shortest of Shannon’s novels is more of the same, although it does involve a Jack the Ripper style killer. Unfortunately most of the novel is about the other cases so it never builds any real suspense. The other cases are all routine – fake alibis, a husband kills his unfaithful wife, a routine traffic stop ends with a dead policeman – although no motive is ever provided, a cold case is solved when a piece of stolen jewelry resurfaces, a fight in a laundromat ends with a fatality, and there are muggings and holdups galore. 8/15/18

Soul Cage by Tetsuya Honda, Titan, 2017 

A severed hand is found in Tokyo, which leads to evidence that a small construction contractor named Takaoka has been murdered. The rest of his body does not, however, turn up. A massive police investigation takes an unexpected turn when an old friend of the missing man sees a picture and insists that it is not Takaoka himself but a stranger. So just what is going on? An interesting puzzle with some nicely done conflict between two of the detectives assigned to the investigation, but not the author's best. 8/13/18

Exploit of Death by Dell Shannon (1983)

The author moved a little way outside her comfort zone this time, but not very far. Mendoza and his wife meet a French woman while returning from their vacation, and she later turns up dead, supposedly with a different identity. Mendoza knows that the witnesses substantiating the new name are lying, though he cannot initially prove it. This is mixed with several more characteristic and less interesting cases.  8/11/18

Destiny of Death by Dell Shannon (1984) 

Déjà vu all over again. Mendoza and associates solve a number of familiar crimes – muggers, holdup men, rapists, escaped convicts, mentally disturbed killers, drug addicts, etc. along with a couple slightly novel ones – a child held as a slave and a holdup man makes his victims strip. The solutions are humdrum – spontaneous confessions, coincidences, really stupid acts by criminals, and so on. I cannot understand why this writer was so popular for so long. 8/11/18

The Last Chance Olive Ranch by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley, 2017

There are two separate cases this time. A prisoner escapes from death row and vows vengeance on Bayles’ husband, McQuaid, which gives him an excuse to shoo her out of town. Unfortunately his ex-wife shows up and is kidnapped by mistake, which leads to a kind of ransom-of-red-chief situation but which is otherwise routine and predictable. Bayle is visiting a woman who raises olives and whose ownership of the property is being contested. I found this half of the story even less satisfactory. The woman in question is so imperceptive about her cousin’s actions that I found her hard to believe, and it was painfully obvious that he had already committed one murder and was not averse to killing a second time. A very weak continuation of this series. 8/10/18

The Scarlet Widow by Graham Masterton, Head of Zeus, 2016    

I am generally not fond of historical mysteries, but this is more of a suspense novel than a mystery since it is obvious who the immediate villain is. In 1750 a village in New Hampshire is visited by a man who claims that only he can protect them from demons, and there have been incidents suggesting he is right. But the wife of the local minister is the daughter of an apothecary and she knows that the various effects can be achieved chemically. As a series of deaths follows, her stake in the matter becomes ever greater and eventually she will expose the truth about what is really happening. Very entertaining despite its predictability. 8/7/18

Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley, 2017 

One of my objections to recent books in this series is that the author spends far too much time on irrelevant background issues because she has such a large cast of recurring characters and feels it necessary to mention all of them in every book. This time Bayles is off to spend Thanksgiving with her mother, but her stepfather is hospitalized following a heart attack. This leads her into investigating the murder of a woman she has just met. The victim was in the process of divorcing her husband, who was doing something illegal involving smuggling animals to enclosed hunting ranches.  A new character, a female forest ranger, is involved in the investigation of the murder of a local veterinarian, and the two cases are linked.  Once the baggage is all revealed in the opening chapters, the story is much better. 7/31/18

The Motive on Record by Dell Shannon (1982)   

Still another lackluster collection of crimes, most of them repeats from earlier books. There is a serial child rapist, several murders, the disappearance of a drug dealer, and some suicides. The author – who was a member of the John Birch Society – includes a brief rant against communism and a much longer one about bureaucrats that indicates she had no idea how the social security system works. Most of the cases, as usual, are solved by chance or coincidence and not by detection or, in several cases, any actual police work. 7/30/18

The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith by Patricia Wentworth, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1923) 

Jane Smith is broke and homeless when she encounters the fiancé of her cousin, who enlists her in a plan to rescue the woman he loves. She is being held captive by an organization of anarchists because they fear she might have overheard part of their plan to destroy civilization. The cousins are virtually twins so the switch is made. Jane is now a prisoner and is taken to a distant estate where scientific experiments are being conducted. The mansion is honeycombed with secret passages. Mysterious figures come and go. She manages to keep up the impersonation because she knows her life is at stake, but eventually she begins investigating rather than simply surviving. Despite some convenient coincidences and a few naïve details, this is a surprisingly fresh and exciting story with a very appealing protagonist. The mystery is the identity of the rea head of the anarchist organization, which turns out not to be the person most readers are likely to suspect. This was the author’s very first mystery novel.7/22/18

Death at Hallow’s End by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 2008 (originally published in (1965) 

This is the weakest of the Carolus Deane mysteries that I have read so far. He is investigating the disappearance of a lawyer who was delivering the draft of a new will to a man who died the same day. The suspects are obvious from the outset and while some of the details are interesting, it is pretty clear that all three worked together. Even worse, Deene refuses to explain his suspicions to the police despite their request that he do so, which results in another death, and almost results in yet another. I was shaking my head at the end of this one. 7/21/18

Blood Orange by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley, 2016

I’ve been disappointed by most of the recent books in this series, including this one. China Bayles has loaned her cabin to a friend who mysteriously disappears and is later run off the road in a fatal accident. She claimed to have known about am murder and her computer files suggest that she had discovered a long running nursing home fraud. The villains are obvious way too early, but even worse is the badly constructed plot. There is no reasonable explanation of why the dead woman faked her own kidnapping since as far as she knew, no one was aware of her unofficial investigation. And then Bayles decides not to wait for her meeting with the police to reveal the truth. Instead she goes to the suspect’s house and sneaks into his garage where she escapes death only because of an improbable coincidence. And the supposedly strong love between Bayles and her husband is filled with deceit, jealousy, and distrust. This one, incidentally, is fantasy. One character is a genuine poltergeist and another has psychic visions of the future, neither of which is particularly relevant to the story. 7/20/18

Murder Most Strange by Dell Shannon (1981) 

This instalment in the Mendoza saga is pretty dull. The cases include a charming serial rapist, a mugger who uses an attack dog as his weapon, a drug overdose that doesn’t look like an accident, and a handful of robberies and murders. None of the cases take center stage and they are unraveled in a slow but deliberate manner that is distinctly not entertaining. Some mild homophobia and anti-government ranting does not help. Only the mugger with the dog is of any interest. The police solve most of them through luck, as usual, and the story is interspersed with really dull episodes in the private lives of the various recurring characters. The formula was so fixed by now that I’m surprised the author didn’t throw herself out a window to relieve the boredom. 7/16/18

The Money Lovers by Timothy Watts, Soho, 1994 

This is not the type of crime novel I ordinarily enjoy. A recently discharged marine has an automobile accident with an old girlfriend who is now married to a confidence man. The husband’s latest group of marks includes a psychopath who has already committed one murder, although as yet that information has not come to light. The wife is being blackmailed by another sleazeball, who is actually in league with the victim’s best friend, who is in fact sleeping with the confidence man husband. And then there is the million dollars in cash. This made a nice change of pace from traditional mystery novels, but it is not a book designed to make you feel good. 7/14/18

The Cat Screams by Todd Downing, Wildside, 1929 

An American detective is on vacation in Mexico when a man is smothered to death at the small resort where he is staying. The following day another man is found dead, apparently a suicide, but the detective is not convinced. Each of the two deaths was preceded by the screaming of the resort owner’s cat, which is in heat. No one is allowed to leave because one of the employees is exhibiting symptoms of small pox and the entire facility has been placed under quarantine.  7/14/18

The Man Who Feared by Will F. Jenkins, Hangman’s House, 1930   

Will F. Jenkins was the real name of the author best known as Murray Leinster. He wrote only a handful of mysteries and it was probably his least successful genre. A private investigator is hired to find out who is harassing a man he personally detests. Friends of the client have been murdered and his safe has been burgled. But he has so many enemies that the task seems Herculean. There is a nice twist at the end but the pacing is very slow, particularly the middle third of the book, and there are a few unanswered questions at the end. 7/13/18

The Madman’s Room by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2017 (originally published in 1990)  

This was one of Halter’s better novels. A room is locked up ever since it was the scene of a mysterious death. Reopened by the next generation, it leads to another death in the present. Are supernatural forces at work or is someone taking advantage of the situation to muddy the waters? The story is more tightly plotted than in some of the author’s other novels and is less likely to stray into side issues. The creepy atmosphere is well done and the characters are better drawn than in some of his other books. The ending is pretty good as well. This was originally published in French in 1990. 75/12/18

Billy Boyle by James R. Benn, Soho, 2006 

Billy Boyle is the protagonist of this series set during the US participation in World War II in Europe. He is the fictional nephew of Dwight Eisenhower and a Boston police detective. In his initial case he is asked to look into what appears to be a suicide but which looks like it might be murder. There is also a German spy in the area, and the two cases might be related. Unfortunately he is only a lieutenant so he has to break a few rules and riles up some of the Norwegian army in exile in the process, which ends with him making a perilous one man raid into Norway. There are a couple of rough spots, but I mostly enjoyed this and have ordered the second in the series. 7/10/18

The Harvest Murder by John Rhode,  1937 

Alternate title is Death in the Hop Fields. It is not one of Rhode’s better books, primarily because it is glacially slow to develop. Two crimes in a small community appear to have no connection, but of course they are. A house is burglarized and some jewelry stolen, but fingerprints identify the thief as a known criminal. He has disappeared, however, and most readers will know immediately that he is dead. The second crime is a case of arson that seems likely to be an act of revenge. Dr. Priestly, Rhode’s recurring detective, plays a relatively minor part in uncovering the solution. 7/8/18

Felony File by Dell Shannon (1980)

Another mix of unrelated plots. A department store is robbed by a well informed gang. A child is raped and murdered in her bed. One woman is shot to death in her home and another bludgeoned in a public park. A curvaceous and well dressed blonde conducts a series of holdups. There is an amusing contradiction common to people of the author’s political disposition. While complaining that tax money is being used to finance government agencies that interfere with families, the author has a long scene excoriating a child welfare worker for not regularly visiting the homes of everyone receiving assistance, even though it is quite obvious that the agency has virtually no staff for such things. 7/7/18

Prelude to Crime by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 1948

As much as I enjoy this author, this was a waste of time. It lacks any of the suspense or inventiveness of his other work other than its initial premise. The protagonist is convinced that his dreams predict the future and he has been dreaming about committing a murder. His new psychiatrist prescribes a rest at his informal retreat where there are several other patients, and you can probably fill in the blanks from that point onward. Tedious at times, with too much unadorned dialogue. 7/5/18

Felony at Random by Dell Shannon (1979)

More random crimes intermixed, including murder, kidnapping, and robbery. None of the individual subplots are particularly interesting this time. The author somehow never heard of alternate jurors. She states that if a juror falls ill, the whole trial has to start over. There is also one instance where the police choose a man almost at random, decide he fits the profile, and are about to get a search warrant when another lead proves more viable. No fewer than seven criminals confess without being prodded and without a lawyer present and the police search another house without a warrant. This was probably the weakest Shannon novel to date. 7/4/18

Heir Presumptive by Henry Wade, Perennial, 1984 (originally published in 1953) 

This is one of those mysteries told from the point of view of the murder. Eustace is fifth in line for a title and fortune and never gave it serious thought until two of the heirs are killed in an apparent accident and he discovers that one of the others is terminally ill. His own dissolute life style has left him in debt but he sees a way out. All he has to do is arrange for an accident to claim the last healthy heir, leaving him a clear field. Except it’s not as clear as he thinks. This is a quite satisfying suspense novel that has a twist at the end that I half anticipated but still enjoyed. 7/1/18

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