Last Update 9/28/19

Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler, Bantam, 1960  

An American tourist in the South Pacific tries to take advantage of what he thinks is a safe, minor arms deal in Indonesia and Singapore. Unfortunately it is not safe at all and he and his wife are arrested, then caught in a crossfire between government forces and well armed insurgents. They are saved thanks to the intercession of British and American consuls. The novel is slightly uncharacteristic in that it has a very large number of viewpoint characters, which provides a sense of distance rather than immediacy in the narration. 9/29/19

The Clue by Carolyn Wells, Longmans, 1909  

A bride-to-be and potential heiress is stabbed to death in her library, leaving behind a suicide note clearly in her own handwriting. An amateur detective fails to solve the case so a real one is brought in. This was the authorís first mystery. It cheats several times and Wells had no idea how an inquest was held or how police handled murders. Theyíre not even informed of the crime until a week after the inquest. Suspects are cleared from suspicion because their stories seem plausible and without having their alibis checked. Fleming Stone, her most popular detective, only appears in the last thirty pages. 9/27/19

Neon Prey by John Sandford, Putnam, 2019  

The most recent Lucas Davenport is pretty much like the ones that went before. A professional killer jumps bail and a small hidden graveyard is found near his house. It is obvious that he has been cannibalizing them from time to time. Davenport is enlisted in a search that stretches from Louisiana to California to Las Vegas. The cannibal has joined a gang of home invaders who target upscale houses. A series of fumbles by both sides ensue, and the gang slowly loses members Ė and Davenport is seriously wounded. Eventually, however, the bad guys are tracked down by resources they cannot match. Exciting but shallow. The villains are cunning but not very smart and they only stay alive as long as they do because of miscues by the police. The cannibal is a bare shadow of Hannibal Lector. 9/23/19

Alibi for a Corpse by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Tandem, 1969    

Two children find a skeleton in the trunk of an abandoned car. A young man has gone missing at about the right time, but there is considerable confusion because the murderer has substituted one body for another. Well written except that I found it hard to believe that so many people would remember so many inconsequential details a year later. And there are an awful lot of coincidences. Technically this is also a fantasy since one of the characters clearly has genuine psychic powers, but theyíre really not relevant to the plot. 9/22/19

State of Siege by Eric Ambler, Bantam, 1956

A British engineer is just finishing a job in a fictional Malaysian county gets caught in the middle of a civil war. Although captured by the rebels, he quickly finds out that things are not as they seem to be. He and a young woman struggle to survive when they find themselves in danger from both sides as the battle for the capital city winds toward a close. Less complex than most of Amblerís previous novels, but the story follows his usual pattern of the innocent narrator finding himself in big trouble. The supporting cast is not well delineated this time Ė the novel is quite short Ė but the story moves right along and holds your attention. 9/20/19

The 31st of February by Julian Symons, Bantam, 1951 

We never really learn whether or not there was even a crime in this odd little suspense story. The protagonistís wife had a fatal fall down a staircase, but did her husband push her? A police detective thinks so, but there is no proof. Nor does the husband let on, even though we see most of the story through his eyes. Someone thinks so, because tricks are played with his calendar, anonymous letters are sent to the police, and a love letter turns up unexpectedly at his office. This is mostly about the complete breakdown of his mental status, at the instigation of the police officer Ė who loses his job. Interesting, but ultimately fails to be satisfying. 9/17/19

There May Be Danger by Ianthe Jerrold, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1948)   

A young boy evacuated from London during the Blitz goes missing, apparently having left on some secret mission of his own after researching how to make a net. No one knows what happened to him. Did he have a fatal accident in the countryside? Did he run into trouble with the gypsies? Were the local poachers afraid he would give them away? An unemployed woman in London becomes interested and sets out to solve the mystery, plunging herself into danger as well. The second half moves fairly well but the first half is almost unbearably slow to develop. 9/17/19

The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees, Createspace, 1919

This is mystery novel by an Australian writer featuring an American detective that takes place in England. A man subject to epileptic fits seems to be the obvious killer of a local man whose body was thrown into a deep pit. The presumed killer has disappeared and so has the dead manís substantial supply of cash. But the detective is puzzled by various odd aspects of the case and decides to satisfy his curiosity. Although there are some minor rough spots, this is surprisingly readable, and the detectiveís solution turns out to be wrong, providing a nice twist in the closing chapters. 9/12/19

Keep It Quiet by Richard Hull, Dover, 1983  (originally published in 1935) 

This is a delightful mystery set entirely inside a menís club in London. When one of the members is found dead in a chair, the club manager believes that he was accidentally poisoned by the cook and convinces another member, a doctor, to help him cover it up and make it look like a heart attack. But someone knows what really happened and begins sending anonymous letters requiring the manager to perform various services, mostly to improve things at the club, but there is a sinister tone underlying things that threatens to cause mayhem. I guessed the solution, but not until relatively late in the book, and I read it straight through even though it was past my bedtime. 9/10/19

The Schirmer Inheritance by Eric Ambler, Bantam, 1953  

An American lawyer travels to Germany and Greece to track down a possible heir to a substantial unclaimed legacy. The trail seems to end with the death of a German soldier in Greece, but is he really dead or did he change his identity? This is a very understated suspense novel that is structured more like a police procedural, with little action outside of a couple of flashbacks and lots of detection. The ending is not what youíre likely to expect. Pretty good, but not one of Amblerís classics. 9/8/19

The Affacombe Affair by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Tandem, 1968

Tom Pollardís second case involves the murder of a nurse who was blackmailing people in a small town and made the mistake of trying to extort money from an habitual criminal, although we donít know that until the end. The characters are all deftly drawn and distinct, and the plot follows the pattern of the authorís previous book until about the halfway point. There is a major cheat, however, a brother who can pass for one of the characters and whose existence is withheld until the final scenes. The killer also confesses spontaneously in an awkward and very unconvincing scene. 9/7/19

Judgment on Deltchev by Eric Ambler, Bantam, 1951 

Although this is one of Amblerís lesser known spy stories, it has always been one of my favorites. It was the first Ambler novel I ever read and it sent me searching for more. A writer covering a show trial in a communist dominated Balkan nation discovers that things are a lot more complicated than he realized. Rather foolishly he puts himself in dangerous situations more than once, but manages to avoid being arrested or assassinated. The approach is subtle rather than wildly adventurous, and Amblerís disillusionment with communism is pretty obvious. 9/3/19

Death in the Dentistís Chair by Molly Thynne, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1932)  

A dentist finds his patient with her throat cut when he returns to the room where he left her. Her wealthy husband has a shady past but a perfect alibi. Another patient in the office was blackmailed by her several years earlier but had not seen her since. Clues and red herrings about before we learn the truth, which is not particularly interesting though mildly surprising. Although surprising is the fact that the author fails to explain exactly how the crime was committed, although we can figure out most of it once we know who the killer is. Thynne only wrote six mysteries. 8/31/19

Death of an Old Girl by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Tandem, 1967 

Because of illness, Lemarchand retired as a headmistress and wrote seventeen murder mysteries before her death, of which this is the first. The night of a reunion at a girlsí boarding school, one of the alumni is found murdered in the art studio. The same evening, her house is burglarized, although the reader knows who is responsible and that it has nothing to do with her death. Inspector Pollard, introduced here and featured in all of the subsequent mysteries, travels several wrong roads before finally figuring out who was responsible. This is a standard but very well written mystery that kept me completely in the dark until the revelation came. 8/29/19

The Twelve Disguises by Francis Beeding, Popular Library, 1942 

This has elements of mystery but is essentially a spy novel. A prominent adviser to the British government has gone missing in occupied France, so Colonel Granby of the secret-secret service is sent to find him. To do so, he has a series of sometimes not entirely plausible adventures during the course of which he wears twelve different disguises. Itís kind of fun but gets monotonous after a while. Granby apparently is featured in other books by the author. 8/28/19

Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler, Dell, 1940 

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, a British engineer in Turkey discovers that German agents are trying to kill him. He leaves on a small ship bound for Italy, but it takes on another passenger whom he recognizes as one of the assassins. An intricate dance of intrigue follows because one of the other passengers is a Turkish agent secretly attempting to protect him. But both sides have tricks up their sleeves, and our hero seems unlikely to live to tell the tale. Another exceptionally good novel from one of the masters of the spy story. 8/27/19

The Kentish Manor Murders by Julian Symons, Viking, 1988 

An actor who is famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes reluctantly agrees to an audience of one, a private performance for a reclusive millionaire who is a Sherlock fanatic and lives literally in a castle named Baskerville. There are obvious internal politics among the staff members, and the actor discovers that he is being followed days before the performance is to take place. And then someone approaches him with what might be an unpublished Sherlock story written in Doyleís own hand. They want to sell it to the recluse.  But there is a more nefarious plot underway and this might well be his final curtain. Enjoyable. 8/25/19

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, Dell, 1964 (originally published in 1939)   

A mystery writer is vacationing in Turkey when he hears that the body of a man named Dimitrios has been found. Dimitrios has led a life of varied crimes and the police have never even had a picture of him, which will be noted immediately by experienced genre readers. The author decides to indulge in an exercise and see what he can discover about the manís past, and that leads him into danger. This is one of the all time classic suspense novels and it creates its atmosphere mostly through understatement and insinuation. Filmed as The Mask of Dimitrios, also a classic. Ages extremely well. 8/24/19

Case Without a Corpse by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1992   (originally published in 1937)   

I was rather disappointed in this Sergeant Beef mystery, in which a man confesses to have committed murder without naming his victim, and then poisons himself. The problem is to find the body and/or identify the dead person. Scotland Yard sends in a detective whom Beef beats to the solution, but itís through doing all the wrong things. The author moving behind the scenes is too visible and Beef is, frankly, rather incompetent. The author's later series is much better.  8/22/19

The Murder on the Enriqueta by Molly Thynne, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1929) 

Although this starts as a traditional murder on the cruise story, everyone is ashore a chapter later and it turns into a woman in jeopardy suspense novel. A rich heiress shares rooms with a recent widow who has not lived in England before. She is pressed, and menaced, by the dubious character in the next apartment, whom we know is involved in shady activities. The premise assumes that one person could successfully live essentially three lives, one of them as the opposite sex, in close quarters with people who knew them both. I didnít believe it for an instant. 8/21/19

The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons, Poisoned Pen, 2019 (originally published in 1965) 

This quite good mystery borrows its premise from Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey. The two older sons of a dominant woman disappeared during the war and are presumed dead, but as she nears her own death, a letter arrives from a man purporting to be one of the two, recently released from a Soviet labor camp. Is he genuine or a very well coached fake? The murder of a family retainer, and an older murder of a businessman, color the investigation as the police and a young relative both struggle to determine the truth. I had a wild theory about this one and it turned out to be right! 8/18/19

Cause for Alarm by Eric Ambler, Bantam, 1938 

This shares a couple of characters with Epitaph for a Spy. An English engineer take a job as a company rep in Italy just before World War II. He is tricked into spying for the Germans, although they represent themselves as Yugoslavians. The Germans donít trust Mussolini. A pair of Soviet spies help him to get out from under and successfully transfers information that causes elevated tensions between the two Axis countries Ė although Ambler would soon see the exact opposite in real life. A bit slow until the second half, and the usual pattern of an innocent man caught up against his will. 8/17/19

A Master of Mysteries by L.T. Meade, 1898  

A collection of very old mystery stories, somewhat old fashioned by contemporary standards but mostly entertaining. The first story is particularly good, involving a revolving room, although I have never liked the conceit of people going mad or dying of fright simply because they find themselves in bizarre situations. The author was very prolific Ė both in mystery novels and in books for younger readers Ė but it largely forgotten today. 8/13/19

The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell, Vintage, 2003 (from the 1992 Swedish edition)

Part of a series of which I've heard good things, although I was disappointed. The first third of the book is fine - two bodies of tortured men are found drifting off the coast of Sweden and are traced back to Latvia, still under the Soviet thumb. The series detective is asked to go to Latvia when the detective handling the case is murdered. From that point on, it becomes a low key spy story more concerned with politics than with detective work, and for more than a hundred pages there is virtually no mention of the bodies. I wasn't sad to see  this end. I will try another of Mankell's novels, but not for a while. 8/12/19

He Dies and Makes No Sign by Molly Thynne, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1933)  

The marriage between the son of an aristocratic family and the granddaughter of a humble musician goes awry when the old man disappears while on a mysterious errand. The investigation leads to a trendy new restaurant whose owner is a bit too good to be true, and the truth about the missing manís family relations and a secret marriage. This was very well done but alas, itís the last of the six mysteries Thynne wrote and Iíve read the other five already. 8/10/19

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler, Pennant, 1938 

This is one of my favorite spy novels. A Hungarian refugee living in France is on vacation when a mix up with cameras results in his arrest. Although the police know that he is innocent, they pressure him to return to his hotel and act as their agent to uncover the real spy. He is convinced that their plan will not work, largely because they donít tell him enough, and he improvises on his own. This results in his room being searched, an assault in the darkness, and a fake claim of robbery that almost derails the whole plan. This was filmed in the 1940s as Hotel Reserve, but I have never seen it. 8/9/19

Three Al Wheeler Mysteries by Carter Brown, Stark House, 2019 

No Law Against Angels, 1957, aka The Body 

Wheeler investigates the murder of two young women and the disappearance of a third. The two bodies both had the same tattoo, which leads him to a prostitution ring that has connections to a very rich and powerful casino owner. Thereís a fairly good twist in this one. Wheeler appears to have solved the case but he feels wrong about it, and there turns out to be a second climax, although it takes a little bit of awkward plotting to make it all come out right. 

Doll for the Big House, 1957, aka The Bombshell 

Another Al Wheeler investigation. This one is rather similar to the first. A young woman has gone missing and Wheeler suspects she is being kept against her will in the house owned by a newspaper magnate with a shady reputation. He eventually ďrescuesĒ her, but it appears that she was not a prisoner at all. Nevertheless, she is murdered and Wheeler is ineptly framed and cleared almost immediately. He tracks down the real murderer and exposes an unsuspected criminal organization. There are hints here and there that the author was not really familiar with the US Ė he was Australian Ė such as the use of the word fortnight and some very strange police practices. 

Chorine Makes a Killing, 1957 

Al Wheeler leaves the police to work for a law firm and prove the innocence of a man accused of a murder he did not commit, while fending off the usual handful of sexy women. There is also dissension within the law firm. The story proceeds logically but rather predictably and is one of the less memorable of his adventures, except for his change of employer. 8/7/19

Sable Messenger by Francis Vivian, Dean Street, 2018 (originally published in 1947) 

A man is roused from his bed and stabbed to death on his doorstep. The neighbor reports seeing a strange man moments before. There are conflicting rumors of adultery in the neighborhood and a valuable manuscript found in an old chest. Inspector Knollis is called to straighten things out and has to deal with an impressive array of red herrings in order to determine who really killed the man on a night where at least three people intended him to die, but for three different reasons. Quite good. 8/2/19

Case for Sergeant Beef by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1980  (originally published in 1951) 

Beef is investigating another murder disguised, badly, as suicide. Bruce varies from his usually narrative technique here as we are provided with a large chunk of diary by one of the characters who decides to murder a perfect stranger as a kind of piece of art. That made me suspicious from the outset, so I was not surprised that he was not the killer. His plans are overly elaborate and despite his insistence that he is being simple and undetected, they become increasingly complex and rather obviously inept. He would have been caught easily. I believe this was Beefís final case. 8/1/19

Rose Cottage by Mary Stewart, 1997 

A young woman is asked by her grandmother to retrieve some papers and family things from a hidden safe in an empty cottage, but when she arrives she discovers that someone has already opened the safe and removed the contents. There are rumors that people have been seen near the cottage and the nearby cemetery, and stories about the death of the protagonistís mother when she was a child donít entirely hold up to scrutiny. This is Stewartís most restrained novel and its only villain is long dead before the story even begins. The living characters are without exception charming and likeable people. 7/24/19

Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart, Morrow, 1991 

A writer seeking solitude rents a cottage on a remote island off the coast of Scotland. On her second day there, two men separately show up at the cottage, and there is reason to believe that both of them are lying about their identities and their purposes. It appears to have something to do with the largest house on the island, whose wealthy owner recently died.  There is never much of any real danger and even the villain is simply a thief.  There is briefly a plan to build a resort on the island, but even that threat vanishes. Rather minor. 7/22/19

Murder in Miniature by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1992  

Twenty-eight  very short mystery tales, about a dozen of them featuring the authorís first detective hero, Sergeant Beef. There are, alas, no Carolus Deene short stories. These almost always involve a gimmick, usually the murder overlooking one detail in an otherwise clever murder plot. They are very concisely and clearly written and Bruce only repeats a device on one occasion Ė the car mysteriously disappearing while a moving van is on the premises. Definitely worth pursuing. 7/18/19

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart, Crest, 1988 

There are overtones of genuine witchcraft in this story of a young woman who inherits her cousinís cottage, and discovers that she may be next in line to be the local white witch. An ambitious neighbor who is also into magic, and not always the benevolent kind, is far too friendly and clearly wants a book that was owned by the dead woman. Although not much happens overtly, this is quietly suspenseful throughout and builds steadily toward a rousing climax. 7/15/19

Case With Ropes and Rings by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 2019  (originally published in 1949) 

This is one of the better Sergeant Beef novels. A young man whom everyone seemed to like is found hanging in a gymnasium after winning a boxing match. The police decide it is suicide but Beef is convinced otherwise. He poses as the porter in a fancy school in order to find out the truth, which involves a secret romance, a drunken and malicious house master, and others before a second, surprisingly similar though apparently unrelated murder leads to the solution. The ending in this one is particularly clever and Beef is considerably less obtuse than is sometimes the case. 7/14/19

Background to Danger by Eric Ambler, Dell, 1937   

Also known as Uncommon Danger. A free lance journalist gets caught up in intrigue when he unwisely agrees to carry a packet of documents for a stranger, only to have the stranger show up dead and find himself the chief suspect. The villains are actually working for industrialists rather than a government, and itís a band of Soviet spies who help the protagonist with his problem, while he in turn helps them recover documents that could cause a major diplomatic rift. Logical and suspenseful throughout, and with a number of interesting minor characters. This was filmed in 1943. 7/13/19

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, Crest, 1976 

Thereís some fantasy in this one since the protagonist has a psychic link to one of her relatives, but she doesnít know who he is. The death of her father in a hit and run accident precipitates a crisis about the future of the family estate. Some want to sell, others are in less of a hurry, and the trust requires a unanimous decision. But there are some mysterious comings and goings, some thefts, and a few other elements to suggest something more sinister is going on. I never really cared for this one. The telepathy is really not essential to the story, which is itself rather slowly paced and without a satisfying climax Ė the villains basically get away without punishment. 7/11/19

Three Al Wheeler novels by Carter Brown, Stark House, 2018 

No Harp for My Angel (1956) 

Wheeler is on vacation in Florida when he accidentally has a confrontation with a local thug who is running a white slavery operation for elite criminals. The local police coerce him into pretending to be an out of town criminal and pit the two against each other, but things get more complicated when the Syndicate sends someone down to find out whatís going on. More sexy women, sarcastic banter, and quite a bit of violence this time. Things work out a little too conveniently for Wheeler at times, but thatís part of the fun of it all. 

Booty for a Babe (1956) 

This one surprised me because the murder takes place at a science fiction convention Ė Brown wrote some SF that only appeared in Australia. A professor with a real daft theory of time is murdered after demonstrating a machine that supposedly turns silver into gold. A small time crook is willing to pay a substantial sum for the machine, which is obviously fake to everyone else, and that appears to be the motive. The story is so silly that it is hard to take any of it seriously, and the title is completely inappropriate. 

Eve, Itís Extortion (1957) 

A man is fatally run down by a stolen car. Did his wife arrange the murder for his insurance? Why is a very good skip tracer very bad when the cases involve large quantities of missing cash? This is a slightly below average Al Wheeler mystery which has one of the authorís occasional factual errors. If your husband is murdered, you CAN collect on his life insurance, contrary to the author. This has also appeared as Walk Softly Witch and The Victim, both of which are better than this horrible title.

Knock, Murderer, Knock! by Harriet Rutland, Dean Street, 2015 (originally published in 1938)  

Murder at what we would now call a health spa. A young woman whom almost nobody really liked is found with a knitting needle embedded in her brain. The man who was supposedly flirting with her turns out to be a confidence man and he is arrested promptly. The second murder in the same manner perplexes the police inspector handling the case, and a third drives him toward apoplexy. The mystery element in this one is okay but not nearly as interesting as the very idiosyncratic cast of characters. The lurid events are tempered with some dry but very effective black humor. This was actually the first of the three mysteries Rutland wrote. It is the least interesting as a mystery and the most interesting as a novel. 7/6/19

Secret Agent X Volume 2 by Paul Chadwick and Emile Tepperman, Altus, 2008 

The  second four adventures of Secret Agent X, a pulp hero who used impersonation and non-violent methods to battle villains during the 1930s. Implausible and repetitive, but fun.

City of the Living Dead by Paul Chadwick, 1934 

Breaking slightly from the previous format, this adventure of Secret Agent X takes him to an outlying city where an outbreak of encephalitis has led to a total quarantine. The supposed source is a group of gorillas that escaped from a research facility. Riots break out, but the agent believes that this was no accident and eventually discovers that rich people can buy a cure. The lab director and the police commissioner are the head villains. 

Hand of Horror by Emile C. Tepperman, 1934 

Someone has made an attempt on the life of the governor-elect. Secret Agent X tracks down a gang consisting of politicians, hoodlums, and corrupt businessmen who want to replace him with the Lieutenant Governor. But the situation is more complicated than that, because someone is impersonating the supposedly doomed man, and the killers find themselves being eliminated one by one. 

Octopus of Crime by Paul Chadwick, 1934 

Secret Agent X takes on a gang of thieves who have created a bogus company to help them transfer money around. The symbol of an octopus is their calling card. The head villain is rather obviously the criminologist advising the police commissioners. Aerial battles this time, including a blimp. The usual impersonations, captures, and escapes.

The Hooded Hordes by Paul Chadwick, 1934

A mysterious criminal organization posing as super patriots uses extortion and assassination to cause turmoil across the country. Secret Agent X suspects their true nature and singlehandedly exposes the truth and apprehends the man in charge of the operation. One might draw some parallels between the plot in this one and contemporary US politics.  7/4/19

The Dark Frontier by Eric Ambler, Mysterious Press, 1990  (originally published in 1936) 

This was Amblerís first novel, long out of print and obviously not as successful as his subsequent work. It was intended to be a spoof of the spy stories of John Buchan and E. Philips Oppenheim. A professor has an accident and believes himself to be a fictional secret agent. In that persona, he travels to a small Balkan country which has secretly developed a nuclear bomb. He rather ingeniously helps promote a revolution and the destruction of the plans for the weapon. Ambler vastly underestimated the destructive power of the bomb, but this is a rather amusing and sometimes exciting adventure. 7/3/19

 

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