Last Update 12/31/19

The Mark of Cain by Carolyn Wells, Burt, 1917   

A businessman is stabbed to death in a park and after following a number of false leads, the police arrest his nephew for the crime. But itís pretty obvious very early that the family lawyer is the killer. As usual, the story is marred by internal contradictions and factual errors, as well as wildly improbable acts. The police arrest the nephew even though they admit they have no proof, and this somehow means that there is virtually no chance that he will not be convicted. Thereís a good deal of racism as well, this time directed at Italians.  Fleming Stone appears, but only near the very end. There is a great deal of information withheld unfairly from the reader, and the killer is so obvious so early that there is not the slightest hint of suspense or mystery. 12/31/19

Old Bones by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central, 2019

Nora Kelly, who appears in some of the Pendergast adventures, is the protagonist of this one. She is an archaeologist who is approached by a history professor who has acquired some potentially important information about them Donner Party Ė who resorted to cannibalism when their wagon train was snowbound. Unbeknownst to her, someone has been digging up bodies of people related to one of the victims, and there have been at least two murders connected to the crimes. A young FBI agent is assigned to the case and is convinced there is a connection to the Donner Party dig. There is also a lost treasure that appears to be the motive for another murder. Quite readable, but I spotted one of the two villains right away, although I never figured out the motive for the body snatching until it was revealed. Average of slightly below for this writing duo. 12/29/19

Change for the Worse by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker, 1980 

Five relatively worthless paintings are stolen from a small exhibition, and the caretaker is accidentally killed in the process. The paintings themselves turn up hidden on the property. There seems to be no reason for the theft, which also involved access to a room to which only one key was available. The appearance of a blackmailer complicates the matter, although it turns out to be completely unrelated. This would have been one of the authorís best novels if it hadnít been for a very outrageous coincidence that leads to the solution. 12/19/19

Waiting for Orders by Eric Ambler, Mysterious Press, 1991 

The complete short stories is a pretty thin volume, all but one of which was written while he was waiting for his military assignment in the early days of World War II. Two of the stories involve a clever deposed autocrat and an encounter with German resistance fighters in Switzerland. The others are all part of a series. Theyíre mildly interesting but not nearly as entertaining as his novels. 12/19/19

Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding, Arcturus, 2011 (originally published in 1931)   

This is the second book Iíve read by Beeding, and probably the last. He has a disorganized, frenetic plotting style that I donít care for in general, and it is particularly unsuited for a convention detective story where it is important for the reader to feel as though information is being presented logically, even if that it is not the case. There are several murders in a seaside resort that baffle the police and involve a bewildering number of not very well drawn characters. I had trouble keeping them separate in my mind. Inspector Wilkins figures it all out eventually but by that point I no longer cared. 12/18/19

The Desired by Carter Brown, Signet, 1959  

Al Wheeler almost has a collision with a drunken driver, a beautiful woman with a dead body in her trunk. This leads him into a rather stereotyped case involving mob involvement in labor unions, political and legal pressure groups, and extortion. The authorís depiction of American institutions is occasionally quaint. As usual, Wheeler spends a lot of time either having sex or planning to have some. The story is unusually thin this time and thereís not much mystery about what is really going on. 12/14/19

Faulknerís Folly by Carolyn Wells, Grosset & Dunlap, 1917   

A wealthy artist is murdered in his studio. There were people standing at each of the three doors and one of them Ė the wife or the model Ė probably stabbed him. But which one did it since their testimony contradicts one another? The usual cheating and shallow characterization, but this time there are multiple contradictions Ė things we are told early in the book that we are told are not true late in the book. And the solution involves a secret passage which we were told was impossible. 12/13/19

The Bride of a Moment by Carolyn Wells, Doran, 1916  

This one has a good opening scene. A bride is shot to death just as the wedding ceremony ends. She has been shot, but no one heard anything and they were still at the altar. Unfortunately, it deteriorates quickly and dramatically. Wells misunderstands a point of law. The characters cover up for one another for no apparent reason except to confuse the reader. The motive for the murder is complete nonsense. Some of the dialogue is inferior even to Wellsí fairly low standards. The detective, Alan Ford, would appear in only one further novel and he stumbles through this case without actually discovering anything even though the author insists that he did. There is one instance where the story contradicts itself.  12/11/19

Suddenly While Gardening by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker, 1978 

The opening of an historic trail is marred somewhat when a fresh skeleton is left along the way. It was meant as a practical joke by someone who believed the skeleton was ancient, but that is not the case. Inspector Pollard and crew investigate, while someone keeps sending anonymous letters implicating a young architect. A notable improvement from her previous novel, although once again her characters remember minute details from events that happened a year earlier. Fairly good, although some of the motivations are not really justified and the killer confesses too easily. 12/10/19

The Care of Time by Eric Ambler, Berkley, 1981

This was Amblerís last novel. A writer is approached by a mysterious figure who wants him to edit the memoirs of a famous anarchist. But itís actually a bid by a mercenary/terrorist to escape his enemies by trading a deal for a new naval base in the Mideast to the Ameicans. The story is extremely convoluted and not very convincing. The elaborate misdirection does not seem to serve any purpose Ė a direct approach would have the same effect. Too much time is spent on the technical details of the meetings and the only real adventure is a brief car chase at the very end. 12/10/19

The Siege of the Villa Lipp by Eric Ambler, Fontana, 1977

A successful international criminal whose activities are so subtle that he has never really come to the attention of the authorities is blackmailed by an academic who discovers some of his past secrets and wants to conduct a lengthy study of him, supposedly to be published with nothing to identify him. The subject of his interest knows this wonít work, but he has to make some concessions while he works out a counterplan. Our sympathies lie largely with the criminal as his adversary is a conceited ass.12/4/19

Unhappy Returns by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker, 1977 

An elderly woman claims that a valuable chalice is missing from the local church, even though no one else has ever seen it. The following day she is found dead, her head bashed in. The initial impression is that she surprised a burglar, but the police suspect otherwise. And evidence appears suggesting that the chalice is real. Not particularly good. Coincidences, convenient but belated revelations, and an ending in which another murder is committed for no discernible reason. 12/4/19

Doctor Frigo by Eric Ambler, Atheneum, 1974 

The protagonist is the son of a Central American politician who was assassinated. When the French government decides to support a coup in his home country, he is pulled into the intrigue against his wishes. There are questions about who really killed his father, and there is also a puzzling series of medical symptoms displayed by the man who is supposed to become the new president. Nicely written but very static. Almost nothing happens other than a series of variously fraught conversations. 11/26/19

The White Alley by Carolyn Wells, 1912 

A very rich man is about to marry a very young woman who is prone to flirting and who has attracted the attention of several other male house guests. The next morning, the host is missing, even though the house is locked from the inside, surrounded by an unscalable wall, and guarded by a night watchman and an array of burglar alarms. There are half a dozen cheats at the end, including a secret passage, withheld information, impossible bursts of insight, etc. And the story concludes with the murderer announcing that he has made a will Ė but the provisions of the will are legally impossible and he was a prominent lawyer and would certainly have known that! 11/24/19

Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs, Poisoned Pen,2018 (originally published in 1964) 

Inspector Littlejohn investigates when someone dynamites a business, killing three members of the board of directors. It is pretty clear that one was the target and the other two collateral damage, but there are lots of suspects because of adultery, blackmail, a criminal real estate syndicate, stolen dynamite, an inept bank robber, a corrupt politician, and others. Thereís no shortage of criminals but only one murderer. The story unwinds in the usual fashion and while I guessed the killer, I wasnít absolutely certain until almost the end. Littlejohn employs a bluff to make his arrest, and it works. 11/23/19

Step in the Dark by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker, 1976  

A woman is found dead at the foot of a staircase in the library of an historical society. Someone stole valuable books from the collection that same night. But there is evidence of multiple break-ins by four different people at four different times. Add some blackmail, missing stamps, a youthful mugger, an indignant heir, and a few other twists and the result is a satisfying police procedural in the same pattern as the authorís previous books, with the same assets and flaws. People really do not remember to the minute what they were doing days earlier except in very rare circumstances. 11/22/19

The Levanter by Eric Ambler, Atheneum, 1972 

A businessman in the Mideast discovers that terrorists are using some of his assets to further their own interests. When he confronts them, he is forced to participate in the preparations for a major attack on Tel Aviv. He is, however, determined not to let them succeed, but prefers to do so without risking his life more than necessary. Another story of an innocent caught up in intrigue, but for the most part this is pretty slow going and lacks the strong characters that mark Amblerís best novels. 11/17/19

The Dame by Carter Brown, Signet, 1959 

Al Wheeler is called to investigate the murder of an actress, but it turns out that the secretary was killed mistakenly and the actress was still alive. Was it the philandering husband? The shady movie producer? The backer with a short temper and a deadly revolver? The old flame who has reappeared under a new identity? Or the father of a dead girl who blames the actress for his loss? Wheeler sorts it all out while having some painfully awkward sex Ė the publisher added some really dreadful spicy bits to the original manuscripts, over the authorís objection. 11/17/19

The Litmore Snatch by Henry Wade, Perennial, 1986 (originally published in 1957) 

Rather a disappointing effort from this author. A newspaperman receives threatening letters after his paper criticizes a portion of the entertainment industry which might be harboring prostitutes. Then his young boy is kidnapped. He is returned safely about halfway through the book and the rest is the process of figuring out who was responsible. I thought it was quite obvious after about three chapters and I was right. A somewhat dull police procedural with not much of a puzzle. 11/16/19

Dead Man Twice by Christopher Bush, Dean Street, 2017 (originally published in 1930) 

Bush is a sadly forgotten mystery writer who produced more than sixty novels. I suspect that in part his obscurity is because his detectives Ė there are three who operate almost separately in many of the cases Ė diffuse the focus, and none of them are strongly drawn characters to begin with. This, however, is a very complex and nicely constructed mystery in which a professional boxer is found shot to death in his home. His butler is found poisoned on another floor of the same house. The boxerís suicide note is under the butlerís body. Someone apparently broke in through a window. The two likely suspects both have ironclad alibis for the shooting Ė the poison could have been put in the whiskey at any time. There is a red herring love triangle and more clues than seems possible. And it all gets straightened out at the end, although there is a mechanical device about which we have no hint until one of the detectives describes it. 11/15/19

The Intercom Conspiracy by Eric Ambler, Bantam, 1969 

Two intelligence officials in Europe, disenchanted with the Cold War, decide to purchase a far right newsletter and use it to enrich themselves clandestinely. The nominal editor of the newsletter gets caught in the middle as various intelligence services are all interesting in plugging the leak. This is rather atypical of the author. The plot is much looser and less complex, and surprisingly the villains escape unscathed, as they did in The Light of Day, but this time their scam is a success. 11/14/19

Buried in the Past by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Bantam, 1975 

An embittered man uncovers evidence that a townís charter has been forged just as it is about to celebrate its thousandth anniversary. A lawyer falsifies a will by a dying man so that his sister inherits a substantial estate. Pot smoking college students are miffed because someone has reported them to the police. Then a body is found concealed at an archaeological dig and old animosities are revived as Scotland Yard tries to discover the murdererís identity. 11/13/19

The Lost Are the Last to Die by Larry D. Sweazy, Five Star, 2019, $25.95

Second in a new series by the author of the Margaret Trumaine mysteries. Sonny Burton was a Texas Ranger when he lost an arm after a shootout with Bonnie and Clyde. The Rangers solicit his help when a gunman takes a pregnant woman hostage. They know that Burton has known the desperate man for a long time and may have an idea how to deal with him. The case turns out to be more complicated than he was led to believe, and grows even more so when Burton's son, also a Ranger, is assigned to the case. This is a kind of hybrid mystery/western novel set at the end of the latter era. There is not much actual mystery involved and much more time is spent on the characters and period color. This was not really my kind of story, but it was certainly well written. 11/8/19

The Wanton by Carter Brown, Signet, 1959

Al Wheeler is called to investigate when the daughter of a rich family is found hanging on the grounds. It is obviously murder, but is it the dissolute night club owner, the obsequious family lawyer, one of the siblings, the unfaithful sister-in-law, the mentally deteriorating matriarch, the busty nightclub singer, or someone else entirely? Two murders and two failed attempts later, we discover the truth Ė the butler did it!  This was about average for the series. 11/5/19

Fantomas by Marcel Allaine & Pierre Souvestre, Penguin, 2006 (originally published in 1911)

The first in a series of novels about a ruthless killer, who reminded me at times of Fu-Manchu, with a French twist. Inspector Juve is his arch-enemy and the only one who believes that a single man is behind three apparently unconnected crimes Both men use disguises and multiple identities in their battle of wits. Fantomas is captured and sentenced to death at the end, although no one except Juve knows his real identity. And even this limited success is denied him when Fantomas escapes from prison in order to return for the next book. The authors never provide an explanation of the motive for the first murder, which is quite elaborate but seems to have no benefit for Fantomas at all. There were about forty in the series, but only a few have been translated into English. 11/4/19

Let or Hindrance by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Mayflower, 1974 

A combination vacation and lecture group rents part of a private school for two weeks. On their last night, the adult babysitter working for the tour promoter disappears.  There are several suspects but they are eliminated one by one, leaving Pollard briefly with none at all. Then he remembers the one he forgot Ė not his best moment. So many characters remember exact times of events in the past that this sometimes felt like it was a satire. The mystery itself is rather dull as well. Also published as No Vacation from Murder. 11/2/19

Cyanide with Compliments by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker, 1973 

Following a cruise in which a woman manages to alienate everyone else on board, she dies after receiving a box of poisoned chocolate. Her niece and husband seem the most likely suspects since she had announced that she was going to disinherit them, but Pollard does not believe that they are guilty. A seeming unrelated of case of arson, in which a man died, does not seem to be related, but of course it is. The solution involves two lookalikes changing places, which I generally consider cheating, but this time itís reasonably well done. 10/28/19

Dirty Story by Eric Ambler, Bantam, 1967  

Arthur Simpson from The Light of Day returns for a second and far inferior story. Circumstances leave him stranded on the African coast where he is forced to take service as a mercenary for one of two countries, both of whom have problems with the existing border. The story begins with a string of anecdotal adventures, then spends a long time during which nothing much happens, ending with several pages of quite violent action. Heís still an interesting character, but this time his charm is low key and there is only intermittent tension in the plot. 10/298/19

Slippery Staircase by E.C.R. Lorac, Ramble House, 2012 (originally published in 1938) 

Two sisters in two separate houses die by apparent accidental falls down staircases. But when Scotland Yard begins to investigate the second case, the killer is forced to strike again to eliminate an inquisitive witness, and this confirms the murder theory. Thereís a creepy old house, a sort of secret passage, and a cleverly executed murder, but the main suspects are so interchangeable as characters that it was hard to keep them straight and it really didnít matter which of them was the killer because they all had the opportunity. This one was a bit disappointing and also goes on for too long. 10/25/19

The Mistress by Carter Brown, Signet, 1958 

Al Wheeler is back. Someone murders the niece of the local sheriff and drops the body on his doorstep. It is clearly connected to a gambling boss who was recently driven out of Las Vegas by the Syndicate, but it is not clear who killed her or why. Wheeler uses his normal unorthodox methods Ė if thatís not a contradiction in terms Ė and threads his way through a bunch of under dressed and over endowed women, a young thug with an attitude, a refined mobster, and others to solve the case. He loses his job again, which happens in almost every book.10/23/19

The Maxwell Mystery by Carolyn Wells, Burt, 1912 

A young man is proposing to the woman he loves when he is shot dead and she is wounded. She claims that an unknown assailant entered through a window, but there are parts of her story which appear to be delusional. This is truly dreadful. The characters frequently refuse to talk, for no reason other than to keep the reader in the dark. There are some awkward red herrings including a shooting incident that makes no sense and has nothing to do with the mystery. The detective finds two crucial clues in the last twenty pages of the book. The characters are constantly contradicting each other and the author contradicts herself, at one point changing the list of people who are present in a car ride because she apparently forgot what she had said earlier. 10/23/19

The Name of Annabel Lee by Julian Symons, Penguin, 1983 

As usual, nothing is usual with Symons. This time the story is about an introverted British ex-patriate who falls in love with a rather strange woman. When she disappears suddenly, he returns to his native England to track her down, and discovers that she was once married, that her ex-husband has just been murdered, that her sister also died recently in a mysterious fire, that her mother built a bizarre house on the coast, and various other odd facts that all lead him inevitably to a disillusioning and violent confrontation,. Read it in one sitting because I was too engrossed to stop. 10/19/19

The Gold Bag by Carolyn Wells, Burt, 1910 

A businessman is murdered in his home office and members of the family are lying about their activities the night it happened. He had also threatened to change his will dramatically. An inept detective Ė whom we are told is brilliant Ė stumbles his way through the case and has to be set straight by Fleming Stone, master detective. Riddled with contradictions, classism, misunderstandings of the law, and unbelievable events and situations, this is certainly among the worst novels of a writer who never really rose to a consistently mediocre level. 10/19/19

Deathís Darkest Face by Julian Symons, Hall, 1991     

An actor hears rumors that his father might have been involved in an affair decades earlier, and that leads to the possibility that he was also connected to the disappearance of an unorthodox young poet about the same time. The story unravels this and other secrets, but it takes so long before anything really happens that it was difficult to maintain my interest even though Symons wrote very well. Iíve noticed this in a couple of his other novels as well. I appreciate the well developed characters but there needs to be some thread of a plot even in the early chapters. 10/16/19

A Kind of Anger by Eric Ambler, Bantam, 1964  

A magazine writer gets caught up in international intrigue when he is assigned to track down the witness to the murder of an Iraqi exile. The witness was the dead manís lover and she carried off confidential documents which she intends to sell to the highest bidder. The journalist is at odds with his less than ethical superiors and decides to act as her agent in return for a substantial commission. But the people they are negotiating with play hardball and the outcome is uncertain. Pretty good, but not up to his usual standards. 10/15/19

Death on Doomsday by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Bantam, 1971 

A dead body is found in the priestís hole in a rambling house open to public tours. He was obviously there to burglarize the place, but who killed him and why? And why are various residents of the house uneasy, even those who clearly could not have committed the crime? Inspector Pollard works his way through an entire flock of red herrings and uncovers a smaller but still substantial flock of coincidences to solve two separate crimes that converge unexpectedly. 10/14/19

Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare, Perennial, 1980 (originally published in 1942)

A traveling judge is subjected to a series of escalating pranks, and his wife is convinced that someone is actually trying to murder him. He is preoccupied with a more mundane problem. His careless driving mangled the hand of a prominent pianist and he is facing a ruinous settlement. I had trouble finishing this one. The prose plods at times, and since I didnít much like the judge, I didnít care if he died. Only the life takes on much character. And despite the blurbs, I didnít find it remotely suspenseful. 10/11/19

Prelude to Peril by Jerry Sohl, Rinehart, 1957 

This was the authorís only traditional mystery novel. A reporter is assigned to accompany a pair of married pianists on a countrywide tour, but he quickly picks up on tensions among the entourage. Several murder attempts are made, followed by an extended chase sequence and the solution. The book is entirely too talky, and there is very little suspense. The mystery has no particularly interesting elements and the solution was fairly obvious.  10/9/19

The Plot Against Roger Rider by Julian Symons, Penguin, 1973  

Roger Rider is a shady businessman with an unfaithful wife. When he invites a handful of people for a vacation in Spain, he has an ulterior motive, and so do most of them. A surprise visitor has a suspicious fatal accident, after which two of the others including Rider disappear. Did he run for it or has he been murdered? The author keeps us guessing and throws in some surprise twists. I didnít guess any of the solution, and was sufficiently puzzled that I read the entire book in one sitting. Symons is so far proving to be consistently excellent and Iím tracking down his other books. 10/9/19

The Light of Day by Eric Ambler, Bantam, 1963  

This excellent novel of a heist from a Turkish museum is one of my all time favorites, and it inspired the impressive movie, Topkapi. A small time crook is caught between a band of ingenious thieves and Turkish intelligence when the latter find weapons concealed inside the car he has been hired to drive to Istanbul, and pressure him into becoming their agent. The movie spends a great deal of time on the heist itself, but it only consumes a few pages in the novel. The protagonist is easily the most interesting character Ambler ever created, and he later returned for another but quite inferior adventure. 10/7/19

The Corpse by Carter Brown, Signet, 1958  

Signet added explicit sex scenes to some of the Carter Brown books, over the authorís objection, and Iím pretty sure this is one of them A couple of short scenes are out of character and verge on the pornographic. The plot involves Al Wheeler, who is at a night club when someone is shot almost on stage. More bodies turn up along with a self righteous newspaper owner, a sexy singer, a nymphomaniac, and a trio of jazz musicians who may be distributing drugs. Surprisingly dull. 10/6/19

A Louse for the Hangman by Leo Bruce, Isha Books, 1958    

This was the only Leo Bruce I hadnít read. For some reason, the only edition available is this one, which is awful. Ink bleeding on almost every page, white spots in the middle of the text, words and phrases left out, and even bits and pieces of text from some other book superimposed and in a different font. Carolus Deene is on the case when a manís secretary is murdered, apparently having been mistaken for his employer in the darkness. Or is that really what happened? The family is odd, the circumstances are odd, and even Deeneís friend Gorringer is clearly lying about what has happened. About average for the series. 10/2/19

MORE REVIEWS