Last Update 10/18/20

The Grey Room by Eden Phillpotts, Franklin Classics, 1931

A facsimile edition of a very suspenseful mystery marred by the absolute cheat that solves the case. There is a "bad" room in an English manner house where two people have died mysteriously in the past. A houseguest unwisely decides to spend the night and is found dead, but smiling, in the morning. No cause of death can be determined. A Scotland Yard detective decides to investigate, but in less than an hour he is found dead in the same fashion. A clergyman decides to exorcise the room, and he dies as well. The solution, alas, involves a mechanism powered by an unknown element that emits a deadly aura when activated by body heat. Beautifully written, but very unfair to the reader. 10/18/20

Death in White Pyjamas by John Bude, Poisoned Pen, 2020 (originally published in 1944)

Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude, Poisoned Pen, 2020 (originally published in (1942)

This double volume is a real bargain at $15. The first and better of the two involves a theater group and a country home murder. Why was the victim running around in the darkness in her pyjamas? Was the killer the man she was blackmailing because he stole some money? Or the angry woman whose engagement was threatened? Or the thwarted fiance?  Or someone else entirely. A police detective breaks down an alibi and finds the real killer in a very entertainin story. The second  is a locked room mystery - an artist's studio - which contains an apparent suicide. But why was she holding a paint brush when she shot herself?The prime suspect, the husband, was in his bath at the time of the murder. A catapult is found buried nearby, but there appear to be no apertures. This was also fun although the solution involves some undisclosed information and I guessed the murderer almost immediately.  10/16/20

The Nightís Foul Work by Fred Vargas, Vintage, 2008  

I had a mixed reaction to this one. On the one hand, there are lots of glimpses into French lifestyles that I found interesting. The various murders and mutilations are puzzling and sometimes grotesque. But the story really takes too long to get underway and it didnít create any real snse of suspense until halfway through. It didnít help that I guessed the murdererís identity almost immediately, though more because of instinct than because of the clues provided. I am still looking for the rest of the authorís books. 10/13/20

Target for Their Dark Desire by Carter Brown, Signet, 1966  

Thereís nothing new or interesting in this Al Wheeler mystery. A very exclusive call girl is stabbed to death. There is the usual array of suspects including her ex-pimp, his replacement, her best friendís boyfriend, and a handful of regular customers. Wheeler bulls his way through this one as he always does and the identity of the killer is no real surprise. The formula had gotten pretty old by this point but Brown kept churning them out because readers kept right on buying them. 10/13/20

The Wooden Indian by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1935  

A man marked for death by an old curse is found dead in a locked room with an arrow in his heart. A number of people, including detective Fleming Stone, have seen the apparition of a warrior during the previous two nights, though Stone is sure it is a hoax. The new widow is being courted by at least five men, so there are plenty of people with a motive. Wells telegraphs the solution Ė she does this frequently Ė by including a lengthy and apparently irrelevant conversation about a radio broadcast that is obviously Stoneís attempt to prove to himself that one of the suspects did not listen to it, invalidating his alibi. 10/12/20

The Huddle by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1936  

Without a doubt this is a contender for worst murder mystery of all time. Not only does Wells forget the order of events, completely throwing the plot off stride, but at the end she pulls two surprises out of nowhere. Two of the three men present at the murder actually knew the victim was dead but pretended otherwise. One didnít say anything because he was afraid that he would be suspected. The other was too shocked to say anything at the time and then recovered and decided to blackmail the third, who was the only person who could actually have committed the crime. There is a locked bathroom murder later with a window so small that only one of the characters can pass through it. But later we find out that actually six of them could do so. And a third murder is committed by use of a drug that causes pernicious anemia Ė the effects of which are not discovered by science until AFTER the murder is committed. So how could the killer have known to do it? 10/12/20

Messenger of Evil by Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre, Jefferson, 2015 (originally published in 1911, aka The Corpse Who Kills)

The third Fantomas novel follows the pattern of the first two. Fantomas uses various disguises to commit his crimes, and usually tries to shift the blame to some innocent party. The police often suspect his involvement but are usually unabl to prove it. This one opens with a woman poisoned, her body found near that of a man who may have drugged himself in an attempt to create an alibi. The story expands from there but in a series of linked substories rather than one grand plot. 10/10/20

The Threefold Cord by Francis Vivian, Dean Street, 2018 (originally published in 1947) 

A rather repulsive businessman reports that two family pets have been strangled and that he may be the next target. Inspector Knollis is on the case, which involves the children of a public executioner who may have been murdered himself, a blackmailing brother, an actress whose play has certain unsettling parallels, a disgruntled neighbor, and a resentful gardener. A great many people lie for various reasons, which makes the knot harder to unravel. Vivian was a consistently entertaining writer but only produced a handful of books, alas. 10/9/20

Masked Prey by John Sandford, Putnam, 2020   

The Lucas Davenport novels have grown progressively less interesting in recent years, but itís hard to give up on a series after reading the first twenty-nine. This was is a slight uptick. The discovery of a strange and apparently threatening rightwing website suggests that someone is threatening to kill the children of selected members of Congress. And of course more than one lone wolf decides to do just that. Davenport straightens it all out in an entertaining if not entirely convincing fashion. As in the past, I was disturbed by the undercurrent of admiration for vigilantes. Davenport is not a nice person. 10/6/20

Sexton Blake and the Great War edited by Mark Hodder, Rebellion, 2020 

This is a collection of three early Sexton Blake novellas and they are more spy novels than mysteries. The first of these is The Case of the Naval Manoeuvers by Norman Goddard from 1908.  Blake discovers that Kaiser Wilhelm is personally in charge of a secret mission to convert the Shetland Islands into an advance base for a German attack on Great Britain. He foils the plot but must keep the Kaiserís presence secret to prevent an outbreak of war. That also means protecting him from a group of anarchists. The pace is whirlwind and the story relies heavily on coincidence and people knowing things they shouldnít know, but itís rather fun anyway. Goddard predicted that Germany would have a navy capable of challenging the British in five years and that this would inevitably lead to war, and he was certainly right about that. 

The second story is On War Service; or, Sexton Blakeís Secret Mission by Cecil Hayter from 1916. Blake and his young friend Tinker are engaged to deliver some sensitive papers to a contact in occupied Holland, and the Germans know who they are and what they intend to do. Iíve read another Blake story by Hayter Ė set in Africa Ė and liked it. This one is a bit more predictable but no less exciting. They find their contact dying and are compelled therefore to carry the papers further, to the next link of the chain, while being pursued by German troops. They have to escape from a burning house, disguise themselves to pass checkpoints, and use their guns when all else fails. A number of offensive references have been removed from the text. 

Private Tinker, A.S.C. is by William Murray Graydon and appeared in 1918. Tinker lies about his age and joins the army. Blake tries to track down a master spy. The two stories eventually converge. This is the weakest of the three adventures gathered here. Tinkerís experiences are fairly basic military fiction for this period. Blakeís story is mildly more intereting but there is considerably less action and the pace is comparatively slow. Further collections of the early Blake stories are promised from this publisher. 10/5/20

The Detling Secret by Julian Symons, Penguin, 1982 

This is an unusually structured crime novel that includes two mysterious murders, but there is not much investigation and very little sense of it being a mystery novel. The story mixes a reactionary minor aristocratís family problems with Irish separatist terrorists, a Member of Parliament who conceals his past, a pair of shrewd businessmen, one of whom is a crook, and various subplots involving boyfriends, artists, servants, and so on. I find Symons very inconsistent, but this one is very entertaining despite the untraditional format. 10/3/20

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