Last Update 12/31/20

The Man Who Killed Himself by Julian Symons, Corgi, 1967

The basic concept for this suspense novel is not unfamiliar, but Symons imbues it with an extra level of complexity. A mild mannered man has decided to murder his rich but unpleasant wife. He is secretly leading a second life, with a second wife, and running a kind of dating service. Unfortunately, one of his new customers is part of a husband and wife confidence team and they discover a portion of his secret, enough to blackmail him. But they don’t know about his real identity. So he comes up with a plan. One of his better novels. 

Gold Mask by Edogawa Rampo, Kurodohan, 2019 (originally published in 1931)

A duel of wits between a master criminal who wears a golden mask and a talented amateur detective. The novel is episodic with lots of detours and almost reads like a short story collection. The villain is eventually revealed to be Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief created by Maurice LeBlanc, although Rampo gives him a somewhat more sinister aspect.  Some of the explanations of how things work verge on the ridiculous but it's all fun. 12/31/20

The Yellow Tiger by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2019 (originally published in 1915)

A British minister and a munitions manufacturer are kidnapped by minions of two secret criminal organization, the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle and the Council of Eleven. Through a rather incredible coincidence, Sexton Blake discovers that they have been taken by air to an island and he promptly rescues them. The villains, however, make their escape.  Blake tries to track them down and is captured, then rescued by his assistant, Tinker, and a friend name Yvonne who apparently became a recurring character or a while. One of the longer of the adventures from this period. There are about 4000 Sexton Blake stories.

The Dream Merchant by Carter Brown, Signet, 1976 

Al Wheeler is called when a secretary finds the body of her boss in her closet with a note suggesting that she is next. The wife doesn’t care. The partner reluctantly admits that the dead man was working on a divorce case.  She takes Wheeler’s advice and is killed in due course, which makes him feel very guilty.  There’s a fairly obvious red herring and no real surprise when the killer’s identity is revealed. One of the more serious plots and atmospheres in an Al Wheeler novel. 12/30/20

The Case of the April Fools by Christopher Bush, Dean Street, 2017 (originally published in 1933)

Ludovic Travers suspects he is being used to advance a publicity scheme involving fake murder threats. But then the menaced man is actually killed and, minutes later, another is shot to death in the same room. Scotland Yard actually solves this one, although Travers helps. The hoax and the real murders are mixed together, confusing matters further. There is also a veiled reference to an old murder case, a reticent butler, false identities, a fictitious Chinese dignitary, and some confusing clues to confuse matters further. Several are obviously red herrings, but which ones? This was quite good. Bush was improving with practice.  12/28/20

The Black Night Murders by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1941  

This is yet another story of confused ancestries. A young man and woman are in love, but their plans are sent into a tailspin when the man learns that he is the illegitimate son of the woman’s father. Fortunately it turns out that she was adopted and is no relation to him, but that doesn’t come out until after the murders are close to being solved. The killer is a peripheral character whose motive is completely impenetrable until the detective reveals the information that has been withheld from the reader.  12/28/20

The Ladies of Locksley by Francis Vivian, Dean Street, 2018 (originally published in 1953) 

The victim is a professional fence who was poisoned and then posed to appear that he died in an automobile accident. The problem is that the poison was introduced to his body at a time that seems impossible because the meal he supposedly ate was clearly poison free – and later it is discovered that he never ate it anyway. The investigation is hampered by the fact that the dead man apparently tried to poison someone else shortly before he died – and we never find out how this misfired. There are numerous suspects – a betrayed wife, another wife who fears that her husband will be ruined, the husband himself, a former criminal who had a justified grudge, and a third wife, whose husband was framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Pretty good though there are a few loose ends that are never tied up. 12/26/20

The Flying Boat Mystery by Franco Vailati, Locked Room International, 2020 (Italian version 1935) 

A prominent banker uses the restroom on a small aircraft and never comes out. When the door is finally opened, there is no one inside. The police investigate the other 12 passengers but can find no way to explain the disappearance - although it is pretty obvious that he exited through a window just as the plane was landing, given that no other solution is possible. Then one of the other passengers is killed and his dismembered body found on a train. Clearly the two incidents have to be related. The explanation is not entirely satisfactory but close enough.  12/21/20

Until Temptation Do Us Part by Carter Brown, Signet, 1967 

A below par Al Wheeler mystery. The first murder is of a construction company owner, who gets his brains splattered. The second is a disgruntled wife killed in her own home. There seems to be some connection to a former prostitute, but Wheeler acts out of characters and turns her down when she propositions him. What does he know that he is not telling the reader? Some of the characters behave in implausible ways and the murder itself is so routine that it rouses no particular interest. 12/20/20

Murder on Parade by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1940 

This is one of the author’s sillier novels, set on a supposedly haunted farm in Maine which has a comic book style witch living on the premises. A rich couple are throwing a party after occupying the farm – they actually have no legal claim to it despite Wells’ attempt to justify it – and the husband’s brother is shot and killed during his own birthday party. There is a short but inane lecture supposed to be a history of witchcraft that is laughably inaccurate – and the usual cast of interchangeable characters. The motive this time is partially invalid, the method trite even for Wells, and the solution involves another manipulated clock. I cannot imagine what led her to choose this title. 12/18/20

Murder Plus by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1940 

There’s more than a little anti-Italian racism in this one, although the woman who discovers that she is of Italian ancestry is okay because having been raised in a solid American home, her baser instincts have been brought under control.  She is one of three grandchildren of a very rich man, although both of her cousins are murdered in due course. It’s all a murky plot to marry her and seize the grandfather’s fortune, but Fleming Stone muddles his way through and then has a stroke of inspiration and identifies the killer. Wells had settled thoroughly into her formula and was obviously not inclined to try anything new. 12/18/20

The Red Locked Room by Tetsuya Ayukawa, Locked Room International, 2020

This is a collection of Japanese mystery stories originally published between 1954 and 1961.  The first story is a variation of the dead man found inside a snowbound house with no tracks to explain how the killer left. The second involves a complicated plan to disguise the identity of the victim. Third is a rather improbable locked room mystery. Another involves an alibi based on manipulating clocks, but the explanation does not seem to be correct. The next is kind of a cheat – three people are involved as conspirators in a murder. Then comes another with manipulated clocks. The title story is the best – murder inside a locked morgue. 12/17/20

The Mystery of the Film City by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2018 (originally published in 1938) 

Sexton Blake battles his ongoing nemesis, George Marsden Plummer, when the latter gets involved in a plan to frame a California millionaire for murder. He solves it through a combination of typical detective story analysis of  clues and a more physical series of small adventures involving a perfidious servant, a mysterious yacht, and the theft of a fortune in bearer bonds. One of the better entries in the series that I’ve read so far. 12/17/20

The Clue of the Twisted Candle by Edgar Wallace, Armchair, 2019 (originally published in 1916)  

This is a slightly more conventional mystery than previous Wallace novels I’ve read. A man is framed for murder by a rich criminal who covets his wife. The problem I have with this one is twofold. The framed man is supposedly quite bright, but he is actually an idiot on several occasions. And he is trapped but not framed. You don’t shoot a man four times by accident. He is guilty of at least manslaughter.  He goes to jail, escapes, and is then charged with having killed the rich criminal, who was murdered in a locked room mystery. Very entertaining if not really original. 12/16/20

Under the Eagle’s Wing by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2019 (originally published in 1925)  

Much of this novel is actually about the Black Eagle, one of Sexton Blake’s opponents, unjustly jailed and now prejudiced against France. He decides to help a French embezzler escape to the US, but by chance he is spotted by Blake, who is coincidentally consulted about the death of a French detective, whom we know was killed by the embezzler against the wishes of his protector. Blake escapes a death trap, uncovers the details of the plot, and flies to America to anticipate the arrival of the bad guys, but the Black Eagle’s ship is attacked by hijackers and the embezzler is killed, while the Black Eagle escapes by swimming away. 12/14/20

Secret Agent X Volume 7, all stories by G.T. Fleming-Roberts, Altus, 2015

 The Doom Director, 1936

 A routine installment in the series, although a bit closer to a conventional detective story than usual. A gang has framed another crook and he has been sentenced to be executed. The Secret Agent decides to contrive a massive jailbreak in order to prevent his execution, but carefully arranges it so that no one else escapes and no one is hurt. This is a pretty absurd idea. There is no single masked villain as leader this time, but otherwise the usual gimmicks are all there – disguises, death traps, trouble with the police, attempts to kidnap the recurring female character, etc.

 Horror’s Handclasp, 1936

 The agent has to prevent the theft of a revolutionary death ray, which is coveted by the crimelord Fury and his minions. There’s a mysterious woman, a sinister séance, secret passages, kidnapping, and the agent is nearly autopsied while still alive but comatose.  Routine and repetitive and generally considered to be one of the weakest installments in the series.

 City of Madness, 1936

Secret Agent X battles Shaitan, a European master criminal who is a master of disguise and possesses a gas that drives people insane. X’s romantic interest, such as she is, sees his true face for the first time. One of his minions actually breaks with the boss after falling for an international spy, but in this case she is allied with the agent so it all works out in the end.

 Death’s Frozen Formula, 1937

 The villains have a gas gun that effectively fires liquid nitrogen, freezing their victims, but there is actually no reason for them to do so and it's otherwise a routine story of extortion with threats of murder. The Agent does his usual bits with disguises and has to run from the bad guys and the police before he brings down the gang. 

The Murder Brain, 1937

This is a particularly weak installment in the series. Another gang is committing wholesale murder, but for the most part there seems to be no pattern for their choice of victims, no motive. The Agent disguises himself as a crook and infiltrates the gang for a while, but doesn't learn much. Eventually he figures it out. Rather dull and one of the shorter adventures.

Mystery of Mr. Jessop by E.R. Punshon, Dean Street, 2015 (originally published in 1937) 

The first half of this one is a traditional police procedural. A valuable necklace has been stolen and a man has been shot to death. There are a lot of suspects all of whom had an interest in the necklace, whose location is finally determined to be inside a commercial van that has been dispatched to an unknown location in rural England. The second half is a Keystone Cops type sequence in which four different groups of them are driving around the area – not to mention various police officers – running into one another, chasing each other, and finally shooting at everyone including the police. Punshon’s previous books had not included other than incidental humor and this is quite nicely done. 12/11/20

The Widening Stain by W. Bolingbroke Johnson, Penzler, 2020 (originally published in 1942) 

This was the only mystery novel written by a respected academic named Morris Bishop. It is set in a library patterned after the one at Cornell, and the tone is frequently whimsical. The protagonist is one of the librarians who is skeptical of a supposedly accidental fall from a balcony. Her suspicions are supported when another faculty member is found strangled in a rare book room and a valuable ms is found to be missing. She figures things out well before anyone else, although there are some cheats here because she has access to some information withheld from the reader. Ultimately she lures the killer into a trap because while she knows the truth, she is unable to prove it. 12/11/20

The Players and the Game by Julian Symons, Penguin, 1972  

This is one of the author’s best books. A man and a woman become serial killers, but they only refer to one another by false names, so we don’t know which members of the community they really are. One man is so obviously a suspect that he is clearly innocent. I thought I had figured out the woman, but I was wrong. I was never even close about the man, but this is partly because a bit of evidence is withheld from the reader – and the police – until very late in the book. Suspenseful enough that I read it in one sitting.  12/9/20

Devil’s Work by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1940 

I suspect Wells had become bored by this late in her career, because this one doesn’t even attempt to make sense. A comic book awful husband dies after practicing fencing with his wife. He has a slight cut on the neck and a large amount of morphine in his body. The doctors cannot agree on the cause of death because his pupils were not contracted, which seems to rule out the morphine, and they hold it possible that the wound on the neck somehow allowed the blade of the foil to reach his heart – but they are unable to determine if this happened despite the autopsy. They also miss the puncture wound in his back, which was how the morphine was injected, and never consider the possibility that the eyedrops the dead man was using might have prevented dilation. The killer is obvious. 12/9/20

The Lustful Ape by Bruno Fischer, Armchair, 2016  (originally published in 1950)

A routine crime novel in which a detective is convinced that the hulking chauffeur for a prominent criminal has actually murdered a woman and sets out to prove it. This was the first novel I’d read by Fischer – I have a few others and I've read some of his short fiction – and reading this dropped him a long way to the bottom of my list. It’s not awful, exactly. It just doesn’t say anything new, interesting, or clever. The characters are flat and the plot elements are like tinker toys arranged in a familiar pattern. 12/8/20

Dead Opposite the Church by Francis Vivian, Dean Street, 2019 (originally published in 1959)   

Although Inspector Knollis is mentioned in this story, he does not appear. The owner/editor of a small newspaper is stabbed to death in his office. The obvious suspect is the reporter who punched him in the jaw a few hours earlier, but he is the protagonist, so we know it’s not him. Is it one of the other reporters, or the niece, or his mysterious fiancé, or the mystery novelist named in his will.  No real surprises – I thought the killer was obvious – but the story unravels in an orderly and entertaining fashion. I don’t understand the title though. There is no church in the book. 12/7/29

The Black Gang by H.C. McNeile, Armchair, 2019 (originally published in 1922) 

I liked the Bulldog Drummond movies but had never read any of the novels. So I tried this one. I will never read another. The prose is just mildly boring. The attitudes are vile even for the era in which it was published. Drummond is a sadistic, racist, snob who leads a band of similarly inclined vigilantes and even interferes with legitimate police operations so that they can enjoy personally inflicting physical punishment on their enemies – including flogging – even when the individuals involved have done nothing wrong. Criminals of the appropriate race are allowed to go free despite their crimes because racial identity is important. Egregiously awful. 12/6/20

The Master Criminal by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Spitfire, undated (originally published in 1924)

This was the author’s very first crime novel and is interesting mostly as an oddity. The premise is completely absurd. Unbeknownst to anyone, the best detective at Scotland Yard is the brother of the head of the nation’s greatest criminal organization. They meet and the bad brother dies, so the good brother impersonates him on the spot, in the midst of his lieutenants, and no one suspects a thing. The bulk of the story is his dismantling of the criminal organization without tipping off the others that he is an imposter. Mild fun but not believable. 12/5/20

A Mystery of the Big Woods by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2019 (originally published in 1922) 

Sexton Blake is visiting a friend in a remote part of Canada when another man is mysteriously murdered, apparently while no one else was in the area. Blake finds a rifle mounted in a tree with a radio received attached to allow it to be fired remotely. There is no mystery about the identity of the killer since there is only one possible suspect, but the means takes a while to unravel, and Blake’s friend is briefly framed as the killer. For a change the Japanese character is portrayed favorably. 12/4/20

The Wicked Widow by Carter Brown, Tower, 1981 

Wheeler investigates the death of a man found murdered in an expensive car on a lonely road leading to the home of a wealthy widow. There had been a party the night before so naturally the killer has to be one of the guest or the hostess herself. Mild sexual antics mixed with routine questioning ensue. Almost any of the characters could be the killer and Wheeler solves the case as much by luck as logic. About average for the series. The formula is obvious but effective. The wisecracking, however, gets old pretty quickly. 12/4/20

The Elusive Bowman by Francis Vivian, Dean Street, 2018  (originally published in 1951) 

One of the author’s better efforts involves the murder of a bellicose tavernkeeper, shot with arrows in his own basement. His sister and his ward both hated him, an ex-employee had a legitimate gripe. The man who wanted to marry his ward was worried that a violent confrontation might ensue. And another resident may have been paying blackmail money. We learn a bit about archery during this one, as its methodology is key to the solution. And the unraveling is complicated by the fact that one of the characters was in the process of carrying out a murder when she found him dying of his wounds.  There are a couple of very nice twists in this one, and none of the suspects are particularly honorable. 12/2/20

Crime Incarnate by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1939 

Wells was running out of steam by the time she wrote this one. A rich man has adopted four children. One of them mysteriously disappears and it is feared that she ran off and joined a circus. Then one of the sons vanishes, and Fleming Stone is called in to investigate. In short order he finds a secret passage into a locked room, proves that the daughter did not run away, and eventually figures out the killer is by tracing the bloodlines of one of the adoptees, discovering that a distant relation was a murderer. So obviously he must be one as well, and in due course we find out that Stone is right. Depressingly ignorant. 12/2/20

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katherine Green, 1897  

This is supposedly an “annotated” version, but has zero annotations. Not sure what the unnamed publisher meant. A woman is found murdered in a closed up house and it appears to be the wife of one of the owner’s sons. Although the prose is a bit archaic and sometimes the behavior of the characters does not seem to make sense, I found myself drawn into the story, which is narrated by Amelia Butterworth, the woman who lives next door. She is skeptical of the official solution of the case and believes they have arrested an innocent man. She tracks down the person she believes is the actual killer, but is surprised to discover that her theory is similarly flawed. 12/1/20

Dead Men’s Shoes by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2019 (originally published in 1912)   

Sexton Blake solves a murder mystery in this one. There’s a murder and impersonation in order to acquire an inheritance, a stolen mining claim, a den of thugs in the Bowery, and a clever murder, though not clever enough to fool Blake – although frankly his insights verge on the magical at times. Blake’s friend Tinker is shanghaied but Blake tracks him down. The real heir shows up and violence ensues. The villains for some reason do not kill the real heir or Tinker, but hold them prisoner for long enough that their plans collapse. This one is highly compressed for some reason. Entire sequences of events and long trips are covered in less than a page. 11/30/20

Benighted by J.B. Priestley, Valancourt, 2013 (originally published in 1927) 

Aka The Old Dark House, which title became shorthand for this popular plot. Five travelers are trapped by a flood and take shelter in a crumbling old house occupied by a family of crazed people, some of them homicidally so. Their stay becomes increasingly dangerous as one in particular escapes from confinement, while the mute but powerful "butler" becomes drunkenly aggressive. Made into one of the classic suspense movies in 1932. The movie uses a great deal of the original dialogue and only varies the plot slightly at the end. 11/28/20

Nightmare by Lynn Brock, Collins, 2019 (originally published in 1932) w1551 

I normally don’t care for novels written from the murderer’s viewpoint and this is in fact more of a suspenseful crime novel than a detective story. A frustrated writer becomes involved in a feud with the people in the apartment above his, and they are a pair of outstandingly awful people so our sympathies largely lie with him. He eventually gets pushed too far and begins to concoct a clever way of killing them. The novel is filled with signs of decay, the loss of civility in society, and other pessimistic observations but it is absorbingly written and not at all like the first book I read by this author.  11/27/20

The Importance of Being Murdered by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1939   w1811 

A man is found dead in a hammock at an exclusive country club. The murder weapon is an anesthesiology kit, which might have been clever if its origin hadn’t been so clumsily done. A young boy has an accident early in the book and goes into a coma. At the revelation, the detective identifies the criminal because – unbeknownst to the police and the reader – the boy recovered, remembers witnessing the murder, and tells Fleming Stone what happened. By this time Wells did not even pretend that Stone was solving the cases. And three days after her husband’s death, the chief suspect is already engaged to someone else! 11/27/20

Wicked Designs by Lillian O’Donnell, Crest, 1981

A city employee begins to look into the death of an elderly woman who is believed to have been the victim of a mugging. But some parts of the story don’t add up and she explores the woman’s past – her dead husband was a judge. Sticking her nose into things attracts attention and she discovers that she may be the next person to die under uncertain circumstances.  Standard detective fare, completely unmemorable. 11/26/20

The Victim of the Gang by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2019 (originally published in 1930) 

Although there is a murder early on, this Sexton Blake story is more of an adventure than a mystery, set in Southeast Asia. He and a dissolute companion have come to help their father, who has recently found a treasure trove of platinum. The father is the murder victim but his daughter, the dissolute man’s half-sister, takes refuge with a private schooner whose captain is not always respectful of the law. A band of pirates and their allies are after the girl and the location of the platinum. 11/25/20

Wheeler Fortune by Carter Brown, Signet, 1974   

Al Wheeler is called in when a naked woman is found stabbed to death in a hotel room. Things get more complicated when it turns out she is not the person who is supposed to be staying in the room. The dead woman recently left her husband, a private detective, because he had an affair. The girlfriend is also missing and her body turns up later.  There’s some industrial espionage and secretive orgies before Wheeler figures out who is the killer. About average. 11/25/20

Send for Paul Temple by Francis Durbridge, Collins, 2015  (originally published in 1938) 

Scotland Yard is unable to break up a crime ring so they reluctantly bring in Paul Temple, a detective story writer, as a consultant. Naturally he manages to uncover the identities of the master criminals and bring them to justice. The author rewrote this in 1951 as Beware Johnny Washington.  There is no real difference between the two although the later one is slightly more polished. Temple was a recurring character. The author deserves to be better known. 11/24/20

Crime Tears On by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1939  

The locked room murder in this one is so obvious that it would not have fooled the police for more than a few minutes, but Fleming Stone doesn’t figure it out until near the end. Contradictory accounts of the activities of an actress clearly telegraph the fact that she has a double. Some of the suspects are only in that category for absurd reasons. One man, for example, was carrying a ladder at two in the morning because he wanted to tap on another man’s window without rousing his household. People fall in love based on a few minutes acquaintance, and fall out of love even more quickly. Throw in a bit of bigotry about Italians and servants and you have a quite dull and occasionally offensive novel. 11/24/20

Playing Happy Families by Julian Symons, Mysterious Press, 1994  

Symons provides a more traditional mystery novel with this title, although for a long time it is not certain that a murder has been committed. The adult daughter of an apparently happy family disappears while taking lunch from work. She was an adventurous type with lots of male friend, some of them clearly criminals, so the police have a lot of ways to look but without much promise in any direction. The tension reveals fault lines in the family as well and these are the focus of the story, which takes a very unexpected turn just before the solution is presented. One of his better books. 11/22/20

Raffles by E.W. Hornung, Freeriver, undated 

This is a selection of eight of the original Raffles stories. Raffles was a likeable burglar, a sort of anti-Sherlock Holmes, created by the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Each of the stories involves an intricate caper and they are all pretty much alike. Raffles bears some resemblance to the Saint, in that he had a heart of gold despite his criminal activities. He also has a companion who acts as his Dr. Watson. This particular edition is horribly formatted. 11/22/20

The Case of the Pink Macaw by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2019 (originally published in 1925) 

A Sexton Blake story, although he’s only in it for a comparative short time. The Black Eagle is a man who escaped from wrongful imprisonment on Devil’s Island, became rich, and has dedicated his life to destroying his enemies. One of those is a former pirate type who is profoundly hated by the Black Eagle’s pink macaw, which has already killed at least one man. Blake – who has encountered the Black Eagle previously – discovers his plan to kill a particularly obnoxious man and decides to intervene to uphold the law. 11/21/20

Night Wheeler by Carter Brown, Signet, 1974  

Al Wheeler is assigned to investigate the death of a man dressed as a woman despite assurances by others that he was a very successful man with the ladies. He also appears to have been a drug dealer. He runs into trouble with a crooked but powerful politician and finds himself nominated to be the next corpse. Various beautiful women add to the complications. This was the most consistently serious Al Wheeler novel I have read to date. 11/21/20

The Missing Link by Carolyn Wells, Triangle, 1939  

One man is poisoned and a woman is struck by a horrible wasting disease that eventually claims her life. Fleming Stone investigates and – without letting the reader know that he has found incriminating fingerprints – solves the crime. The plot involves the misconception that ventriloquists can throw their voices and a complete misunderstanding of how x-rays work. One subplot is never resolved – apparently Wells forgot about it – and another involves the efforts to see that a millionaire receives a small legacy from his uncle rather than see it go to feed the homeless. Wells was pretty mean spirited.  11/18/20

Calling All Suspects by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1939 

There is a slight change in style in this late entry in the Fleming Stone series, but it’s not an improvement. A fatal shooting on page one, more characters than usual and most of them placeholders, a stage magician who performs really miraculous feats that the author never bothered to explain. There’s some really obnoxious racism in this one. I don’t think Wells ever realized that she had portrayed Stone as a bigot, a snob, a thief, nor that he interferes in police investigations, covers up murders he thinks are justified, and solves most of his crimes either by lucky guesses or because someone else provides him with the solution. There is a long, very racist section in which one of the characters is abducted by a rajah from Borneo. 11/18/20

Gang Moll by Albert L. Quandt, Armchair, 2017

Quandt seems to have specialized in novels about women with loose morals who led a live of crime. That’s pretty much the whole story here as the protagonist cheats, steals, and manipulates her way to what she considers the good life. Ultimately she comes to a bad end, which will come as no surprise to the reader. Minimally competent prose and a thoroughly uninteresting story. I won't be looking for any more of his books. 11/17/20

Tip Your Hat to Death by H.B. Hickey, Armchair, 2017 

A prominent psychiatrist is found decapitated. The local DA assigns his best agent to solve the crime. He has four suspects, all patients who were being treated by the dead man, and discovers that all of them had a good reason to want the man dead. But he perseveres. This is only a novelette, but it’s a fairly good mystery story. 11/17/20

Eye Witness by John Stephen Strange, Doubleday, 1961

A routine and rather boring crime thriller. A young actress happens to be present when gangsters kill the girlfriend of one of their associates who is about to talk to the police. She spends the rest of the novel trying to avoid becoming the next victim, while the police sometimes ineptly seek to protect her. I lost interest about page thirty and had to plod on for the remainder. This author has occasional good books but for the most part her work is just tolerable.  11/15/20

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, Pushkin Vertigo, 2019  (Japanese edition 1973)

This is a locked room murder case set in Japan. A man and his wife are killed with a sword on their wedding night in a small annex to the family home that is locked from the inside. A mysterious three fingered man has been in the area and his prints are found in various places. Snow fell that night, however, and there are no tracks leading away from the building. The solution involves a complicated mechanism and I wasn’t entirely convinced that it would work as described, but otherwise it’s a pleasant and very readable story. This is, I think, the only Japanese mystery novel translated into English that I had not read. 11/12/20

The Narrowing Circle by Julian Symons, Penguin, 1954

One of the author’s best novels. The protagonist is pretty much a jerk, and he finds himself the prime suspect when a rival at work – who recently was promoted over him – is murdered by the proverbial blunt object in his apartment. It comes as a revelation to him to discover that the man has also been sleeping with his wife, providing a second motive.  But he suspects that the dead man was blackmailing one of the senior people at work, and that this is the real explanation. And then he discovers that an old murder case in another country might be the stimulus behind the whole thing – but can he prove it before he is arrested? 11/11/2-

Gilt Edged Guilt by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1938    

Fleming Stone is visiting two old friends when a valet is found stabbed to death. Is it the possibly senile old professor? The daughter impatient to marry? The apparently loving wife? The caustic sister? The other friend? The mysterious prowler. This is the only Wells mystery where the detective has two unrelated cases simultaneously, the other being an attempt to swindle a woman out of her share of an inheritance, somehow to be managed by kidnapping her child. Internal inconsistencies and a solution snatched out of thin air. And she thought paleontology and archaeology were the same thing. 11/10/20

The Killer by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1938 

A slightly out of formula story by Wells. A wealthy man discovers that his health is declining rapidly. He hires Stone to find all of his nieces and nephews, none of whom he has ever met, so that he can decide who should inherit his estate. But one of the candidates is strangled, and the secretary of another poisoned. Clearly someone is trying to reduce the odds. Fairly good until the end, when Stone plucks the solution out of thin air. She also, for some reason, thinks that your nephews are your siblings. 11/10/20

The Pearls of Doom by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2019  (originally published in 1929)

Sexton Blake battles his main nemesis, George Marsden Plummer, in this Phillipines murder mystery. Plummer was pre-empted by another thief while after a trove of pearls, but he has tracked down his rival and corrected the situation. Blake and Tinker have just arrived in Manila on another matter and get drawn into the case, which already involves several murders. Tinker has to be rescued again. Plummer escapes on a private yacht but Blake uses an airplane to drop smoke bombs. He recovers the pearls but Plummer escapes by swimming to the mainland. 11/8/20

Bat Out of Hell by Francis Durbridge, Arcturus, 2012 (originally published in 1972) 

The opening chapters of this murder mystery are totally engrossing. A woman and her lover murder her husband and conceal his body in a car locked in a garage. When the man returns to dispose of the body, it’s gone, and the woman receives a telephone call apparently from the dead husband telling her to identify the body as being him. She has no idea what this is all about until she is asked to identify a man who was beaten to death and thrown in the same gravel pit that was supposed to conceal the dead husband, but he is wearing the right clothing and looks a lot like him. Then someone returns a cigarette case she left in a coat she was having altered, and it has her name inscribed in it, but she has never seen it before. The ending relies on some coincidences and does not live up to the opening, but it’s still pretty good. 11/7/20

Voodoo Vengeance by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2019 (originally published in 1931)

Sexton Blake goes to South America where he hopes to rescue the son of a rich Englishman who is being held captive by Huxton Rymer, who would become a recurring villain in the series. Rymer teams up with Marie Galante, a voodoo queen based in Haiti who is trying to track down another crook who ran off with some stolen funds. Blake finds and rescues the captive, then captures the other two after they find the man who absconded with the stolen money. There is no voodoo anywhere in the story, but it presumably made an alluring title. 11/6/2-

The Dirty South by John Connolly, Emily Bestler, 2020

Although there is a brief appearance by a ghost, this is a serial killer thriller set quite a way back in the Charlie Parker series, shortly after the murder of his family. He is passing through a small town in Arkansas when he gets drawn into the investigation of a series of mutilation murders. His two sidekicks appear in a cameo late in the book, helping out when some of the locals decide to rough him up. I guessed the identity of the killer in advance, though not the motive. This was a solid thriller but it lacked a really strong villain, although it has several quite nasty ones a level down. No one does this sort of story better than Connolly. 11/5/20

The Laughing Dog by Francis Vivian, Dean Street, 2018 (originally published in 1949) 

A doctor is strangled in his own office. Was it the ambitious man who planned to marry his daughter? The daughter herself? The woman the doctor planned to marry over the objections of the other two? The artist he befriended? Someone else entirely? Inspector Knollis figures it out, although he was way behind me. Although the significance of the laughing dog drawn by the artist was unclear, and the motive ambiguous, the identity of the killer and his big secret were a bit too obvious. The writing is fine otherwise and Knollis is an interesting, low key detective. 11/4/20

The Mystery of the Tarn by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1937  

The groom is found murdered in his bed. The bride has mysteriously disappeared. A rival suitor appears to have drowned in a nearby lake, all on the same day. Fleming Stone must figure out what is going on, and naturally he does so. The drowning is so obviously faked that it should have fooled none of the characters, let alone the readers. The bride has been kidnapped in the most inept scheme a criminal has ever tried. After collecting his ransom from her father, the kidnapper expects to marry his victim. An airplane makes a safe landing on a tennis court! A couple of minor plot elements are introduced, then completely forgotten.  11/1/20

The Radio Studio Murders by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1937 

A man is killed with a poisoned dart while broadcasting from a radio studio. No one appears to have a motive for killing him. Nevertheless, the police threaten to arrest his wife for the murder – and the author apparently forgot that the wife was not in the studio at the time!  The police spend a lot of time investigating – including people who were obviously not in the studio and could not have committed the crime, which includes the widow, their chief suspect. They almost arrest her, in fact, until Fleming Stone dissuades them. The killer is pretty obvious early on but his motive is not even hinted at until the final revelation. Wells makes her usual mistakes about legal procedures. 11/1/20

The Case of the Mummified Hand by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2019 (originally published in 1926) 

Sexton Blake battles a coalition of criminals he has bested in the past when one of them kidnaps a friend of his. The early Blake stories had a lot of casual racism but it’s particularly offensive this time. There are rifts among the villains, and actually a large portion of the book consists of their conversations and arguments. The Black Eagle, who straddles both good and bad in his other appearances, intervenes to save the girl and break up the conspiracy. Rather slow throughout, and the racism is pervasive. There is a suggestion that hypnotism can be performed over a distance by using a cursed object so this is technically also horror fiction, 10/31/20

The Passing of Mr. Quinn by G. Roy McRae, Collins, 2017 (originally published in 1928) 

I’m afraid this is of more interest as an oddity than as a novel. It’s the novelization of the 1928 silent movie based on an early Harley Quin story. An evil, domineering husband is murdered and the life, her admirers, and the dead man’s mistress are all suspects. Christie apparently disapproved of the book. The author is assumed to be an anonymous pseudonym as the byline never appeared again. The prose is awkward and irritating and some scenes are clearly affected by the physical movements in silent films designed to build emotional suspense. They don’t work nearly as well on a printed page. 10/30/20

Settling Scores edited by Martin Edwards, Poisoned Pen, 2020 

Another fine selection of vintage mystery stories, this time with the common theme of sporting events,, encompassing a large variety thereof. The authors include Leo Bruce, Henry Wade, Gladys Mitchell, J. Jefferson Farjeon, and others. A wide variety of sports are involved, and the plots are just as varied. The quality, on the other hand, is uniformly good and the stories are not dated at all. I recommend all of the collections in this series edited by Edwards. Most of the stories he reprints are not generally available elsewhere. Love the title on this one. 10/27/20

Secret Agent X Volume 6, Altus, 2012 

Brand of the Metal Maiden by G.T.Fleming-Roberts, 1936 

Secret Agent X battles Emperor Zero, a megalomaniac crimelord. He has been abducting scientists all over the world to add to his arsenal of superweapons, but the master of disguise defeats him, after the usual number of captures, escapes, and impersonation. This series got very old very fast and I’m surprised the magazine lasted as long as it did. 

Dividends of Doom by G.T.Fleming-Roberts, 1936 

Secret Agent X battles his only repeat villain, the Leopard Lady, in this story of mutilation murders and general mayhem. The owners of stock in a company of dubious reputation are all being eliminated in a case that involves Chinatown as well as New York City in general. Nothing out of the ordinary. 

The Fear Merchants by Paul Chadwick, 1936 

The villains this time are extorting money by burning down buildings in New York, and they have a mysterious gas that kills people horribly to support their operation.  The story is actually rather dull even by the standards of the series. The bad guys have a deadly gas but they seem more interested in petty cash than in actually taking advantage of their new weapon. More captures, escapes, and impersonations before the head of the gang – a businessman – is unmasked. 

Faceless Fury by G.T.Fleming-Roberts, 1936 

A slightly creepier story about a man swathed in bandages who throws acid on his victims. Other than the opening, this wasn’t much of a divergence from the pattern. Betty Dale continues to get herself abducted at least once per story and the agent has to rescue her. Multiple levels of impersonation provide the closest to a twist. 

Subterranean Scourge by G.T.Fleming-Roberts, 1936 

This is the closest to a traditional detective story so far. There’s a creepy house at the beginning and a mysterious death and the agent has to figure out which of several suspects is responsible and how the murder was committed. The murder method is unnecessarily complex and nothing else in the story varies from the formula. 10/24/20

Money Musk by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1936 

A cigarette lighter is left with a pile of birthday presents and explodes, killing the rich celebrant. His daughter inherits and she has multiple suitors, including one who has just returned after two years in Nepal. Unless you can believe that an imposter could fool his mother, his aunt, and his fiancé, you’re not going to believe this one. And Wells apparently thought that there were department stores in 1930s Nepal. The imposter turns out to have a webbed toe unlike the real person, and is missing a scar. Very implausible. 10/22/20

Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1935  

Two men make a clandestine visit to a bookshop after it has closed for the night, and one of them is stabbed to death. Various suspects mill around until one of them is also murdered. This seems to make the wife and the assistant, who are in love, the prime suspects. There are some contrived bits early on that are not only implausible but unnecessary. his one includes the abduction of Fleming Stone, his death – faked of course, and his reappearance as a ghost to scare the murderer into confessing. Pretty bad, repeating all of the author’s serious flaws. 10/22/2-

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by C.W. Grafton, Poisoned Pen Press, 2020 (originally published in 1943)

Grafton is the father of Sue Grafton, and although he only wrote three mysteries, this one at least is quite good. A lawyer is hired to find out why someone has offered to buy some stock at an outrageously high price and someone promptly attempts to kill him. Before the case is over he has been hit over the head more times than Philip Marlowe, and shot as well. He is involved with five different murders. Stubborn, he refuses to get discouraged and slowly unravels the pieces of the plot to find out what is going on behind the scenes and who the murderer is. The prose is smooth and fairly light despite the dark plot elements. I wouldn't mind finding the other two mysteries he wrote. 10/21/20

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 Night’s 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 didn’t create any real snse of suspense until halfway through. It didn’t help that I guessed the murderer’s identity almost immediately, though more because of instinct than because of the clues provided. I am still looking for the rest of the author’s books. 10/13/20

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

There’s 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 friend’s 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 – she does this frequently – by including a lengthy and apparently irrelevant conversation about a radio broadcast that is obviously Stone’s 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 didn’t 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 – 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 it’s 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 Kaiser’s 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 shouldn’t know, but it’s 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 Blake’s 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. I’ve read another Blake story by Hayter – set in Africa – 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. Tinker’s experiences are fairly basic military fiction for this period. Blake’s 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 aristocrat’s 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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