Last Update 2/7/23

The Curzon Case by Francis Durbridge, Hodder, 1971

Paul Temple investigates when two teenage boys disappear under mysterious circumstances. Is this connected to a recent airplane crash in the area?  Who is Curzon and why does his name keep turning up? Is someone smuggling things through a small village? Who killed the father of the two boys? Who killed the gangster while he was burglarizing a house? Who hired the pickpocket to steal a code book and what does the code mean? Why does a third boy disappear from a moving train? Not all of the answers are convincing in this relatively short novel. 2/7/23

The Defaced Men by Tim Major, Titan, 2022 

This is an unusual Sherlock Holmes mystery/adventure that is set against the backdrop of the early days of animated projection in England. An inventor working in that field has been receiving mysterious threats and while he asks Holmes for assistance, he refrains from providing a great deal of important information. Holmes seems distracted, as though he had another case in mind. Watson is frustrated even more than usual. The details about the science are as interesting as the mystery itself. Major has become one of the best of several writers who have produced pastiches in recent years, blending contemporary writing techniques with the well established Holmes formula. 2/5/23 

Death of a Poison-Tongue by Josephine Bell, Day Books, 1972 

A fairly good suspense novel although the protagonist is colossally stupid and the mystery element is disappointing. After a man attempts to kill her, she decides she is in love with him and is alone with him on further occasions, during one of which he tries to kill her again – he is smuggling art objects out of the Mideast. The village’s nasty gossip is an elderly invalid who is strangled in her wheelchair. There are two drug dealers and an obvious fake religious cult. All of these villains get caught by the police eventually, but none of them committed the murder. The killer is a minor character who was being blackmailed, and there was no hint of it until the end. 2/5/23

A Hole in the Ground by Josephine Bell, Ace, 1971 

As a young man, the protagonist was puzzled by some blood stains he noticed while hiking in Cornwall. Twenty years later he returns, feeling vaguely guilty because he never looked into the matter. Two sisters are clearly hiding something. There were two mysterious disappearances at the time of the earlier visit. There were in fact two murders, committed by two different people, and before the story ends there are two more, and those also are committed by two different people. So four killers and another attempted murderer. But an old mine collapses at the end and all the surviving villains die in the landslide. 2/2/232

Terror by Robert Bloch, Belmont, 1962 

Pre-publication title was Kill for Kali. A mentally ill young man in a Chicago suburb becomes obsessed with Kali after her aunt receives a stolen statuette and is promptly murdered. He becomes involved in the rivalry between two factions of a Hindu religious/political organization and at one time or another suspects the heads of both factions of being responsible for the murders. But then one of the two is killed and it seems unlikely that his rival was responsible. It actually turns out to be an ambitious woman who was allied with the dead man but turned on him when he did not measure up to her expectations. The solution to this one is not very convincing. 2/1/23

Where Is Janice Gantry? by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1960 

Shortly after unwisely helping an escaped convict who claims he was railroaded, the protagonist discovers that the man and a local woman have both disappeared. They are connected to a mysteriously reclusive couple who live on the beach. He decides to investigate and meets the woman’s sister, and the two of them begin discovering additional oddities about the couple. They have unexplained visitors, a puzzling source of income, and their small yacht suffers some unexplained damage after an unusual night time cruise. It is pretty obvious what has happened. The two missing people were murdered and their bodies – as well as their car – were dumped at sea. Exciting ending and a pretty good story. 1/29/23

One Monday We Killed Them All by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1961 

The narrator is a policeman whose wife’s brother has just been released from prison. He has a grudge against the town and is clearing planning some form of revenge. He is also involved with a prison break, a professional thief, a murderous woman, and other unsavory characters. Although he does get part of his revenge, the police close in on them before they can carry out the rest of their plan. The protagonist shoots his brother-in-law in cold blood because he appears to be a personal menace to his family, given that his wife seems incapable of realizing that he is no good.  MacDonald also has a rather cynical attitude toward governments, police, and how they interact. 1/29/23

Dead Beat by Robert Bloch, Popular Library, 1960 

I never really liked this story, but I’m not sure why. A minor thug convinces a family that he is a nice guy down on his luck, and then fakes an injury in their home so that they will ask him to stay while he is recovering. He is actually trying to extort money from an ex-girlfriend who recently married, but her husband has some rough friends and the thug eventually gets in over his head and is killed, fortunately before he can do any lasting harm to the family who helped him. 1/26/23

The Couch by Robert Bloch, Gold Medal, 1962 

This is a novelization of Bloch’s own screenplay for a movie about a serial killer who calls the police ahead of time to tell them he is going to commit a murder. He is obviously insane and is seeing a psychiatrist who has no idea of the severity of his mental disorder. There is a kind of surprise ending – the killings may not have been entirely random – but it’s not entirely clear that this is the case. There are a few too many coincidences in this for me – not unusual in stories based on screenplays where shortcuts are more necessary and more acceptable. I have never seen the movie. 1/26/23

The End of the Night by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1960 

The story of a murder spree by four young adults, told from multiple viewpoints, sometimes epistolary, and starting after they have all been executed. There is a lot of time spent trying to determine the motivations for the killers, based on the author’s assumption that the new generation is radically different from their parents and more inclined to be alienated, amoral, and self centered. Only one of the four criminals is developed as a character, and his motives are as confused at the end as they were in the beginning. There are a lot of subplots about parents, rivalries among law enforcement, and so on. Slightly above average for MacDonald. 1/26/23

A Hydra with Six Heads by Josephine Bell, MacMillan, 1970 

A new doctor has strange experiences at his temporary job and later finds a link between them and his new, supposedly permanent position. Several people are apparently involved in the smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants. Their pre-emptive effort to discredit the protagonist does not make any sense – it would only serve to alert him that something is wrong, which is the case. Then it turns out that he was manipulated into taking the job by Scotland Yard, who would not be likely to put him in a life threatening situation without telling him something about what they suspected was going on. Eventually there are murders to be investigated, but there is no mystery involved. It’s a crime novel with minimal suspense.  1/23/23

No Bones About It by Ruth Sawtell Wallis, Bantam, 1940 

This is an old mystery novel that I picked up decades ago and never got around to reading. I don’t think I ever saw the author’s name again although she had another novel reprinted by Dell. The homecoming of two young adults after a decade away sets off a series of conflicts and emotional storms in a small town where old hatreds have been simmering for a long time. The mystery element is relatively minor as the story is primarily concerned with the relationship among the characters and families. It was okay, but I’m not going to be looking for the Dell book.  1/23/23

The Crossroads by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1959 

The title refers to a family owned corporation, within which are several subplots and conflicts. The main story involves a plan by a disgruntled employee to steal the hoard of cash held by the family’s retired patriarch. He arranges for a fall guy, whom he kills along with the woman who helped seduce him.  Unlike some MacDonald novels, almost all of the characters are good people, though each has flaws. The crime plot is only one of several so at times the novel does not feel consistent in tone. 1/21/23

Hands Up, Miss Seeton by Hamilton Crane, Berkley, 1992 

This was a bit of an improvement in the Sarah Mason entries in this series. Miss Seeton is mistakenly implicated in a crime when she tries to assist a man who has just been robbed. This causes confusion and irritation for her, and problems for her friends at Scotland Yard as well. The atmosphere of the original books by Heron Carvic is reproduced to some extent and Seeton becomes more of a character and less of a caricature. The mystery itself is okay but unremarkable. 1/21/23

The Fennister Affair by Josephine Bell, Hodder, 1969 

A cruise mystery, set in the Caribbean. The wife of a famous acrobat has disappeared from the ship, presumed to have fallen or been thrown overboard. The protagonist is a young woman who boards the ship the following day, along with a journalist who is predictably her partner in a shipboard romance. There are some dubious cardplayers aboard. They are never named or even differentiated, but they are swindlers and blackmailers and their activities are the cause of all the past and future problems. The reporter is poisoned and nearly died. A stewardess has wild claims about the acrobat, as well as dark secrets of her own. There is a murder attempt, a shootout with police, and other bits of melodrama before we discover the woman’s disappearance was somehow a response to a blackmail attempt. We are never told how that would have worked, we never find out why one of them tried to kill the protagonist, and the elaborate trick – the missing woman is actually being hidden by the captain – is pointless and was performed through a complicated procedure, even though they had no way of knowing that anyone was watching them – and in fact none of the criminals saw it. 1/19/23

The Wilberforce Legacy by Josephine Bell, Walker, 1969 

Horrible plot problems completely undercut this Caribbean mystery. A retired military officer is approached by two men, one impersonating his nephew, one the genuine article, both of whom are criminals. One of them is murdered and their proposed victim disappears. There are also sorts of plot problems. We are never told the reason for either of the two murders. Bell apparently did not know that you cannot insure a stranger’s life because you have no insurable interest. An attempted murder is designed to gain her property, except that it’s not her property but her mother’s. A killer tries to fool the police by putting a mask on a corpse so that it will be misidentified during the autopsy. Terrible novel. 1/19/23

The Beach Girls by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1959 

This is a low key suspense novel set mostly at a marina, despite the innocuous title. The beach girls actually play little part in the story. A new arrival seems to be nursing a mysterious secret. One of the permanent residents had had an affair with his wife, who committed suicide, but the two men had never met. He is trying to decide whether or not he should kill the man. There is another unconvincing “wounded dove” female character who needs the love of a good man to patch over her emotional wounds. That part of the story is saccharine and irritating and rehashes bits MacDonald seems obsessed about. The climax, which seemed to be a confrontation, is actually pre-empted by a horrible, fatal accident. Everyone else lives happily ever after.  1/17/23

Psycho by Robert Bloch, Crest, 1959 

Bloch’s most famous novel, of course, which led to a series of movies and a television show. I was curious to see how the plot diverged since I had not read the novel in over 60 years. There are a few differences – Norman cuts off the woman’s head in the shower – but nothing really significant. It is probably the best of Bloch’s novels as well. There is no padding and the surprise would be effective for anyone unfamiliar with the story. Unfortunately the movie has made the plot so familiar that it would be hard to find someone who didn't know the surprise ending right from the outset. 1/17/23

 Miss Seeton Rocks the Cradle by Hamilton Crane, Berkley, 1992 

I’m afraid I am not enjoying Sarah Mason’s continuation of the Miss Seeton novels. Seeton is increasingly less of a character and more of an artifice, an automaton who never really does anything knew. Her talent is that her subconscious picks up cues about situations which reveal hidden truths when she does a sketch of the subject matter. In this case, she stumbles upon an abandoned infant that eventually leads her to a plot against the English throne, which naturally she thwarts almost without trying. The humor is repetitive and the supporting characters are predictable. The mystery itself is decidedly dull. 1/16/23

Death on the Reserve by Josephine Bell, Macmillan, 1966  zz221 

A young couple disappear while visiting a nature preserve. She shows up a short time later and admits to having had a violent argument with the missing man. There are rumors of a smuggling operation connected with a local quarry, a mystery involving the victim’s parentage, a gang of thugs to complicate matters, and circumstantial evidence suggesting correctly that he is dead. This was the second and final appearance of Dr. Frost, who was introduced in The Upfold Witch. His quiet investigation takes off when the quarry owner is puzzlingly rude and secretive. No real mystery about who was responsible – it had to be one of two brothers – and a second murder leads to a similar conclusion. 1/15/23

Deadly Welcome by John D. MacDonald Gold Medal, 1958  zz278 

This is an exciting but implausible suspense novel. The protagonist is sent to his home town to try to convince an ailing scientist to return to government work. The murder of the scientist’s wife has led to permanent depression. The agent grew up in the town, was wrongfully accused of theft while he lived there, and a number of people resent his return. And almost immediately he is drawn into the murder investigation and the mystery of a large amount of cash that has disappeared. There is a completely implausible beating by the police, the use of a totally unnecessary cover story to explain why he is there, and then ratcheted up tension as events become more threatening. The killer’s identity is painfully obvious – and he kills several more people before the story ends. This could have been much better if MacDonald had avoided the artless artifices, which do not contribute to the story in any significant way. 1/15/23

Death of a Con Man by Josephine Bell, Lippincott, 1968

A rather slow moving story about an accident victim whose death in a hospital is at least partially caused by paperwork with the wrong blood type listed. He turns out to be a known criminal, and he has also been stabbed in the back, which obviously caused the wreck. There were two people in the car with him, both of whom disappear. A doctor, a reporter, and a police officer pursue separate but converging investigations into his past, previous victims, current associates, and uncover a lot of people who are happy that he is dead. The revelation of the killer’s identity comes out of nowhere and could not possibly have been anticipated by the reader – the ambulance attendant was an old enemy under another name.  Bell’s later mysteries often showed evidence of lazy plotting. 1/13/23

Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald,  Dell, 1958

Aka Taint of the Tiger. This is a heist story. A man trapped in a horrible marriage is visited by an old friend who has been working for a South American businessman. The friend proposes that they hijack a large cash payment intended to purchase weapons to support a civil war. The protagonist reluctantly agrees but the foolproof plan goes wrong because two other men have the same intention. They get the money but the friend is badly injured. Feelings between the two rapidly deteriorate, and when the protagonist accidentally kills his wife, he decides to murder his old friend, take all the money, and make it appear that his wife ran away. But he didn’t count on the reappearance of the gunmen. Pretty good, although every single character is a terrible person. This was filmed as Man-Trap. 1/13/23

The Scandal of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton, 1935 

This was the last and weakest of the collection, although “The Blast of the Book” is pretty good. A supposedly cursed book causes anyone who opens it to disappear. Except that it doesn’t. There are some routine murders which are explained because the villain screws up and/or reveals knowledge they could not have possessed at the time. Some of the stories hint at the supernatural but everything is always rationalized toward the end. Several of the stories are repetitions of older plots. 1/11/23

Cape Fear by John D. MacDonald, Crest, 1957 

Aka The Executioners. Twice filmed, this is the iconic story of evil vengeance. A lawyer and his family are tormented by a man who was sent to prison for rape on the evidence provided by the protagonist more than a decade earlier. Now he wants revenge. There is open intimidation, a poisoned dog, a sniper shot at one of the children, and a police officer is killed when a trap is set for the psychotic ex-convict. He actually dies off stage, wounded by one of the lawyer’s frantic gunshots in the darkness. Lean prose and a very direct story line have a strong impact in this one. 1/11/23

Terror in the Night and Other Stories by Robert Bloch, Ace, 1958 

Six crime stories. The first involves a crooked asylum. The second, “Water’s Edge,” was an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A man and woman clash over stolen money and both of them end up dead. A man tries to drive his wife crazy at the urging of his best friend, who turns out to be imaginary. A man takes cruel revenge on his wife and her lover. A serial killer swaps bowling bags with another man, and his contains a severed head. A gambler believes that a stranger has brought him luck, but that ends when he kills her. Two crooks try to victimize a woman who turns out to be a professional strangler. A pretty good selection. 1/10/23

Shooting Star by Robert Bloch, Ace, 1958 

This is a fairly well done detective story, although it was written when authors thought marijuana was a powerful addictive drug that altered the personalities of those who smoked reefers. The hero is a literary agent who moonlights as a private detective. He is hired to investigate the unsolved murder of an actor, but his queries result in two further murders, threats against his own life, and a struggle against a gang of drug dealers who specialize in Hollywood customers. The identity of the chief villain is somewhat telegraphed but the story itself is nicely done. SF fans might enjoy knowing that there is a minor character named Hamilton Brackett. 

The Catalyst by Josephine Bell, MacMillan, 1966 

This is a very confused suspense novel in which a man, his wife, and his sister-in-law go on a Greek vacation together, even though they all hate each other. There are hints of murderously intended attacks – falling over a balcony, stabbed in a crowd – before the sister dies when she mysteriously falls down a stairway. On the trip home, it appears that the husband kills his wife, but she is still alive. He arrives home and commits suicide and the wife ends up in an asylum. Very far below Bell’s usual quality.

The Secret of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton, 1927

Chesterton reworks some old ideas in this collection of ten stories, including the killer impersonating his victim, the killer who is startled by his own reflection in a mirror, and a bogus family promulgated to obscure a crime. There is at least one – a man reaches out through one window and in through another – that is completely implausible. Several of the stories are repeats of previous plots, particularly those where the killer impersonates his victim. Flambeau makes only a token appearance. This was not a great collection, and it would be eight years before the next and final book appeared. 1/6/23

The Empty Trap by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1957 

A relatively short novel in which the protagonist steals money from his crooked boss, as well as his wife, but nearly dies when pursuing thugs drive him over a cliff. Badly injured, it is a year before he returns to track down his tormentors. He traps one of them, decides to spare his life, but the man dies anyway when a rope breaks. Then he is recognized and a second thug tries to beat him to death. He has changed, however, and it is the thug who dies. When the boss is confronted, he had a heart attack and dies. Lacking purpose, our hero goes back to live with the poor villagers who nursed him back to health. 1/5/23

The Will to Kill by Robert Bloch, Ace, 1954 

This is a short but effective serial killer novel. The protagonist is subject to blackouts, so for a while he thinks he might be the killer, since all of the female victims are connected to him in some fashion. The other suspects include his old friend, a crooked hustler, a lawyer who collects serial killer memorabilia, the crook’s wife, the hero’s girlfriend, and even one of the police officers. The real killer is, not too surprisingly, the blind man who has been a peripheral character throughout the story. A woman blinded him with acid and he has been nursing his grudge ever since. The ending is a bit perfunctory.  1/4/23

No Escape by Josephine Bell, Hodder, 1965 

A doctor rescues a drowning woman from the Thames. She is clearly terrified but not suicidal. When she leaves the hospital a thug causes her to fall from a train to her death. A woman working at the hospital was an acquaintance of the dead woman and by chance she is in possession of a roll of film in which the dead woman performs in some illegal pornography. But there is also something odd about the spool. It contains coded information about something far more sinister. The two protagonists are extraordinarily dumb for a while but finally come to their senses and notify the police. 1/4/23

The Incredulity of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton, 1926 

Father Brown returned after more than a decade, supposedly while he was off working as a missionary. The first few stories are set in the US. There is an insane collector, impersonations, locked room variations, hints of curses, a secret trapdoor, perfidious servants, and a retired jewel thief. Chesterton reworks some old ideas in this collection, including the killer impersonating his victim, the killer who is startled by his own reflection in a mirror, and a bogus family promulgated to obscure a crime. The stories are all competent, but some are drawn out too long and none of them are as notable as the few excellent tales in the first collection. 1/1/23

The Upfold Witch by Josephine Bell, Ballantine, 1964 

A retired doctor finds human bones when he decides to restore an old garden, but the entire village seems to be conspiring to cover up the death of a woman ten years earlier. She was reputed to be a witch and disappeared under odd circumstances – we know from the prologue that she died, although we do not know the cause of death. It’s murder of course. The ending is rather weak and the mystery is almost an afterthought. I did like the family whose arrival begins to unravel the mystery, however, and the rendition of small village superstitions is chilling. 1/1/23

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