Last Update 6/30/16

The Trembling Earth Contract by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1969   

Someone tries to kill Joe Gall even before he draws his next assignment, thanks to a leak at the agency headquarters. Before long he is cosmetically altered to pass for black in order to infiltrate a rebel movement that is quietly trying to prepare for a separate state in the Deep South by killing and kidnapping people. This is not only blatantly racist, but the plot makes no sense. Why would the agency not use one of its black agents and avoid the risk of sending a man in a wig to pose as a prisoner, escape prison, join a rebellion, and then get away?  Atlee may have been trying to be topical – black revolt books were quite common at the time – but all he did was degrade a moderately good spy/adventure series. 6/30/16

Paraiso by Gordon Chaplin, Arcade, 2016, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-62872-598-8 

Most crime and mystery novels fall pretty much into one pattern or another. This new one is rather out of the ordinary. A brother and sister who were once very close have become alienated in their adult lives. The brother is in New York when the Twin Towers are destroyed, and that event triggers in him a desire to reconcile with his sister, if he can track her down. That’s not as easy as it sounds because she has unpredictably ended up involved with a mildly mysterious character in a mildly mysterious town where she is in the wrong place at the wrong time and becomes a witness to a crime that could end up placing her own life in jeopardy. The two story lines converge, of course, in a story that moves surprisingly quickly thanks to some very lean prose. This is not your everyday murder mystery and the novelty is very welcome. 6/29/16

The Ill Wind Contract by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1969 

Joe Gall is off to Indonesia on his latest mission. He is to pose as a criminal willing to smuggle a large amount of bullion out of that country to Japan in exchange for an experiment drug, but he soon finds himself in the middle of the 1967 revolution that ousted Sukarno. Behind the scenes, he proves to be one of the main reasons why the communist revolt failed. As happens constantly in this series, the girl he was involved with and his closest male associate are both killed in the closing chapters. Atlee apparently enjoyed killing off the subordinate cast because he did it over and over again. 6/28/16

Walking the Shadows by Donald James, Century, 2003   

A small village in France has been underwater since World War II, but is finally being drained and reclaimed. Unfortunately, there is a dark secret which has been hidden there all that time and someone does not want it to come to light. This event occurs just as a young woman inherits a large fortune, but is attacked and left in a coma before she can enjoy it.  The protagonist is looking into the crime despite the active opposition of the local authorities, and its possible connection with the murder of another young woman. The secret involves efforts to smuggle Jewish refugees out of Nazi occupied France despite the collaborative Vichy government. Someone betrayed the organization and many lives were lost, and there would be repercussions if the truth were to be known. A nicely crafted thriller though perhaps a trifle too long. 6/27/16

The Skeleton Coast Contract by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1968   

Joe Gall is assigned to recover a large cache of stolen diamonds before they can be used to upset the world’s economy. This entails breaking a condemned man out of a jail in the Congo. His mission seems to be successful but then someone cuts off their access to the ship that is supposed to bring them to a free port, a supposed ally turns on them and leaves them stranded in the desert, and the diamonds turn out to be common pebbles with no value whatsoever. There are double crosses, communist nationalists, and a rousing though relatively short climax. Not bad, but not one of Atlee’s best either.  6/25

The Complete Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace, Wordsworth, 2012 

This is a series consisting of four novels and two short story collections. The first novel was Wallace’s first published book.

 The Four Just Men (1905) 

Technically there are only three in this group of vigilantes, although they force a fourth man to participate. They are opposed to a bill proposed in Parliament that would expel foreign activists from England. While they acknowledge that the man sponsoring it is a public spirited and basically good man, they threaten repeatedly to kill him if he does not withdraw the bill. He does not and despite every precaution he dies in a locked room. The moral ambiguity here did not seem to bother Wallace, who portrays the Just Men as heroic despite the dubious nature of their activities. 

The Council of Justice (1908) 

An anarchist group has begun meeting in England to plan a violent campaign against the British government.  The Four Just Men – the vacancy has been filled – are determined to stop them and they thwart several terrorist plots and kill some of the conspirators. This is a fairly long novel, but the adventures are episodic, unified by their duel of wits with the woman who heads the anarchist movement. For an extended period, one of the four is under arrest and almost certain to be condemned to death, but he escapes during the closing chapters. This was better than the first novel, but the moral ambiguity continues though somewhat muted this time. 

The Just Men of Cordova (1918) 

Colonel Black is a ruthless businessman whose rivals have a tendency to die young. This inevitably draws the attention of the Just Men. Constable Fellowes is somewhat suspicious of the man and has been watching his house, much to the consternation of the sergeant to whom he reports, and who is in Black’s pay. Black is part of a mysterious criminal organization which knows that the Just Men have targeted them. The Just Men triumph, thanks to their near omniscient knowledge, the source of which is never explained. This was slightly inferior to the second in the series. 

The Law of the Four Just Men (1921) 

Also known as Again the Three Just Men, confusing it with the final book in the series. This one is a collection of short stories, in each of which the Just Men bring to justice someone who might otherwise have gone unpunished. They are very much alike and the plots are routine with no surprises and nothing special to make any of them stand out from the rest. There are actually only two Just Men, since one has died and another has retired. There is some mild humor in several of the stories and while they are all quite readable, none of them are likely to stick in your memory. 

The Three Just Men (1924) 

The series took a new direction in this novel. One of the surviving Just Men is now running a detective agency with the other two working as his chauffeur and butler. This was a more conventional crime novel with a megalomaniacal villain, kidnappings, mysterious assassination attempts, and a rousing battle scene for a climax. I thought this was the strongest book in the series. 

Again the Three (1928) 

Also known as The Law of the Four Just Men, despite that being the title of an entirely different collection. The stories here are much like those in the earlier collection, perhaps slightly better written, but still following a formula that doesn’t offer much variety. The Just Men are no longer vigilantes so these were more like conventional crime stories. It would be more plausible if the reader was unfamiliar with their earlier adventures. At this point the Just Men seemed no different than any other private detective so the stories are even less memorable.

The Rockabye Contract by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1968   

A very poor espionage novel in which Joe Gall poses as manager of a singer – for no good reason – and then breaks into a toy factory where a revolutionary new toy has been suppressed. He is promptly captured by the dictator of a Caribbean nation which is transparently the Dominican Republic, but in a sequence so bizarre that it feels surreal.  He has various other adventures before uncovering an international plot, which he naturally foils, but the story is so implausible and the pacing so glacial that it doesn’t even feel like a thriller. 6/22/16

The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Poisoned Pen Press, 2015, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-4642-0491-3

Scotland Yard has its hands full when a killer begins shooting people to death virtually at random. First published in 1932, this may well be the earliest serial killer novel, at least in modern terms. There is a strange sort of link among the killings, but it is not a sane one. The protagonist gets involved when he fails to report the presence of a young woman at the scene of the first crime, preferring instead to investigate her independently. The police, however, prove more intelligent than he expects and they anticipate almost every move he makes, even though they accept from the outset that he is innocent. This really isn't a story of detection but rather one of suspense as protagonist follows the woman, who seems to have an uncanny ability to foresee the crimes even though she is quite evidently not responsible for them. This is another surprisingly good effort from a name I'd vaguely heard of until just this year. 6/21/16

The Death Bird Contract by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1966   

The fourth Joe Gall adventure has him on an odd assignment. A prominent businessman is in line for a sensitive government appointment but there are rumors that he is addicted to drugs. In order to get into his inner circle, Gall allows himself to become addicted, but it’s all for nothing as he gets nowhere despite various dangerous interludes, one of which results in the death of his temporary partner. Gall loses a lot of temporary partners. Eventually he just kidnaps the man and waits to see if he goes into withdrawal, which he does. Why not have done this in the first place and avoiding the addiction? The first half is also rather slow. 6/20/16

The Irish Beauty Contract by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1966

This sort of spy novel is quite short. Joe Gall is assigned to watch over an American businessman in South America, but he turns out to be an impersonator and is actually a fascist working with a hidden colony of Germans who include Mengele and Hitler’s son. Gall gets shot a couple of times and stabbed once, but eventually triumphs and turns over the twosome to an Israeli team of undercover operatives so that they can be taken to Israel. Rather dull. 6/20/16

The Star Ruby Contract by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1967

Joe Gall’s latest contract with American intelligence is to pose as manager of an airline in cooperation with the dictator of Burma. A renegade Nationalist Chinese military group has turned to banditry from the jungles of northern Burma. Gall scouts out their territory, determine that they are engaged in drug trafficking, and arranges for a mercenary group to destroy their camp and drive them back into China. This was quite good, with a much clearer storyline than is true in some of the earlier books, and a much better series of adventures. As always, Atlee does a good job with characterization and he seems much more in control of the story this time. 6/20/16

The Paper Pistol Contract by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1966 

Joe Gall accepts a contract to kidnap a French nuclear scientist and blame it on the Chinese in an effort to undermine de Gaulle’s rapprochement with China, even though he thinks the idea is ill conceived. Shortly after he arrives an attempt is made to kill him and he thinks his cover may have been blown. The incompetence of the intelligence network in Tahiti doesn’t give him much confidence, but he decides to go ahead with the plan. We never find out if the plan accomplished anything and several innocent people get killed in the process. An improvement over the previous book in the series, but still somewhat irritating. 6/16/16

The Silken Baroness by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1964 

This was the second adventure of Joe Gall, later retitled The Silken Baroness Contract. It does  not measure up to the first. The biggest problem is that Gall is sent on an assignment in which he doesn’t know what is going on, so neither does the reader, and this situation is never really resolved. There are hints of some kind of bacteriological attack on the US, but the plot advances through a series of apparently random events, not all of which ever get explained. One of the chief villains evades capture. The other is Gall’s boss, with a totally unconvincing explanation for why he betrayed his country. 6/15/16

The Green Wound Contract by Philip Atlee, Gold Medal, 1963

This was the first in a series about Joe Gall, a contractor for the CIA, although the author had used the character name in an earlier book under another byline. It was originally published as The Green Wound, but when the series took off, the word “contract” was included in each title. Gall is a subcontractor for what appears to be the CIA, having been put on indefinite leave because of his outspoken criticisms of the agency.  What appears to be a routine drug smuggling investigation eventually leads to an international conspiracy, a private army, and a political crisis. It’s quite well written, although there are a couple of places where the plot isn’t very clear. 6/14/16

Two Lovers Too Many by Joan Fleming, 1949  

This was Fleming’s first novel and it’s a more conventional cosy than most of her later work. A temporary doctor is sent to a small town where a mysterious shooting death has just occurred. One of the town’s physicians recently succumbed to anaemia and the other, father of the man who was shot, has come down with the same illness. The protagonist chalks this up to coincidence but another doctor suspects poison. The doctor dies and the protagonist is certain that it is murder. This might be the first novel in which radioactive material was used as the murder weapon. I guessed the solution quite early but this was still quite good. 6/13/16

The Man with the Red Tattoo by Raymond Benson, Putnam, 2002 

James Bond is back in this mildly entertaining adventure. Benson’s early promise did not carry through to the end of his tenure as the James Bond chronicler. This one involves a plot by Japanese criminals to release a new virus in various parts of the world as part of a plot to humiliate the West. Bond gets captured a couple of times, becomes involved with a couple of beautiful women, kills a number of people, and saves the day at the end. There is not much of his personality in this one and in fact the characterizations are generally much flatter than in his previous efforts in this series. This was the last original James Bond novel by Benson, following whom no one wrote more than one title in the series. 6/12/16

Die Another Day by Raymond Benson, Broadway, 2002   

This novelization was the last James Bond book Benson wrote. It would be six years before the series was resumed. This particular movie was visually impressive – I loved the saber fight – but doesn’t do so well as a book. For one thing, the North Korean villain who undergoes a DNA transplant so that he looks like a Westerner might be acceptable, but how does he establish a new identity in England and build a commercial empire in only a year? Bond goes rogue for a while, is secretly reinstated by M, and foils a plan to use an orbiting laser to change the balance of power on the Korean peninsula. 6/12/16

Polly Put the Kettle On by Joan Fleming, Hamish Hamilton, 1952 

An ex-convict gets a job on a farm and promptly falls in love with the farmer’s beautiful wife, along with half the other eligible men in the area. He is tempted to commit murder but decides against it, and eventually the farmer is found dead anyway, apparently by accident, but evidence begins to point toward his involvement. It was fairly obvious in this one that the wife was conniving against everyone so there wasn’t much suspense. She accidentally kills herself, ironically, and the protagonist/narrator is convicted of killing her and sentenced to death. He decides her deserves it and the story ends. Very unsatisfactory ending. 6/11/16

Double Shot by Raymond Benson, Putnam, 2000  

A Spanish nationalist who wants Gibraltar wrested from Britain raises a small private army and escalates tensions, plotting a coup. James Bond is to be replaced by his double, who will assassinate the governor of the island. But he gets wind of the plan in time to derail it and in the ensuing confusion the trouble maker is killed. The international criminal organization, the Union, is also involved, seeking revenge for their defeat at his hands in the previous book. This was one of Benson’s better James Bond novels. 6/10/16

The Shadow on the House by Mark Hansom, Dancing Tuatara, 2002 (originally published in 1934)  

The narrator of this odd little book falls impulsively in love with a woman whom he has just met and who is engaged to a friend. He wishes the friend dead so that he can take his place, and that night the friend is strangled in his bed. He begins wooing the lady in question, only to discover that the cousin whom he has long hated has risen as a new rival. During that same night, the cousin falls to his death from his balcony. The narrator believes that somehow his wishes are coming true and wonders if he should abandon the courtship before more tragedy occurs. Similarly the woman believes that she is cursed and that anyone who loves her will die. Much of this is highly implausible. The cousin had only met her once and there is no way that she would have  concluded that he died of a love curse without wondering about the narrator’s fate, given that he had actually proposed. The solution is psychological rather than supernatural. Readable but hardly a lost classic. 6/9/16

Seven Sins by Sax Rohmer, 1943  

A Gaston Max mystery. A prominent man is found with a broken neck in the lobby of a private home whose owner was at the time engaged in trying to communicate with some mystical truth never clearly described. Much of the story consists of efforts to trace the victim’s activities on the evening of his death, part of which was spent at a fancy party despite the war time conditions. Scotland Yard is on the wrong trail but Max, the visiting French detective, figures it all out. One of Rohmer’s minor novels but not unreadable. 6/8/16

How to Live Dangerously by Joan Fleming, Putnam, 1975  

A quiet, retired man makes friends with his landlady a short time before she is murdered by parties unknown. She leaves him the house and contents, which includes a valuable collection of ancient Chinese artifacts. The collection is stolen a few weeks later.  The protagonist proves surprisingly adept at solving the robbery, but not the murder and in fact the identity of the killer comes as a complete shock. Most of the collection is never recovered. A very low key and not entirely satisfactory ending. This was not one of the author's better books.  6/7/16

Never Dream of Dying by Raymond Benson, Jove, 2001   

James Bond is back, determined to end the reign of the Union, an international criminal organization. He discovers that their latest plot involves a major terrorist attack at the Cannes Film Festival, which naturally he manages to avert. The usual Bond twists are here – the card game, capture and torture and escape, a car chase, some high tech touches. An improvement over the previous book, but once again rather slow to get going. A couple of old friends from the Ian Fleming books make appearances in this one. 6/5/16

The Casefiles of Mr. J.G. Reeder by Edgar Wallace, Wordsworth, 2010 

This is the omnibus edition of both novels and a single short story collection that chronicle the first half of  the career of J.G. Reeder, detective. In Room 13, the protagonist – not Reeder – has recently been released from prison. The woman he loves is the daughter of a reformed criminal and she has recently married a man, who is secretly the son of her father’s worst enemy. This is a crime novel rather than a murder mystery, and in fact no one dies until almost the very end of the novel. There is a contradiction between this and the rest of the series. The surprise revelation at the end is that the person we believed to be Reeder is in fact someone else. But the first story in the collection reverts to the original supposed identity and that continues throughout. The stories themselves vary in quality, with a couple that are very clever, a couple boring, and most routine but entertaining. The second novel is Terror Keep. It is the best part of this collection. Reeder’s romantic interest is lured to a remote estate by an escaped maniac with a grudge against Reeder. There is some conventional crime mixed with the “old dark house” format and the story is consistently suspenseful and well constructed. I had always thought of Wallace as merely a hack, but at least occasionally he produced some very good work. 6/4/15

High Time to Die by Raymond Benson, Jove, 1999 

This is a mildly disappointing James Bond adventure. The formula for a new aircraft covering has been stolen by the Union, a criminal cartel. The courier is on an airplane that crashes in the mountains of Nepal so Bond joins a group of climbers to access the wreckage and recover the plans. Naturally there are rival groups of climbers, not to mention three agents of two different organizations within Bond’s own group. The first half moves pretty well but the second half has long periods where nothing much happens.6/2/16

The House That Kills by Noel Vindry, Locked Room International, 2015 (translated from the 1932 French edition) 

The Louret family consists of a father and his two adult children. The boy has reportedly been attacked by a vagabond, whom he kills in self defense. Threatening letters alluding to the older man’s criminal career in the US promise to kill all three of them despite the fact that they are staying in a house that is a virtual fortress, surrounded by police and with others inside. Another suspects is a cousin who was disenfranchised when a rich relative died and left the money to the brother and sister. Despite all precautions, the daughter is found stabbed to death in a locked room and the father disappears from a crowded corridor, only to turn up dead a short time later. Even the family servant is found stabbed to death on the grounds. The structure of this novel is interesting in that the criminal and his methods are identified just halfway through the story, and then the plot takes off in an entirely different direction with another apparent locked room mystery. The prose is a bit awkward and Vindry wasn’t particularly interested in characterization or motivation, but the puzzles are interesting and generally well explained. The solution to the second part of the story is less convincing. 5/31/16

Remember Me This Way by Sabine Durrant, Emily Bestler, 2016, $16, ISBN 978-1-4767-1633-6 

The protagonist of this suspense thriller is a recent widow whose husband was killed in an accident. Although she never lets on, she is secretly glad he is dead because he had an evil side that he hid from the rest of the world. Out of a sense of duty, she visits his grave only to discover on one occasion that someone else has left flowers there.  She begins to investigate his secret life and turns up some surprising revelations and begins to feel as if in some fashion he is still alive, or at least capable of enfolding her in his cloak of evil. A fairly entertaining premise that was totally undermined for me by the present tense narration, which removed every element of suspense because of its artificiality. 5/30/16

The Facts of Death by Raymond Benson, Jove, 1998 

James Bond is on the case again when a fanatical group uses a variety of toxic substances to start disease vectors around the world, but particularly on the island of Cyprus, directed primarily against the Turkish army. He traces a connection to the US when M’s lover is murdered and is reunited with Felix Leiter while tracking down a right wing terrorist group. But the real danger is in Greece – a secretive group called the Decada, which is planning a lengthy campaign of terrorist attacks. Some of the action scenes are slightly over the top but I found the story enjoyable anyway. There are perhaps a few too many villains for one book and Bond gets captured a lot, and his captors never administer the coup de grace, eventually straining my credulity. 5/28/16

The World Is Not Enough by Raymond Benson, Boulevard, 1999 

Novelization of the not very good James Bond movie. Someone has sent money rigged to explode inside the headquarters of British Intelligence, killing a prominent and very rich man in the process. Bond is assigned as bodyguard to the man’s daughter, who recently survived being kidnapped by a terrorist named Renard. It’s not very well concealed that she fell in love with her captor and is now working along with him. Their plans include assassinating M and setting off a stolen nuclear weapon but Bond foils both ploys. The book isn’t quite as bad as the movie, but it’s close. 5/26/16

Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Poisoned Pen Press, 2014, $15.00, ISBN 978-0-7123-5770-8 

A group of passengers leave a snowbound train hoping to reach another station on a line that is clear, but instead they end up at a remote house which they find empty and unlocked, although fires have been started in each fireplace and tea has been laid out. A search of the house discovers one locked room but no residents, and knocking on the locked door has no effect. Odd clues begin to appear – a dropped knife, a mysterious letter, strange tracks in the snow. And more people begin to arrive. This isn’t one of those mysteries where you can guess the solution because we don’t even know what the crime is until quite late. It’s more of a suspense novel and it might actually make a good movie in an old fashioned way. Not his best novel, but a very good one. 5/25/16

The Seven Wonders of Crime by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2005 

This French mystery novel opens with a locked lighthouse murder, a man incinerated while locked in on an island that is inaccessible because of a storm. This is followed almost immediately by another murder committed with a crossbow bolt in the middle of a well populated area. As the sequence continues, the detective realizes that each is linked to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Each murder is preceded by a message, painted on canvas, delivered to the police with a cryptic prediction of the event. There’s a bit of a cheat – the investigators are nudged in the right direction by a large coincidence – but even then there are multiple possible killers. Some of the solutions involve mild cheats and an awful lot of good luck on the part of the killer, whom I correctly guessed about halfway through, but it’s generally clever and puzzling. 5/23/16

Tomorrow Never Dies by Raymond Benson, Broadway, 1997   

This is from the screenplay by Bruce Feirstein, so the plot was pre-established. This was one of the better movies with Bond teaming up with a female Chinese agent to foil a plan devised to push the world into a major war. The villain is Elliot Carver, head of a media empire who hopes to profit by the turmoil, although he is pretty obviously insane. There are several good action sequences in the movie – particularly the chase through Hanoi by motorcycle and helicopter - which translate less than perfectly to the written word. Otherwise this is a loyal and readable rendition of the movie. 5/21/16

Grim Death and the Barrow Boys by Joan Fleming, Fontana, 1971 

Gideon Price has had a falling out with his boss, a successful fence, and they have parted ways. His boss supposedly provided a severance package, but when Gideon sets out to start a new life, he discovers that the package contains newsprint, not money. On the other hand, he stole a valuable diamond broach shortly before leaving, so both men have a legitimate gripe with one another. Price is now living in a small town where he has become quite popular and he is enjoying a more conventional and legitimate life. Then his boss shows up just in time to stumble upon a murder victim, a young woman who had been seen with Gideon on numerous occasions. As is the case with many of Fleming's thrillers, the murder is almost an afterthought and it is the characters and their interpersonal conflicts that the story is really about. This was about average for her, which is a high mark for most other writers. 5/19/16

Zero Minus Ten by Raymond Benson, Putnam, 1997 

This was the first James Bond novel by Benson, following John Gardner’s retirement.  Bond is sent to Hong Kong as it nears the day of transfer to Chinese rule. He is investigating two murderous attacks, plus the sabotage of a floating restaurant, both of which may be linked to heroin smuggling on a Hong Kong based shipping line. He would much rather be looking into the mystery of a nuclear explosion in the Australian desert, but readers will doubtless know well in advance that there is going to be a link there as well. This was a dramatic improvement over the John Gardner era of James Bond novels. The plot makes sense, Bond is competent and consistent, and if the villains are a bit careless about searching him, that’s not entirely implausible. Good characters and very well paced. I was surprised to discover this was the author’s first novel. 5/17/16

Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Poisoned Pen Press, 2015, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-4642-0489-0  

This 1936 country house murder mystery is one of the best surprise finds I’ve had in a while. Farjeon is mostly forgotten now but he wrote about sixty novels, all difficult to find. This has the usual set up – a disparate group of people who nurse several secrets amongst themselves are invited to a large country estate for the weekend. Someone damages a painting in process, a dog is stabbed to death in the night, and a window is broken, but from the inside. Then a man is found dead in a quarry, strangled, and another appears to have been poisoned, and the mayhem is not over yet. This one also has a double ending – the false solution followed by the real one. I was up until two in the morning finishing this one, which falls somewhere between Patricia Wentworth and Dorothy L. Sayers, who was herself a fan of Farjeon’s work. Several other of his novels are scheduled to be reprinted this year and I have already pre-ordered every one of them. 5/16/16

Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin, 7th Street, 2016, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-183-9   

Ellie Stone is a female reporter during the 1960s who just happens to solve mysteries that she encounters in the course of her work. This time she’s taking a break when two men die in what appears to be an accident while diving in a mountain pool. The initial police report, however, suggests that the two men were strangers, so it’s rather odd that they should die together. Stone decides to look into matters for herself and – sure enough – finds a web of secrets lying behind the two deaths. She also puts herself squarely in the firing line again, and this time there’s even a hint of romance. The plot this time was considerably more my cup of tea than it was in the first three books, but I found those three readable enough and this one actively likeable. 5/16/16

The Master of Mysteries by Gelett Burgess, Surinam Turtle Press, 2008

This collection of mystery stories by the man who coined the word “blurb” was originally published in 1912. It chronicles the adventures of detective Astro the Mystic, a fake fortune teller who, with his sidekick Valeska, solves a quite varied series of crimes and puzzles. The stories are much in the mode of Sherlock Holmes, with observation and reasoning at the fore instead of action and danger. The quality ranges quite a bit as well, from boring code analyses to haunting and murders. The prose holds up quite well – Burgess was very popular during his lifetime. I had no idea what to expect when I started this, but I enjoyed it considerably. 5/15/16

Cold Fall by John Gardner, 1996 

Because of health issues, this would be the last Bond novel by John Gardner, who passed the hat to Raymond Benson. Bond gets involved with a mysterious criminal organization which is plotting to take control of the US by simultaneously capturing every military base, police station, radio and television facility, and most government officers, simultaneously, while also launching a major bombing attack in every major city in the country. I find it hard to believe that Gardner was gullible enough to believe that it would be possible to organize this, let alone without anyone suspecting what was about to happen. Bond loses three different “loves of his life” in this one, one of them twice. Dreadful. 5/14/16

Seafire by John Gardner, 1994  

Bond, now head of his own intelligence division, locks horns with a millionaire entrepreneur who hopes to revive the Third Reich. Partnered with the female Swiss agent from the previous book – who is now working for British Intelligence for reasons never explained – travel to various spots around the world to counter his plots. The underlying structure of this one is possible the worst Gardner ever wrote. At one point, Bond even comments on the nonsensical nature of it and asks M what is going on, and M gets interrupted and never answers the question.  5/13/16

Goldeneye by John Gardner, 1995 

Novelization of the movie which pits Bond against a decidedly disturbed killer named Xenia Onatopp, a rogue Russian general and a rogue member of his own double O section, and teams him with Jack Wade, a voluble American CIA agent.  The bad guys steal a new stealth helicopter, then the control codes for Russian satellites capable of delivering electromagnetic pulses to targets that destroy electronics. There’s a race against time to track down the criminal syndicate before they can complete their plans to destroy the financial system of the West. This is the first Bond novel to refer to the female version of M and only the second to include Q as a character. It was about average for the movies and the same for the books. 5/13/16

The Killing Needle by Henry Cauvin, Locked Room International, 2014   

This 1871 French novel may have been an influence on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as his reclusive detective bears some similarities to Holmes and the narrator is his friend, a doctor. Maximillien Heller is bored with the world and in failing health when he is inadvertently drawn into a murder case. The crime and its solution involve impersonations and the murder takes place in a locked room. The puzzle isn’t bad, though I had figured most of it out in advance, but I found Heller to be such an irritating personality that I found my attention wandering on more than one occasion. 5/11/16

Never Send Flowers by John Gardner, 1993   

One of Gardner’s better Bond novels, although that’s faint praise. A series of assassinations are traced back to a reclusive actor whose family has a history of insanity. Bond gets drawn into the case under mildly implausible circumstances and as usual all the intelligence agencies are run by mentally challenged imbeciles. The revelation that there is a twin brother which no one knew about, although his existence is a matter of public record, had me shaking my head in disbelief. There is a potentially good sequence in which robotically animated movie scenes are the setting for a chase, but Gardner throws it away in just a couple of pages. 5/10/16

Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto, Soho, 1989, translated from the 1961 Japanese edition. 

A dead man is found propped up on railroad tracks just before a train would have rendered him unidentifiable. He has no papers, but is eventually traced back and found to be a former policeman who led an exemplary life. The story alternates between a police procedural – with Inspector Imanishi following usually fruitless leads including one good red herring – and scenes of the social interaction of a number of young artists, one of whom almost certainly is our killer. Whenever the inspector finds an interesting person to question, that person also ends up dead. The murder method is novel, but I’m not sure if it would actually work. The style might be considered awkward by US standards because it consists almost entirely of short, declarative sentences, but once the reader gets into the rhythm the story should carry you away. 5/5/16

Death is Forever by John Gardner, 1992 

One of Gardner’s better efforts at writing about James Bond, a very complex story of spies from East Germany at war with one another in the aftermath of the collapse of communist Russia. Bond gets caught up in the conflict and there are impersonations, double crosses, internal rivalries, and other complications. There is also a good deal of misogyny and some plot holes, including one sequence that Gardner apparently forgot about because he never explains it. Bond is a little less wimpy in this one than in Gardner’s other books, but the villains are pretty tame and amazingly incompetent. There’s a totally implausible subplot about bringing back communism. Tolerable, but just barely at times. 5/3/16

See Also Deception by Larry D. Sweazy, 7th Street, 2016, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-126-6

A Marjorie Trumaine mystery. This series is set in the 1960s and involves a female amateur detective who received some notoriety when she solved a series of murders in the previous book in the series. This time it's the local librarian, whose death at work is initially believed to be a suicide. Trumaine knew the victim well and refuses to believe this explanation, and her subsequent observations lead her to suspect that foul play is involved, although she is unable to convince the authorities that further investigation is required. There is no real surprise about the plot from this point onward - she looks into matters on her own and attracts the unwanted attention of the killer, who is determined not to be found out. The surprise is, of course, in the identity and motives of the murderer. I have liked both of the books in this series so far and would not at all mind seeing further cases. 5/2/16

The Diamond Pin by Carolyn Wells, Lippincott, 1929

This early Fleming Stone has an interesting premise, and the first half of the book hangs together reasonably well given the author’s many faults. A woman is murdered in a locked room while several people hear her struggles, but no one comes out and there is only one exit. She was notorious for playing practical jokes on everyone, particularly her niece and nephew, who are the primary beneficiaries of her substantial estate – if they can find it. The dead woman’s collection of jewels was kept in hiding and no one seems to know where they are. An unusual amount of melodrama follows with masked men breaking into the house, a kidnapping, and the useful wrongful arrest of an innocent man. The explanation is mildly hokey but not completely inane. About average for Wells, or maybe a little above. 4/30/16

The Man from Barbarossa by John Gardner, 1991   

James Bond is sent to Russia to cooperate in a KGB operation against terrorists by impersonating one of their members. Things are not what they appear to be, however. There is a plot to overthrow the Russian government, renegades in high places, more spies from France and Israel, a fake terrorist group impersonating a real one, and so forth. Rather slow until the closing chapters but with fewer of the major plot holes that riddle Gardner’s Bond novels almost without exception. 4/24/16

Deep Lake Mystery by Carolyn Wells, Doubleday, 1929 

A rich man who is about to be married, with undesirable financial consequences for his niece, is found murdered in bed, a nail driven into his head. Although the set up of motives, the murder, and  a few suspicious circumstances is well done, there are awkward bits of dialogue, and a few nonsensical situations. The police are anxious that a private detective take over the investigation, the doctor pronounces the victim dead of natural causes based on a two minute evaluation - and he never notices the nail in the head despite obvious evidence that someone rearranged the body after death. He assumes - and the police agree - that it most likely was a strange child who wandered in and rearranged things, which is patently absurd given that there are no children in the area. And the brilliant detective insists that the important thing is to find the motive, even though it's a locked room mystery and we already know that several people have motives. This is followed by his flat assertion that the murder could not have been motivated by jealousy of the victim's coming marriage because "it's too dangerous a proceeding." They also decide that no one would have thought of murder by means of a nail unless they had read a particular story in which it happens, so they decide to find out who might have read it and been inspired. Another man is eliminated from suspicion because he is too young to commit a murder. The servants, of course, would not have actually read books, so they are all beneath suspicion.  The puzzle is interesting but the execution is bad and the solution is absurd and major cheating. One amusing oversight: one of the characters lives alone on an island and never has visitors. So why did she have expensive tennis courts built? 4/22/16

Brokenclaw by John Gardner, 1989 

This was not the worst written but was certainly one of the most offensive of Gardner’s James Bond novels. Brokenclaw Lee is a master criminal who has stolen technical specs for a new undersea detection system and is about to provide it to the Chinese. Bond and a female American spy – who is portrayed in aggressively negative terms and who is clearly incompetent because she is female – impersonate the couriers who have come to acquire the information. The plot is largely nonsensical because Gardner apparently forgot that he had established that Brokenclaw had killed a woman and told the agent to assume her identity, because he promptly decides they are fakes because he knows she isn’t the dead woman. Duh! There’s also a plan for a cyberattack on Wall Street. This was actually rather dull. 4/21/16

Publish and Perish by Francis M. Nevins Jr, Putnam, 1975 u26

A lawyer who gave up practice in favor of academia is surprised when one of his former clients, a famous writer, dies in a fire at his cabin, along with another younger writer. At first it is ruled as an accident, but there is increasing evidence that it was murder. That makes his widow, also a novelist, the prime suspect and the dead man's son, by a previous marriage, makes no secret of the fact that he thinks his stepmother engineered the murder. The fact that the corpse was burned beyond recognition is a dead giveaway that he isn't dead, and his having two separate partners in his crimes is pretty much cheating. This was an okay but very minor mystery novel. Nevins went on to right several more detective novels and some short stories, but I wasn't sufficiently intrigued by this one to run the rest down. 4/19/16

Licence to Kill by John Gardner, 1989   

Novelization of the movie starring Timothy Dalton. Felix Leiter’s new wife has been murdered in retaliation for his arrest of a drug lord, despite the latter’s subsequent escape. Bond eventually goes rogue and infiltrates the criminal cartel, but eventually all the cards are on the table and there’s a spectacular – in the movie anyway – truck chase with lots of explosions and death. I never cared for this particular movie, and the novel doesn’t increase my liking for the plot. This is the first time that the character Q actually appears in print. 4/17/16

Win, Lose or Die by John Gardner, 1989 

Possibly the worst James Bond novel ever written, this one involves efforts by a terrorist organization to kidnap the Presidents of the US and Russia and the prime minister of Great Britain when they all meet on an aircraft carrier. The plot hinges upon British Intelligence being incredibly stupid – twice allowing imposters to join the confidential party without even checking their credentials. M keeps Bond in the dark about things solely so that the author can spring surprises on the reader, even though this jeopardizes the mission. The chauvinism is particularly offensive – female British officers are only allowed on the carrier if they agree to take a shift working in the galley! As usual, Bond is incompetent and has to be rescued, in one case overpowered by a petite young woman until two sailors come to his rescue. It amazes me that Gardner didn’t destroy the Bond book franchise. 4/15/16

The Ninth Day by Jamie Freveletti, Harper, 2011

Emma Caulfield is back, this time tangling with white slavers and drug dealers, although not intentionally. Captured by the drug dealers, she discovers that some of their crop has been infected by a kind of flesh eating bacteria that could cause a disaster if it is allowed into the US. Since the drug dealers think that the DEA is behind the infection, they intend to knowingly introduce it to North America, and Emma has to find a cure pretty quickly because she herself has been infected. Some of the plot elements require that we stretch our credibility, but the story itself moves quickly and smoothly. 4/14/16

Shoot the President, Are You Mad? by Frank McAuliffe, The Outfit, 2010 

The fourth and final volume in the adventures of Augustus Mandrell is a novel that was written in 1975, but which was turned down because it was still too close to the assassination of JFK. Mandrell engages in an elaborate plan to gain access to the White House and we believe all along that he intends to kill the President, but actually he has another target. There is one thirty page section that moves rather slowly, but otherwise this is a marvelously funny, outrageously over the top crime novel. 4/13/16

For Murder I Charge More by Frank McAuliffe, Ballantine, 1971 

Another four adventures of Augustus Mandrell, professional assassin. The first involves a German military officer who escapes to Ireland after the war, and who may be Hitler himself. The next has him smuggling people to the US from Ireland and getting caught up in his own plot and forced to accompany them.  He then gets involved in an attempt to influence the outcome of a major league baseball game and finally assassinates a United Nations official. There is a good deal of wacky mayhem in all of these and this was his longest book. McAuliffe would write one further short story in the series that does not appear in the collections, and a novel that was finished in 1975 but not published until 2010. 4/12/16

The Man Outside by Alexander Blade, Armchair, 2016

Alexander Blade was a house pseudonym used by David Reed, Robert Silverberg, Edmond Hamilton, Richard Shaver, and many others, so I have no idea who actually wrote this minor novelette. A soldier comes home from the war to discover that his wife is dead, apparently a suicide although he immediately suspects otherwise. He risks his own neck by confronting several unsavory characters before discovering the truth. Reads smoothly but the story is trite and predictable. 4/9/16

Rather a Vicious Gentleman by Frank McAuliffe, Ballantine, 1968 

Four more adventures of Augustus Mandrell, including one excellent story, two very good ones, and one that’s kind of blah. These are all set between 1941 and 1947 and each successive story goes further back in time, so that we are reading about incidents that haven’t happened yet for the reader but are in the past of the characters. Mandrell completes a number of complicated assignments, sometimes after outrageously absurd preparations including posing as the last member of a lost race, as a military courier, and a sea captain. I’ve owned the first three books in this series for almost fifty years and never got around to reading them, and they’re great. Intricately plotted, funny, witty, and surprising. 4/8/16

Scorpius by John Gardner, 1988 

James Bond is recruited into an effort to track down the leader of a cult whose minions are about to launch suicidal terrorist attacks across England. He teams up with a female agent from the IRS – long story – who pulls his chestnuts out of the fire a couple of times. Gardner’s Bond had to be rescued, usually by women, in almost every book.  Like the others in the series, it is filled with plot holes so gaping that the entire British Secret Service could walk through them arm in arm. Bad guys walk into secure facilities with the greatest of ease since no one checks their identity or even looks to see if they are armed. M withholds vital information so that Bond can make mistakes and provide more action for the plot. And at the end, we still have no idea why Scorpius was after Bond in the first place. 4/7/16

The Naked Storm by C.M. Kornbluth, Armchair, 2016 (originally published in 1962)

Kornbluth is best remembered for his SF, particularly his collaborations with Frederik Pohl. This early crime novel is one I’ve wanted to read for years but alas, like his other solo novels, I found it awkward and disappointing, although it has an interesting premise. An assortment of characters including a disgruntled husband and a woman who has devoted herself to political activism are all on the same train during a snowstorm when tension ignites and the possibility of murder rears its ugly head. There’s nothing wrong with the story line, but the narrative jumps around too much and none of the characters really take on any depth. Originally published as by Simon Eisner. 4/6/16

Running Dark by Jamie Freveletti, Morrow, 2010  

The recurring protagonist in this author’s thrillers is a female chemist who in this case is injected with an unknown drug by a stranger that gives him extraordinary recuperative powers. Her romantic interest and sometimes partner is preoccupied with a cruise ship currently under the control of Somali pirates, so she has to investigate on her own. There is also reason to believe that somewhere on the ship is the key to a new weapons technology. Eventually she is put aboard the ship to find out the truth about the weapon and during the course of her visit she proves to be the critical factor in overcoming the pirates. Fast paced and exciting but I had some reservations about the premise. 4/3/16

No Deals, Mr. Bond by John Gardner, 1987 

Not quite as awful as the three preceding books, this James Bond novel involves the arrival of assassination teams in England to kill five spies who formerly infiltrated the East German security apparatus. Bond is sent unofficially to protect them – there is never a satisfactory explanation of why it needed to be unofficial, or why Bond wasn’t given essential information. The twists – double agents – are in one case predictable and in another unbelievable.  Gardner’s Bond is a wimp who almost always has to be rescued by other people, in this book as in the others, and he makes rudimentary mistakes that not even a non-spy would indulge in. There are also coincidences every couple chapters to keep the plot moving. By the sixth book you would have thought he would have learned something about pacing and plotting, but apparently not. 4/2/16