Last Update 12/31/18

The Dower House Mystery by Patricia Wentworth, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1925)  

Here we have an excellent example of the Old Dark House mystery. The protagonist is a widow who is being paid to live in an old mansion for six months because “ghosts” have chased previous residents away. We have also been told that there is a major counterfeiting problem so it does not take much imagination to figure out that the crooks are frightening people away to protect their operation in the adjacent house.  This was quite enjoyable until the end, which contains no surprises and which fails to explain how the bad guys managed to create the various creepy effects. 12/31/18

Intruder in the Dark by George Bellairs, Ipso, 2916 (originally published in 1966) 

An elderly recluse dies and when her heir, whom she had never met, arrives to examine her house, he is promptly bludgeoned to death by someone hiding in the cellar. Does this have something to do with her long missing brother? Or the baby she put up for adoption sixty years earlier? And what happened to the large amount of cash that she kept locked in a safe in a secret room off the basement? And why is her lawyer so touchy on the subject? And what does her long time nurse and companion know that she is unwilling to tell to the police. Chief Superintendent Littlejohn will soon discover the truth. One of the author’s better books. 12/28/18

The Plumley Inheritance by Christopher Bush, Dean Street, 2017 (originally published in 1926) 

First in a series of 63! Plumley is a financier who apparently has a nervous breakdown when he discovers that he is going bankrupt. He draws a lot of cash and hides it in various bizarre places, then commits suicide just as the axe I about to fall. The two protagonists believe that his dying words were a clue to the location of the money and they analyze the strange things he purchased or asked about during his final weeks. But someone else is also on the trail of the money and a dead body turns up in due course. The prose is occasionally ponderous but the story is quite good and the puzzles reasonably clever. 12/26/18

Fear Round About by George Bellairs, Walker, 1975 

Chief Inspector Littlejohn is attempting to visit a retired coroner when he finds the man murdered. The victim’s household was puzzling – two apparent bodyguards, a housekeeper, and a deaf gardener. What was the nature of the mysterious postcards he occasionally received? Why did one bodyguard abruptly resign after the other died of a heart attack? Why was an expensive shotgun buried in the garden? The puzzle unfolds reasonably well but it was a fairly routine case with no surprises or plot twists. 12/21/18

The Black Cabinet by Patricia Wentworth, Dean, Street, 2016 (originally published in 1925)

This is a nicely done but pretty standard woman in jeopardy novel. Chloe is a young woman who inherits her cousin’s estate. In a hidden safe, she finds letters which have been used to blackmail people. She is determined to destroy them but the butler is in league with the family lawyer, the local doctor, and others who are attempting to recover them for their own use. She becomes a virtual prisoner in the house and her efforts to free herself are generally outsmarted. The situation is a bit awkwardly contrived but not impossible and the story moves quickly toward the inevitable confrontation. Wentworth’s heroines may not always succeed but they’re always determined to try and that is quite refreshing for the 1920s. 12/21/18 

Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith, Poisoned Pen, 2018 (originally published in 1933)

This was an early pseudonym of Lucy Malleson, who was best known as Anthony Gilbert in the mystery genre. This is a very interesting and thoughtful book about a very dysfunctional family where a murder takes place on Christmas Eve. We are never in any doubt about the killer. He is one of the viewpoint characters and we watch as he attempts to frame his sister’s husband for the crime. We spend a lot of time among the thoughts of several of the characters, several of whom are not very nice people. The plot fails, of course, because of minor details the killer never realized would reveal the truth. I have not read any of the Gilbert novels, though I have some. I need to move them up the queue. 12/20/18

Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards, Poisoned Pen, 2018 

Railroads have been a staple in mystery novels for a long time – think Murder on the Orient Express for example. This is a collection of them from writers including R. Austin Freeman, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Gilbert, and Arthur Conan Doyle among a mix of well and little known writers. Some only really involve railroad tracks and one of them  is actually about a mockup of a railway car, but all of them tie to the theme and best of all, all of them are good stories, only one of which I had previously read. They are sufficiently diverse that I had no trouble with repetition reading this straight through.  Another fine anthology of classic detective fiction. 12/18/18

Die All, Die Merrily by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1986 (originally published in 1961)

Carolus Deene is prevailed upon to investigate the apparent suicide of a politician’s nephew. The dead man left a tape recording in which he confesses to having just strangled a woman, but he doesn’t identify her and no one can find another body. I thought the mystery of the recording was fairly obvious and that pointed directly at the killer, but I actually doubted my conclusion because it seemed too obvious. There is some nice idiosyncratic dialogue in this one, a device the author has used before to good effect. 12/11/18

The Annam Jewel by Patricia Wentworth, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1924)

This is really more of an adventure story than a mystery. The protagonist is orphaned as a young boy and shuttled back and forth among relatives. He has been told that he will be presented with a fabulous jewel on his 25th birthday, but when that event occurs, he finds a fake jewel and notes from his father about how the jewel was stolen by two other men. Coincidentally, he is infatuated with the daughter of one of those men and soon acquainted with the other, although both have different names. The real jewel surfaces, changes hands a few times, and our hero gets kidnapped for a while. The only murders take place before the story starts and no one is ever punished for them. Not quite as good as Wentworth’s first two books but still an engaging story. 12/8/18

Everybody Always Tells by E.R. Punshon, Dean Street, 2017 (originally published in 1950)

A philandering scientist is stabbed to death in his private laboratory. Two guinea pigs are missing. Someone has drilled spyholes from an adjacent room. The widow may have been blackmailing people and she has been receiving death threats. The dead man recently made an unwelcome advance on a young woman whose boyfriend is livid. Another young woman has been secretly visiting the lab. The victim’s father in law never liked him. A man styling himself as an Italian count is more than he seems to be. Bobby Owen has one of his most exasperating cases as each suspect makes a good case for someone else being responsible. Guessed the ending early this time. 12/7/18

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton, Poisoned Pen, 2016 (originally published in 1930) 

Miles Burton is better known as John Rhode. This is more adventurous than most of his work that I’ve read. The murder of a tavernkeeper in a remote town seems unsolvable, but the detective in charge calls in a friend, Desmond Merrimond, who has some untraditional ways of investigating. He quickly learns that many of the secretive local people are members of a revived cult of witches and that the leader of that group, whose identity no one knows, is responsible for the murder – although actually that turns out not to be the case. Captures and escapes, marooning at sea, assaults, kidnapping, smuggling, and general mayhem follow. It’s one of his more exciting works, although I think the solution was a bit too obvious. 12/4/18

Scarweather by Anthony Rolls, Poisoned Pen, 2017 (originally published in 1934)  

The narrator and his cousin are part of a small group who visit Professor Reisby and his wife. Reisby is an archaeologist interested in burial mounds. His wife is much younger and it is no surprise to the reader when she and the cousin begin to have romantic interests in each other. There is also a mysterious German merchant ship that attracts Reisby’s interest, and readers will also guess that he is involved in some sort of smuggling or espionage – since World War I is imminent during the opening chapters. Then the cousin is mysteriously lost at sea while out swimming and the body is never recovered. The war intervenes and twenty years pass before we finally learn the truth – although most readers will have guessed well in advance. This is a very sedately placed novel with not a lot of mystery, although the various characters are interesting enough to hold our attention to the end. 12/4/18

The Red Lacquer Case by Patricia Wentworth, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1924) 

A scientist develops a new poison gas and leaves the formula in a puzzle box with the protagonist, a young woman with a mind of her own. After resisting attempts to bribe her to open it – the wrong combination will destroy the contents – she is kidnapped by the gang and held in a large mansion while the man to whom she was once engaged tries to figure out what happened to her. Eventually she escapes on her own, but it is a short-lived freedom. Fortunately a local police inspector becomes suspicious and conducts a raid at just the right time. Fair adventure/mystery although the two main characters are hopelessly naïve about some subjects. 11/30/18

Nothing Like Blood by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1985 (originally published in 1962)

Carolus Deene travels to a boarding house where one woman died of a heart ailment – maybe – and another fell to her death from a balcony – maybe. The rest of the boarders are strangely disturbed and someone has been searching some of the rooms. The first half of the book is the diary of the woman who asked Deene to investigate, so he doesn’t show up until quite late. The explanation is somewhat mundane in this one, but Deene’s investigation is as fascinating as usual and that overcomes the blandness of the plot. 11/30/18

The Studio Crime by Ianthe Jerrold, Dean Street, 2015 (originally published in 1929)

Another very pleasant new discovery, though the author wrote only four mysteries. This one opens with an artist of sorts stabbed to death in his studio just above a group of partygoers. One of the latter is quite obviously lying about having seen the dead man alive a few minutes earlier since he has been dead for over an hour. And what about the odd man wearing a fez who was seen in the area asking for directions and then disregarding them? Is there a connection to a missing relative who fled to America when discovered in a crime? Who is the mystery woman who climbed out of a second story window? Why do the two doctors cordially dislike one another? What is in the mysterious envelope mailed upon the death of the artist? The prose holds up very well despite the age although there were a couple of references I had to look up to find out what they meant. 11/28/18

The Improbable Prisoner by Stuart Douglas, Titan, 2018 

Dr. Watson is framed for a brutal murder in this Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Imprisoned pending formal charges, Watson is subjected to various brutalities while Holmes does his investigating off stage. Someone lured a rich but demented woman to a lonely flat and stabbed her to death. A younger woman led Watson there and circumstances are arranged to make it seem impossible for him not to be guilty. All of this is constructed well enough, but I was not convinced that even a crooked policeman could have held Watson with circumstantial evidence, no motive, no murder weapon, no witnesses, and other evidence clearly pointing in other directions, particularly given the opposition of half of Scotland Yard, Mycroft Holmes, an expensive lawyer, and Sherlock himself. Okay but it has some bumps. 11/20/18

The Case of Sir Adam Braid by Molly Thynne, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1930)

Although this is a fairly standard detective story, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Adam Braid was about to change his will when he was stabbed through the throat. The granddaughter who was about to be disinherited, and who was in the building with no alibi when the murder was committed, is the obvious suspect, so she is obviously innocent. The police have other suspects, but none of them very plausible. And what about the three unidentified visitors who were in the apartment, together or separately, at the crucial time? Fairly good detection with a hint of romance. The author was wealthy and didn’t need to earn a living, so she only wrote six detective novels. 11/19/18

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding by Rhys Bowen, Berkley, 2018, $26, ISBN 978-0-425-28352-3 

Lady Georgiana are finally going to be married, and she is off to her godfather’s house to prepare it as their new home. The godfather hasn’t been in England in years and the house and grounds are in bad shape. The servants are insolent and incompetent but she does not have the authority to fire them. The explanation that they are secretly housing a madwoman seems plausible at first, but even that story begins to falter. After an unusually slow start, the story improves dramatically and is actually one of the most plausible and entertaining installments in the series. And they DO get married at last. 11/16/18

Deadly Beloved by John Stephen Strange, Doubleday, 1952  

A new resident at a rooming house is instinctively repelled by her landlady’s husband, although he seems to be devoted to her. Elsewhere in the city, a woman’s body is discovered and is believed to have been murdered by her husband for her money. He, however, has vanished completely. Even unsophisticated mystery readers will realize that he is the husband, intent upon finishing off another wife. The author rather bludgeons the reader with clues and insinuations. He even kicks a dog. Readable but so transparent that there was no element of mystery at all. 11/14/18

Bleeding Hooks by Harriet Rutland, Dean Street, 2015 (originally published in 1940)

The setting for this murder mystery is a lodge for fishing enthusiasts on a small lake in Wales. One of the guests is a widow who is obviously there to catch a man rather than a fish, and she is the one who ends up murdered with a poisoned fishing lure embedded in her hand. A Scotland Yard detective was there on vacation, although he does not advertise his profession, and he conducts an informal investigation with the assistance of two enthusiastic if somewhat overbearing younger people. There is a small but amusing twist at the end – there may not have been a murder at all, just a failed attempt at one. Rutland only wrote three mysteries, but based on this one, I have ordered copies of the other two. 11/13/18

The Conspirators by William Haggard, Cassell, 1967

Another low key spy thriller, this time involving the accidental loss of a nuclear weapon, a device that has been used in several much better novels. Although there is no danger of a nuclear explosion, there would be large scale political repercussions, so Charles Russell is determined not only to recover the weapon but to suppress any news of its temporary loss. Which he proceeds to do in a totally uninteresting way. This was the last Haggard that I had not read, and I’m not sad about it. Although his early books had nice touches and occasionally gripping plots, he seemed to ramble a great deal toward the end of his career and sometimes it was not even clear what was going on. 11/12/18

Crashed by Timothy Hallinan, Soho, 2013  

Junior Bender is a talented burglar, but unfortunately his talents are well known. His latest job turns out to be a trick so that he can be blackmailed into helping find out who is sabotaging a porn movie currently in production. Bender seems an unlikely choice for the job, but given that premise there is a reasonably good mystery for him to unravel. This was okay but I was never really engrossed after the first few chapters. ``/8/18

Such Is Death by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1986 (originally published in 1963) 

Someone has decided to commit a random murder just for the fun of it and has planned things very well indeed. A man sitting in a shelter along the coast is bludgeoned to death one night. There are no witnesses and no clues, even though the murder weapon was left at the scene. The police are baffled and the detective in charge consults with Carolus Deene, talented amateur. There are people with a motive to wish the man dead, but the motives seem very thin. There is a nice trick to this, because the killer accidentally chose a victim who was linked to him, and that leads to his eventual undoing. 11/4/18

The Bungalow Mystery by Annie Haynes, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1923) 

The opening scene of this murder mystery strained my credulity a bit. A doctor is summoned to a neighbor’s house where the man has been shot dead. He finds a young woman hiding there and impulsively sneaks her off to his own house, then creates an elaborate and entirely improbable story to explain her presence. The police never actually question her, which is beyond unlikely, and she eventually leaves the area without ever revealing her real name. A railroad accident appears to have killed her and has maimed a friend of the doctor, who is his personal physician a year later. Having lost both legs, the man refuses to see his fiancé and the doctor never sees her either. There are some further implausible bits about sisters impersonating each other, a couple of rather strained coincidences, and lots of posturing with the police hot on their trail. I was never able to accept that things would actually happen this way and the inaction by the police is at times irritatingly convenient to the author. 11/2/18

Lady in Lilac by Susannah Shane, Coachwhip, 2017 (originally published in 1941)  

A young woman on the verge of homelessness saves the life of another who tries to kill herself. The two then agree to change places, which places the former in hot water as she is present at the scene of the murder of a prominent movie executive. Confusion follows with people on the run from the police and with connections established to the earlier kidnapping and murder of a child. There is not much detection and the unraveling of the crime largely takes place off stage. We only learn the identity of the real killer when he shows up at the end intent upon killing the heroine. Readable but minor. 10/30/18

The Spirit Murder Mystery by Robin Forsythe, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1936)

A man disappears from his house, apparently having gone through a window instead of a door. He and his rival for the hand of a local woman are found dead together, one shot and one bludgeoned, but evidence suggests that they didn’t kill each other. The gunshot, in fact, was inflicted after the victim was already dead. His niece firmly believes in spiritualism, much to the dismay of the amateur detective and the professional one who are both investigating. There is some ghostly organ music, an American gangster, and other complications. The story involves a major cheat under normal circumstances – secret passages – but their existence is established early and the only question is how to access them and where they lead to. Although I guessed almost the entire solution very early, the story was still entertaining. 10/29/18

Dig Your Grave by Steven Cooper, 7th Street, 2018, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-480-9

This mystery is marginally fantasy as it involves an apparently genuine psychic. A serial killer has been leaving the bodies of his victims in local cemeteries and the police have no clues as to his identity. But the psychic who is consulting with the police has distractions of his own, which may or may not be connected to the murder investigation. There is also a mysterious disappearance to confuse things further. I found the plot interesting enough but once again the use of present tense narration adds such an element of artificiality and draws so much attention to the writing rather than the story that I just could not enjoy it. I have just about decided not to bother reading any more books that use this terrible technique. 10/27/18

Crime in Leper’s Hollow by George Bellairs, Endeavor, 2016 (originally published in 1952) 

After a judge dies of pneumonia under suspicious circumstances, his wife is found stabbed to death. Shortly after that, his brother-in-law is bludgeoned to death. Then the local inspector commits suicide and it is revealed that he was going blind. Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard investigates one of the strangest families that he has ever encountered, including a musician who experiments with rats, a woman bitten by tarantula who must periodically dance wildly to throw off its lingering effects, a drunken architect, a bitter woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, a secret investment account that may have been embezzled, and a housekeeper who insists she can see the future. A bit muddled at times. 10/24/18

The Rumble Murders by Henry Ware Eliot Jr., Coachwhip, 2017 (originally published in 1932)

The author was the brother of the poet, T.S. Eliot and this originally appeared as by Mason Deal. There are a couple of problems with the construction of the book. Several characters are so interchangeable that I had trouble keeping them straight. The killer is not even mentioned until shortly before he is unmasked, which is usually a major cheat. Neverthless, I enjoyed this considerably. It’s a kind of police procedural without the police.  Two men, one of them a retired detective, are invited for an extended visit in a newly developed community. The day they arrive, someone rather oddly burglarizes their host and steals his handgun. There is a party that night, during which one man abruptly and inexplicably leaves. A stranger’s body is found stuffed into the rumble seat of a car the following day, and the days after that another car is pulled from a lake, also with a body in the rumble seat, and this one is the man who bolted from the party. A lost inheritance, contested property ownership, inadvertently swapped guns, a monkey who commits homicide by accident, and a quarry full of old secrets add to the atmosphere. Quite enjoyable. 10/20/18

Death in Albert Park by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1983 (originally published in 1964)

Three women, none of whom knew the others, are murdered over the course of a few weeks, each stabbed from behind. It looks like the work of a random killer. Carolus Deene decides to investigate as though each crime was distinct and unrelated to the others. Seasoned readers will know that two of the murders were just to divert attention from the third, for which there is a definite motive. I was somewhat disappointed with this one because I thought it was far too obvious who the killer was. One of the spouses inherits a lot of money, has obviously been dominated by his wife for decades, makes radical changes to his lifestyle almost immediately, and shows no grief at all. It was so obvious that I thought it was a deliberate red herring, but it wasn’t. 10/15/18

Dead of Night by Michael Stanley, Orenda, 2018, £8.99, ISBN 978-1-912374-25-0

This is the first non Detective Kubo mystery from this pseudonymous writing team from South Africa. The protagonist is a Vietnamese American nature journalist and conservationist who travels to South Africa to find out what happened to a male friend who disappeared weeks earlier. He had been working on a story about the illegal harvesting and exporting of rhinoceros horns when he disappeared and we know from a brief prelude that he got into trouble doing so. The protagonist is a fairly interesting character and I learned some more about South African culture and the rhino horn trade in particular, but I still found this to be inferior to their other books. Possibly the mystery was too abstract this time. 10/8/18

Queen Anne’s Lace by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley, 2018 

The latest China Bayles is another ghost story. Bayles discovers that the building where her shop is situated was once a house whose mistress experienced great tragedy and her spirit has remained behind. There are physical manifestations that lead her to take the matter seriously and try to uncover the real story from the distant past. Albert’s previous ghost story was quite good but this one never really caught my interest. And while it doesn't jar as a standalone, this series has been going on for many years, so why hasn't the ghost made itself known previously? It's as though the author wanted to write a ghost story and just tacked on her recurring characters to boost the sales. 10/5/18

The Doubtful Disciple by William Haggard, Corgi, 1969

Charles Russell has mostly retired from heading a British intelligence service and his replacement is more of an administrator than an agent. His first serious challenge comes when agents suggest that a chemical research facility has developed a plague that can differentiate between races and can therefore be dispersed without serious injury to both sides. As usual, Haggard stumbles his way through the plot, frequently confusing the reader by leaving out important information, and his characters apparently act without comprehensible motivation. The author's right wing leanings also become more evident in his later novels. 10/4/18

A Knife in the Fog by Bradley Harper, Seventh Street, 2018, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-486-1 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a famous forensic surgeon, and a female novelist team up to track down Jack the Ripper in this first novel. Victorian London is recreated convincingly and the author has done his Ripper research. The relationships among the three protagonists is well done and the story proceeds smoothly to the conclusion. There is a considerable surprise there, which took me completely unawares, and despite some minor awkwardness it is quite well done. The tension between the two police forces in London at the time is nicely woven into the story, and the forensics are particularly convincing, if a bit gross. The author is a former pathologist and puts his specialty to work here. I can’t imagine how this could have a sequel but I’ll be interested to see what the other does with his next book.10/3/18

Our Jubilee Is Death by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1986 (originally published in 1959) 

Carolus Deene investigates when a successful mystery writer is found buried up to her neck on the beach near her home. She was a thoroughly awful person who was ruining the lives of two nieces, a secretary, two servants, and a nephew, and who was also infuriating her publisher. The case is complicated by the fact that nearly everyone is transparently lying to Deene and the police, and a mystery man who wanders around without apparently talking to anyone. Another solid if undistinguished mystery, but not nearly his best work. 10/1/8