Last Update 11/30/22

The Templeton Case by Victor Whitechurch, Spitfire, 2022 (originally published in 1924) 

An explorer recently returned from Africa is stabbed to death on his yacht. There is one uncut diamond in his pocket and a walking stick obviously not his is found in his dinghy. He knew the secret of an old embezzlement case for which the wrong person was sent to prison. A clever police detective decides to solve the case without Scotland Yard, but he is hampered by lack of resources and the mysterious replacement of one clue – a cigar band – by a different one. He has three good suspects, but proves to his satisfaction that none of them committed the crime. Fortunately, his wife has a suggestion. Pretty good. Whitechurch only wrote a handful of mysteries but the ones I’ve found so far have all been rewarding. 11/30/22

A Well-Known Face by Josephine Bell, Washburn, 1960 

A disgraced doctor returns surreptitiously to England and is promptly found dead in his wife’s dining room. Was it murder or suicide? The police are convinced that the wife is a murderer, but the reader is unlikely to agree. A second death also appears to be suicide, but the lawyer protagonist does not believe in coincidences. Some of the circumstances test the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief, and there are timing issues that are a bit of a stretch, but overall this was an interesting puzzle with a reasonably satisfying explanation. 11/29/22

Border Town Girl by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1956 

This book consists of two novellas, the title one and another called “Linda.” The first is a rather minor adventure in which the protagonist gets caught in the middle of a double cross inside a drug deal in Mexico and Texas. There are several murders, a beautiful woman who wants to go straight, a dissolute writer suffering from artistic block, and a nasty professional killer with ambitions. The second novella is a fairly clever variation of the murder frame. The narrator’s wife and her lover fake a double murder to implicate her husband. He escapes from jail, overhears them revealing secrets, and convinces the police to lead them into a trap. Both stories are minor. 11/28/22

Easy Prey by Josephine Bell, Ballantine, 1959 

A woman who served a prison term for killing a child is hounded by a mysterious enemy who tries to kill her under the guise of suicide. The two people who rented her a room are unconvinced that she was guilty of the earlier crime and they begin an investigation that puts their own lives at risk. Blackmail, murder, impersonation and other complications follow. The ending is disappointing. The motives for both the killer and the wrongly accused woman seem quite inadequate to explain their actions and the closing chapters feel very rushed. 11/26/22

The House Above the River by Josephine Bell, Hodder, 1959

One of my least favorite novels by this author. Three people in a yacht are forced to anchor near a French chateau owned by an English couple. The wife was once engaged to the yacht’s owner. She is convinced that her husband is trying to kill her, but it is the husband who is poisoned and nearly dies. On the other hand, there are traps all over the property and it is not clear who is trying to murder whom. Nothing much happens for most of the book, and the ending is rushed and feels incomplete. 11/23/22

April Evil by John D. MacDonald, Dell, 1956 

Three thugs plan to steal a large amount of cash from an eccentric retired doctor, who keeps it in his home. The situation is complicated by a girlfriend with limited scruples, an inquisition young boy, and the machinations of the target’s family, who want to have him declared mentally incompetent so that they can spend his money. Complicating matters even further, one of the thugs is planning to kill the other two when the time is right. There is no clear hero in the novel, no single protagonist. It is a blend of several different personal stories, a style that MacDonald used frequently, particularly in his early novels. 11/23/22

The Seeing Eye by Josephine Bell, Hodder, 1958 

This was the last case for Dr. David Wintringham, amateur detective. It starts off fine but wanders a bit and the conclusion is incomplete, confusing, and frustrating. An art critic is found murdered at a gallery. There are jealous art students, some of them on drugs, an old scandal, a perhaps disreputable psychiatrist, television performers, and other characters but none of them are very well developed and the motivations are murky even after everything is finally explained. Wintringham gets the solution completely wrong this time and it is the police who come up with the correct answer, which was the only redeeming point. 11/21/22

Murder at the College by Victor Whitechurch, Oreon, 2022 (originally published in 1932) 

This was the author’s final novel, an entertaining police procedural. A man is murdered in a room to which there is only a single method of access. For most of the relevant time, the accessway is being watched, and the other times do not appear to line up with the time of the murder and other events. So how did the murderer leave the scene before the body was discovered? Unfortunately, I immediately guessed the truth although I could not figure out the motive until quite late in the book. The investigation is methodical, fast moving, and logical and the author does not cheat at all. Another author whose other mysteries I will have to ferret out. 11/20/22

Double Doom by Josephine Bell, Ballantine, 1957 

This is a very well done non-series mystery that begins when two aging twins both have obituaries in the newspapers on the same day. The problem is that one of them is still alive, although that only continues for a few hours. He is murdered in the hospital where he was recovering from an illness. The other twin died in an apparent accident but that also looks suspicious. The rest of their household consists of an elderly, blind mother, a mentally challenged half-sister, and various servants. The family lawyer is clearly embezzling money and there is something odd about the woman who volunteers to come in daily to read to the blind woman. The situation is complicated because the step-sister is living in a fantasy world and frequently acts to confuse the issues even further. I guessed who was responsible fairly early but it didn’t matter. 11/18/22

A Bullet for Cinderella by John D. MacDonald, Dell, 1955

One of the better early MacDonald novels. A disenchanted ex-POW decides to track down some money stolen by a friend who died in the prison camp. It is buried somewhere in his hometown and the only clue is that “Cindy” would know where it was. Unfortunately, another prisoner overheard part of the conversation and he is a psychopath who also shows up. There is a missing couple, an alcoholic brother, an ex-girlfriend, a prostitute with dangerous friends, an offensive police officer, and a mysterious private detective to roil the plot, which eventually involves old murders revealed, hidden bodies, a murder meant to look like suicide that actually was a suicide, a desperate battle on a small island, and a new interest in life for our protagonist. 11/18/22

Murder on the Merry-Go-Round by Josephine Bell, Ballantine, 1956 

Aka The China Roundabout. An elaborate toy is the focus of murder, theft, blackmail, and drug dealing. When her uncle dies, Eileen and her mother go to settle the affairs at the boarding house he owned, but all of the tenants seem preoccupied with the toy, which has been in the family for generations. There are several deaths, by accident, suicide, drug use, and murder. There is not a lot of mystery because it is pretty obvious that jewels are hidden inside the toy. Bell had an exaggerated idea of the dangers of marijuana, not uncommon among crime writers of this period. The resolution is mildly confusing and does not account for all of the previous events. 11/17/22

The Charing Cross Mystery by J.S. Fletcher, 1923

Fletcher was not a shining light in early detective fiction, although he was certainly prolific and usually entertaining. There are constant small signs of clumsiness and laziness. Things he didn’t want to learn about happen off stage, are described vaguely and then ignored. This one involves a man who dies on a train, poisoned, and there are clues pointing to an old case where a woman defrauded a jeweler. The police are aided by a run of lucky coincidences but are confused for a while because the woman has an identical twin. The story devolves at the end into a rescue the kidnapped women adventure of no consequence.  11/12/22

Fires at Fairlawn by Josephine Bell, Methuen, 1956

This one is very slow moving. A young couple decide to purchase an oversized country house and divided it into three properties. The former owner was killed as the result of a mysterious fire in her bedroom. The couple find evidence that someone has been sneaking into the house at night, apparently looking for something. There is blackmail, a missing will, another murder, another fire, and an ending that is mostly cheating – evidence withheld from the reader but known to the police.  11/12/22

Death in Retirement by Josephine Bell, Ballantine, 1956 

A young woman decides to get married and is concerned about the fate of her retired aunt. She talks the woman into sharing her cottage with a married couple and splitting expenses, but the situation begins to deteriorate. Husband and wife both believe that their spouse is homicidal- and they might be right. Their dog is poisoned and odd accidents happen. Then they both die the same evening, one strangled and the other apparently gassed by his own hand. But something about the situation feels false to the police, not to mention the reader. A very effective suspense novel though only fair as a detective story. 11/10/22

The Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton, 1911 

The first of five collections of Father Brown stories contains some of the best. The Priest/sometime detective is introduced in “The Blue Cross,” in which he outwits a master criminal – who reforms a couple of stories later and then becomes a private detective who often uses Brown’s help. The honorable French police officer from the first story becomes the murderer in the second. There are locked rooms, psychological puzzles, and other mystery tropes, but unlike Sherlock Holmes, Brown is not much interested in physical cues. “The Invisible Man” is another classic, in which people posted to watch a building insist that no one entered or left, having ignored the existence of the postman. A couple of the stories are rather weak, but generally they are quite good and refreshingly non-formulaic. 11/9/22

The Case of the Murdered Major by Christopher Bush, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1941)

The first of three wartime murder mysteries in this series. Ludovic Travers has been appointed as adjutant for a prisoner of war camp in the UK. The commander is an incompetent windbag whose attitude pushes the staff to near mutiny. It is no surprise when he is found murdered, his body lying in a snowbank. There is a secondary mystery. The head counts occasionally come up with an extra prisoner. There is also a British agent concealed among the prisoners. Clearly there is a German spy among the staff, but who might it be? The solution is a bit telegraphed and it is not Travers but his friend Wharton who essentially solves the mystery. Good, but not very good. 11/8/22

Area of Suspicion by John D. MacDonald, Dell, 1954  

This is a novel of espionage/sabotage centered on a manufacturer of parts for nuclear weapons. The protagonist was manager until his brother stole his fiancé. He spends four years as a beachcomber, but returns when the brother is murdered. There is a power struggle for control and his block of stock will command the decision. But someone is trying to murder him as well, particularly when he decides to become CEO. There are four main villains and MacDonald makes no real effort to convince us that they are not bad guys. The sabotage is a bit flaky – I can’t imagine the faulty equipment not being detected. The story is a bit slow as well. Not one of his better works, although I have not read the revised edition published by Gold Medal that is pictured here. 11/8/22

Bones in the Barrow by Josephine Bell, Ballantine, 1953 

Possibly the best of Bell’s mysteries, this begins when a man in a train sees a murder committed through a window he is passing. No body turns up, but a few bones are discovered on a rooftop, and then a few more buried in an archaeological site elsewhere. The probable murdered posed as a seller of cat food, so we can pretty much guess where most of the body ended up. He was using a fake name, however, and has now disappeared. The dead woman is tentatively believed to be a housewife who ran away with a lover whom no one else has ever seen.  The disposal of the body is quite gruesome, particularly for this author, but very effectively mysterious. 11/6/22

All These Condemned by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1954 

This is one of MacDonald’s best novels, with the viewpoint switching from character to character with each chapter. The rich but nasty Wilma Ferris has invited eight people to her weekend house party. There she plans to humiliate each of them in different ways. But her plans go awry when she goes skinny dipping and is murdered by one of the others. This is not a detective story. There is no consideration of clues and virtually no presence of the police. No one gets interviewed. The various narratives show mostly the same events from different perspectives. There is no way except guesswork to identify the killer, who is actually insane, has killed before, and will reveal his identity by killing again, this time publicly. 11/5/22

The Neon Jungle by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1953

A family run business is the scene for various plots including collapsing marriages, embezzlement, gambling, recidivism, drug dealing, juvenile delinquency, and a prostitute who decides to make a better life for herself. She and a parole officer are apparently the only ones aware that things are boiling toward a major explosion, and they are powerless to avert the violent ending with murders and madness. I actually didn’t like this one particularly. The characters are either reprehensible or so beaten down by circumstances that they are no longer interesting as people. Well written though. 11/3/22

Death at the Medical Board by Josephine Bell, Ballantine, 1944 

The motive is rather obvious in this. The victim is a young woman who has just inherited a large estate that is managed by her now dependent relatives. Unfortunately for the killer, she is secretly married, so the estate goes to her widower husband. A few days later, he is killed the same way – nicotine poisoning – and in both cases the murders were clumsily done and obvious from the outset. There is also a shady doctor lurking in the shadows, and a hostile waitress who was once engaged to the dead man.  11/1/232

Stranger on a Cliff by Josephine Bell, Ace, 1952 

Aka To Let: Furnished. A woman rents a house for a season, unaware of the fact that it belongs to the man she married twenty years earlier, who was supposedly lost at sea. She does suspect that he murdered his second – and only acknowledged – wife and possibly another woman as well. She realizes that truth before he does – he is out of the country for most of her time there – and when they confront each other, he tries to seduce her rather than explain himself. She unwisely gives him the opportunity to discover that she knows about the murders and is nearly killed herself. Fortunately, her chauffeur intervenes. 11/1/22

Dead Low Tide by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1953 

A nice solid mystery/adventure story. The protagonist works for a contractor who has recently been preoccupied. When the man is found murdered, the weapon is identified as belonging to our hero. Unfortunately, he had also been seen with the dead man’s wife – platonically – and there is other evidence that supports his guilt. Some of this is contrived a bit – he makes several stupid mistakes that do not seem in character. Then the woman he actually likes is reported to have been murdered as well, but since he was under arrest, it is not entirely clear why he was then set free. It all works out in the end with a mildly exciting manhunt and an unusual final confrontation. 10/29/22

The Summer School Mystery by Josephine Bell, Bell, 2012 (originally published in 1950)

The summer school is for musicians and mixes professionals and amateurs. This year there is a surprise. One of the participants is found strangled and concealed inside a kettle drum. But another attendee insists that he saw her the night before, when she was certainly already dead. Another man who has been behaving strangely suddenly collapses and is found to have suffered amnesia. The dead woman’s fiancé disappears, although he hires David Wintringham, Bell’s recurring physician detective, to investigate. The solution is telegraphed a bit but otherwise a solid puzzle story. 10/27/22

Death in Clairvoyance by Josephine Bell, Hodder, 1949 

There is a genuine psychic in this interesting detective story. She is present at a costume party when she sees two clowns with the same clothing, one of whom kills the other – or rather, one of them will kill the other because it has not yet actually happened. There were six copies of that clown costume in play at the time. Blackmail, illegal tire sales, bigamy, poisoned candy, and a bomb all move the story along. Ultimately, a séance is organized at which all the suspects gather. The amateur detective knows who the killer is and wants to provoke him into revealing himself. There are really only two possible suspects by midway through the book, so guessing the killer is easy. His motive is almost impossible to anticipate. The séance and the vision add a troublesome element of unpredictability. 10/25/22

Helen Passes By by E.R. Punshon, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1947) 

A somewhat slow moving installment in the Bobby Owen series. He is loaned to Scotland Yard because of a shooting that has potential political complications. The dead man had been making unwanted advances toward the daughter of a local aristocrat. He had also jilted his former girlfriend rather abruptly and was quarreling with his business partners, a brother and a cousin. The dead man had also purchased a small yacht from the aristocrat at an exorbitant price, even though he had no interest in yachting. The young woman had other admirers as well, including a war wounded farmer whose mind has not been on his business, even though he has a new romantic partner. An amusing device is that Helen never actually appears in the story, nor does Owen ever meet her, even though everything revolves around her. 10/25/22

Judge Me Not by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1951 

A typical MacDonald adventure/mystery. Two men are determined to end the corruption of a small city by a local crime boss. One of them is framed for a murder but manages to thwart most of the plot through quick thinking and some bold moves. Eventually a daughter is kidnapped to put pressure on her father and a daring raid is made on an armored whorehouse in an effort to rescue her. Somewhat surprisingly, the effort fails in its main objective and the daughter dies, although the consequences bring down the chief villain and change the lives of several characters. There is also a prostitute who reforms after meeting a good man, the wounded dove theme that, frankly, spoils some of MacDonald’s novels. 10/22/22

Curtain Call for a Corpse by Josephine Bell, Perennial, 1988 (originally published in 1939) 

Aka Death at Half-Term. This is a standard detective story set up. A small troupe of actors are hired to perform at a private school. Shortly after the play ends, the leading man is found dying of a head wound. Pretty much everyone in the cast appears to have an alibi, and there are hints of some mysterious encounter with a member of the staff, although this turns out to be a red herring. The identity of the killer is painfully obvious, I’m afraid. His supposed alibi is not supported by anyone else and the police and the amateur detective never allude to this until the end, which is a dead giveaway to the experienced reader. There is an interesting plot element, however, in that the victim recovered from the initial attack and then participated in the final act of the play before collapsing, which makes the timing of events difficult to figure out before that possibility is revealed. 10/22/22

Weep for Me by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1951 

Arguably the author’s weakest novel, this is about a bank teller who falls in love with a femme fatale – although it’s more lust than love. She talks him into a complex embezzling scheme, after which the two of them are to flee to Argentina via Mexico. But there is another man in her life and the two of them attempt to murder our antihero. He is more resourceful than they anticipated, and it is the other man who dies. Inexplicably, he forgives her and they continue with the original plan, despite another attempt at treachery, her own sexual subjugation by a crime lord, and it all ends with them attempting to escape. She dies and he is arrested. Not the most uplifting ending I’ve ever read. 10/20/22

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell, Pandora, 1987 (originally published in 1938) 

This is somewhat uncharacteristic for early Bell as it is more of a crime novel than a detective story. A number of eccentric characters are living in the dock area in London, several of whom are either drug addicts or involved in the distribution of drugs. At least three of them are involved in smuggling expensive women’s clothing items, but although they operate a clothier as a front, these items never go on sale there. A mishap with a towed barge causes some of the containers to fall overboard and be lost, and that – coupled with the murder of one of the addicts – attracts enough interest that the police soon uncover the operation. Not badly done, but this was not the kind of mystery I prefer. 10/18/22

Murder for the Bride by John D. MacDonald, Dell, 1951 

Following a one week courtship the protagonist marries a woman who turns out to be a Nazi war criminal trying to sell Soviet spy secrets. Naturally the spies want to stop her and she is in fact killed before we even meet her. The bereaved widower decides to investigate on his own, unaware that the spies are after him now, as are the police, and government agents, and a female journalist. The plot relies entirely too much on a series of coincidences but the writing is smooth and the misogyny that marred his first novel is mostly absent this time. 10/16/22

The Man from Greek and Roman by James Goldman, Random House, 1974

The author wrote the screenplay for They Might Be Giants, which I loved, but unfortunately this novel is not remotely as good. The story concerns the finding of a valuable Roman chalice, its acquisition by a New York museum, various claims about its provenance, and its eventual theft and pursuit around the world. There are some good bits but the protagonist is such a feckless whiner that I had no interest at all in whether or not he succeeded. Most of the other characters are less than admirable. 10/16/22

The Brass Cupcake by John D. MacDonald, Gold Medal, 1950

MacDonald’s first novel was essentially a tough private eye story, although the protagonist is actually an insurance adjuster. The theft of some valuable jewelry, accompanied by murder, causes an uproar in a city in Florida whose police force is almost cartoonishly corrupt. Our hero attempts to negotiate a buyback from the thieves, hampered by the police and assisted to some extent by a couple of high profile gangsters. It’s interesting that the gangsters are more honest and likeable than the authorities. There’s another murder, the jewels are recovered, and the hero falls in love with the heiress just before realizing that the thieves did not commit the first murder. Pretty good  but horribly misogynistic. 10/11/22

Fall Over Cliff by Josephine Bell, Ballantine, 1960 (originally published in 1938)

Bell’s third mystery is the earliest I have by her – the others are collectible and expensive. It features Dr. David Wintringham, who was her recurring amateur detective during the early part of her career. He is asked to look into the murder of one of two men set to inherit a fortune. The victim fell over a cliff after tripping on a wire the police believe was a rabbit snare. Wintringham is sure that it was murder. His investigation turns up three more suspicious deaths and he is firmly convinced that he knows the identity of the killer. But he is wrong. An excellent traditional mystery novel with some surprises along the way. 10/11/22

Average Jones by Samuel Hopkins Adams, Poisoned Pen, 2022 (originally published in 1911)

The title characters is a rich, bored American who takes up the hobby of exposing fraudulent newspaper advertisements. Some of these advertisements – there are ten stories in the series – lead him to very different and sometimes far more serious crimes, all of which he solves. These are cited as an early attempt to replace Sherlock Holmes – who had just “died” in his latest adventure – but I doubt that was the case. The tone is lighter, the stories notably less dependent on scientific inquiry, and the author clearly did not mean them to be taken entirely seriously, They are a bit dated at times but generally still amusing. 10/8/22

The Green Dragon by J. Jefferson Farjeon, 1926  

This was from early in the author’s career and his skills were not as developed. A young couple have an automobile accident. A tramp accompanies them to the Green Dragon Inn, even though the inn has a bad reputation. There are a few clearly questionable characters there and the outsiders are looked upon with considerable hostility. Eventually the newcomers are involved with exposing a well hidden crime. Moderately suspenseful, but the tone changes erratically from time to time and several of the characters are only brushstrokes rather than actual people. His later work is much better. 10/8/22

Miss Seeton Cracks the Case by Hamilton Crane, Berkley, 1991   

Susan Mason began a lengthy continuation of the Miss Seeton series with this novel. There are two gangs at work in the area. One is a group who cut off tour buses and rob the passengers. The other provides drugged drinks to elderly people and then robs them while they are unconscious. Miss Seeton eventually causes them both to be apprehended, although in her own indirect and unaware manner. Mason took the story much more seriously than her two predecessors. The silliness is toned down and although the situations and characters are much the dame in isolation, the result is closer to conventional cozies. I confess that I preferred the silliness, because it was witty and original. 10/5/22

The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley, Collins, 2017  (originally published in 1926) 

This is one of the author’s more obscure books, probably because the misogyny is so strident.  It is also loosely based on a real murder. A businessman is poisoned and dies and all of the evidence suggests that his wife was the killer. Roger Sheringham decides to conduct an informal investigation and discovers seven people with both motive and opportunity. He is certain the wife is innocent but struggles to find evidence to prove it. The solution is a bit unusual in that technically speaking there is no murderer at all, although it was neither accident nor, technically, suicide. Enjoyable despite some really offensive passages. 10/2/22

The Silk Stocking Murders by Anthony Berkeley, Collins, 2021 (originally published in 1928)

Not one of this author’s best. A string of identical suicides attracts the attention of the police, as well as an amateur detective, all of whom believe that it is the work of a serial killer. The red herrings are not remotely effective, and there is only one real serious suspect – to the reader but not the various investigators – and sure enough he is the one. The longish discussions of how Scotland Yard’s investigative techniques are inferior to methods used by the French is disorganized, boring, and just plain wrong. There is a good deal of blatant antisemitism. The protagonist rules out three suspects because they are not the type to commit murder, after stating to a companion that everyone is capable of committing murder. There is some minor misogynism as well. 10/2/22

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