All posts by phinnea

Nine Times Nine

Nine Times Nine by Anthony Boucher was a book I read in my younger days and forgot completely except that 1) I liked it and 2) nuns had something to do with it.   So, having always meant to read more of Boucher, I found a 4 thriller compilation.   Thriller — not in the modern sense.   It’s a locked room mystery that’s a bit more noir than GAD.   Down on his luck writer Matt Duncan is drinking his cares away after getting his pink slip from the WPA — this is Los Angeles, 1940.  He runs into an old friend isn’t quite the right word – guy he went to school with – who’s also wanting to get drunk to get over his problems with Concha Harrington, an heiress and still a schoolgirl, whom Greg is engaged to.  Concha wants to be a nun and Matt decides he must help his friend rescue this girl from this terrible fate.  So, off they go to save the day.   Greg falls asleep on the way and Matt arrives at the house where he is not warmly received, blunders about a bit and leaves having accomplished nothing.   As he does so though, he spots a mysterious intruder and the telltale glint of a gun in the moonlight.  There follows a short fight in which Matt takes out the intruder neatly and meets the man of the house Wolfe Harrington.   They get along so well, Wolfe offers Matt a job as his assistant exposing dubious cults of which there are apparently many, the most central being The Children of Light lead by a man who claims to be The Wandering Jew.

This is not just a locked room mystery – with much hat tipping to John Dickson Carr – it is also a good novel.   There are numerous scenes of family life and budding romance which do nothing to further the plot, but do further our understanding of the characters.  The locked room solution is both ingenious and absurd as I’m beginning to think all locked room mysteries might be.  Boucher, unlike Carr, is able to go over the list of locked room mystery solutions without spoiling a dozen books.  The characters are good, the mystery intriguing, Terry Marshall and Sister Ursula characters I’d like to meet again, and can in Rocket to the Morgue, but that’s it.   They only appear in the two mysteries.  I’m looking forward to reading more Boucher novels although I’m a little creeped out by his choice of H.H. Holmes as a pen name.   And if you don’t know who he was, go read Devil in the White City, stat.

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This counts for Bev’s Follow the Clues challenge:  both it and Detection Unlimited featured writers in prominent positions.  In Detection, the writer was a best-selling mystery author, very unpopular in the small town for his bluntness and lack of respect for anyone.   In Nine Times Nine, the writer is not doing so well, he’s fired at the beginning of the book.   He seems to be landing on his feet, but then his new boss becomes the victim of an impossible crime.   He’s well enough liked though that he becomes a sort of Watson to detective Marshall.

Also has A Number in the Title for Bev’s Just the Facts, Ma’am

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Detection Unlimited

Can’t say I think much of the title of Georgette Heyer’s 1953 mystery starring Inspector Hemingway, the detective with flair.  Meaning style, not dozens of little pins on his vest.  Hemingway’s an entertaining detective and a good thing, too, because this nearly 400 page book is rather long for the plot it offers.   A deeply disliked lawyer in a small, English town, is shot shortly after a tennis party everyone else was at.   So, there are many possible suspects, but a bit of difficulty in how whoever it was would have managed it as no one apparently brought a rifle to the tennis game.   The town is agog with excitement, Scotland Yard in the form of Hemingway is called in, there follows the revealing of various townsfolk’s secrets, much gossip passing for amateur detection and no one too worried about being the next to die.   They are right, because no one is.  This story is charming, but not a great mystery.   Hemingway amiably chats his way through the evidence, of which there is not much, sorts the wheat from the chaff and collars his murderer.   Very little happens, but it’s a pleasant ride if you enjoy village life stories.

 

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The cover doesn’t make much sense either.  I chose this because it links to my last mystery– they both have tennis as an element.   Much more so in The Problem of the Wire Cage, but enough I think it qualifies for Bev’s challenge.

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I’m also signing up for another of Bev’s challenges:  Just the Facts Ma’am,   I’ll be going for Golden Age Constable.   This book fits with Timing of Crime is Crucial and The Problem of the Wire Cage covers Death by Strangulation.   If you’re a mystery reader, join in.   There’s plenty of time.

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I’ve also decided to try Books and Chocolate’s Classics challenge again.   I figure even when I fail I read more classics than I probably would have.   So, I’m joining in again.  Don’t know what I’ll read, but have started the Aeneid so maybe that.    Ulysses.   I could start again trying Nausea and/or Gogol.   I will, as usual, decide as I go.

The Problem of the Wire Cage

I read this because Invisible Event is going to discuss it in spoilerrific detail and I’m hoping to join in.  This first paragraph will not be full of spoilers.    I have not enjoyed the two previous Carrs I read.  I found them both rather tedious and completely unbelievable, but this one is different.  I still find the ending pretty improbable, but I was entertained along the way and that makes a big difference.  Young Hugh Rowland is in love with Brenda White who’s engaged to sleazy Frank Dorrance.   Frank catches them kissing and pretends not to mind much and the two exchange threats through a tennis game including the neighbor and sitting out the thunderstorm that follows.  Any of these could have a motive for doing in Frank, who is done in shortly after they separate after the storm.  There’s also the boyfriend of a woman Frank had an affair with lurking about.  The pace is good, the characters are lively.  I found the boyfriend quite amusing when we finally meet him.  I’m not sure there’s a whole lot to discuss with this one, but I will go see and maybe add more to my review below.   I was completely confused by the surface of this tennis court, but have to assume they were like this in the 30s, essentially turning to mud in the rain and then back into a hard surface fairly quickly after.

 

wirecage This is the first of my Follow the Clues books.

Follow the Clues

Last year I attempted to do Bev’s Follow the Clues challenge and while I didn’t do so well, I still thought I’d like to give it another go.  So, I’m signing on starting with John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage, which has been reviewed at The Invisible Event chock full of spoilers, so I have to read it in order to read the review, and we shall see where it leads.  I’ll do the Infraction level and hopefully do better than last year!

The Maze

This year is off to a slow start, for sure, but I guess that’s better than no start at all.   I bought The Maze by Philip MacDonald based on thisHighly entertaining review over at The Invisible Event.  That, and the promise of a scrupulously fair play detective story.  MacDonald promises the detective gets no clues the reader does not get, knows nothing the reader doesn’t, it’s all on the up-and-up and just as fair as it can possibly be.  And he lies.

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I love The Detective Club covers and it starts off well enough with the stumped detective writing to more brilliant colleague while he’s away on vacay and enclosing the transcript of the inquest.  Inspector Gethryn takes the bait and solves the case.   The trial itself is pretty dull for the first half of the book.  Nobody saw anything, no one knows anything until finally we get some contradiction in the evidence.  And it’s all fair and above-board until the solution, although I wonder at the coroner being allowed to ask the witnesses, If the deceased were having an affair with someone in the house, who would it be?   Objection!  Calls for the witness to speculate.   Maybe British law allows this?  It seems unlikely.

So we get to part four and there’s hardly a clue to be found.   No wonder the first one was stumped, there’s almost nothing to go on.   Gethryn calls his clues oddnesses, and I’ll allow the third oddness is a genuine clue, logically deducible, but then, he sends for photographs of all the witnesses, photographs we do not get to see and weaves a story based on these and his oddnesses that is possible, but completely unproven and unprovable.   It could have gone as he says, and of course, it emerges that he’s completely right, but it’s not based on clues.  It’s based on his estimation of the looks of the witnesses and a number of assumptions that because they could be true rules out things they do not rule out.  This is very vague because I don’t want to spoil it, but here’s one spoilery example:   Just because a person sees another person earlier than they said, doesn’t prove they didn’t also see them at the later time.

Why’d they call it The Maze?   It was also called Persons Unknown, which makes sense.  There is no maze, literal or metaphorical.   A maze implies a tangle of confusion, a dark place in which you’ll get lost and be eaten by a minotaur if you’re not careful.   Not a mystery that’s nearly clue-free, probably the least convoluted story I’ve ever read.   I’ll be willing to try more MacDonald, but I hope there’s a bit more plot and a few more clues.

First Half Book of the Year

Yes, it’s the 8th and as of yesterday I finished my first book of the year.   Not exactly a record, especially as I started it the day after Christmas.   I wanted a Christmas read so I bought Mavis Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder from 1936.   In many ways a traditional Golden Age Mystery – rich family that doesn’t get along very well comes together to the family manse for Christmas festivities during which the dictatorial patriarch is shot dead.   Fine set up if a bit cliché.    Not very interesting characters.   Rather dry set up.  I knew one part of the method before the murder even took place because several members of the family each write up a day of the visit before the big day.   As dictatorial fathers go he seemed not all that bad.   Christie’s rich families that don’t get along seem more seething with turmoil under the surface.   Yet someone did and how they did was one one of the least satisfying mysteries I’ve read.  I will write up a spoil-filled paragraph below for anyone who wants to know why, but if you might read it I don’t want to be like the reviewer on Amazon who basically gave the game away, though I’m pretty sure I would have guessed anyway.  Even having a floorplan couldn’ save it.  Spoilers after the picture.  You’ve been warned!

 

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Spoileriffic part:  So the whole thing hinges on there being two Santa Klaus outfits.  One, worn by Oliver Witcombe is all according to plan and a second one which you learn reading the first few chapters, long before Witcombe says he didn’t come back into the hall with crackers for the children.  The crackers, of course, are to cover the gunshot.  Witcombe, the first Santa, gets his instructions in the study from Sir Osmond.  He then crosses the hall and goes into the back area where he’s supposed to give out presents to the servants.  Cue second Santa, who comes out with the crackers and no one notices it’s a different person.  Children set off crackers, Santa disappears, shoots Sir Osmond, then manages to get out of the Santa suit and rejoin the party with no one being the wiser.  Although I think this is ludicrous, I’ll accept that no one notices second Santa.   What I find difficult to believe is that he has time to do all this: get into his outfit, dispense crackers, shoot Sir Osmond, open the window, leave and get back in his regular clothes, rejoining the party and no one noticing.  But what’s worse is the various red herrings.  He opens the window for no good reason.  Pointing to someone outside, but then other false clues point to Witcombe who really couldn’t have done it.   He is aided by everyone else in the house behaving like idiots, lying about everything, destroying clues.  It also seemed like a number of people did things just so the plot could work properly, in particular, Witcombe having a rather long talk with Carol in Jennifer’s room in between giving presents to the kids and giving presents to the servants while in his Santa costume.   If he hadn’t there’s no way the murderer could have done all he did.   It would have been much easier to sneak around without the costume and figure out some other way to cover up the gun shot.   Should’ve just stabbed the guy.

Murder in the Bath

I am disappoint.   Murder in the Bath, bought mainly because it had Bath in the title and could be a link in my mystery chain, but I was still hoping for a good read, and I didn’t get it.    Published in 2009 (or 2004 according to Wikipedia),  written by Michael Mallory and starring Amelia Watson, Dr. Watson’s second wife in the manner of so many detective novels these days, having a real or fictional famous person as the detective.   I tend to assume these won’t be great, probably a bias on my part, owing to the fact they didn’t have to think up a detective.   But then this one is a little different as apparently he made her up?   I haven’t finished the Holmes stories yet, but I gather she wasn’t created or even mentioned by Doyle.   Not sure if I have this right.  It’s not very important.

There are things I like about this book although it all seems a bit cliché.   Or more than a bit.   Amelia, the second Mrs. Watson, is stubborn, feisty, headstrong, and heads off to Bath to solve a murder the minute her husband’s back is turned.  She takes along a maid called Missy, which seems unlikely enough, but whom she keeps calling ‘dear,’ which seems even less likely.   She tries to make Missy read Northanger Abbey to improve her.   She’s a former governess.   It is, in fact, one of her former charges that she is off to see in Bath and, she hopes, help with a mysterious murder the papers all say was committed by the former pupil’s husband.   The suspect is a would-be archaeologist who has been digging up relics in the garden of the deceased instead of building a patio.   The deceased didn’t mind this, but wanted to keep all the trinkets for himself.   Standish, the suspect/husband of Bella, snuck one out of the dig site — a medallion of Cam, an ancient Celtic fish god.   Bella is trapped in the house by a pack of newspaper hounds, so at one point Amelia brings her maid along and sneaks Bella out in the guise of the maid.   Yeah, right, no one notices.    Nor does the cop on duty notice she’s not there when he goes in the house to spot a mysterious man in the back that Amelia invents because she can’t figure out how to steal a medallion without this foofaraw.   Nor does anyone notice when she is sneaked back in.    That’s because everyone needs to be exceptionally stupid in order to make Amelia look smart, which is a feat, because Amelia isn’t bright.   Handed a perfectly obvious clue, she fails to notice until the person involved becomes the second corpse.   This could have cleared our prime suspect if only he hadn’t escaped from jail apparently by running fast and knocking over all the policemen.

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Amelia meets a mysterious Lord of dubious reputation and bicycles off into the middle of nowhere to find a mysterious fake abbey and charm the Lordship who doesn’t like anyone until they’re old pals.  It’s kind of fun.   And if you’re not overly picky, you’ll probably enjoy their religious discussion and his racketing around the country in one of those new fangled automobiles.   There’s a tiresome, obnoxious police detective, an Irish hotel keeper and very few suspects.  Still, I did not guess correctly.  I guessed the same as Amelia, but some time before her,   I cannot say it’s fairly clued as I can’t think of any clues pointing to the real murderer.

 

{Spoilers ahead:  There’s a clue in the form of a button clenched in the hand of the second victim.  We are supposed to believe this button was pulled off the murderer in the struggle, but Amelia doesn’t believe it.  What I find impossible to believe is that you could put a button into the fist of a fresh corpse and have the corpse obligingly clench it.  I admit rigor would set in and if you could somehow secure the hand in a fist until it did, then you might get your clenched button, but I really can’t believe you could just form a fist with a dead hand and it would stay.  Also as far as I can tell, knowing who the murderer is relies entirely on being able to see the murderer and understand the relationship of the murderer and another character to figure it out.  A cheat. /End spoilers]

So, can’t say I recommend it, sadly.   I definitely prefer the original stories where no screamingly obvious clues get past the detective and the police might not be highly respected, but they aren’t constantly hollering idiots.  Also, Mallory is desperately in need of a proof reader.   Remember:   spellcheck is not enough!   My favorite typo:

just in time to see Missy descending the stairs, suitcase in head.

This book has been out over 7 years.   Someone should fix things like this.

This murder in the Bath at Bath was the next in the chain after the Body in the Bath, the Chupplejeep mystery set in Goa.