Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: The Jacob Street Mystery by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

Tom Pedley is a painter of landscapes. However, on this particular day in May the work on which he is engaged needs more than a little imagination, for he is in a small copse in Gravel Pit Wood, whose bosky dells are being rapidly gobbled up by developers. Concealed by shrubbery from the casual glance, he observes a woman creeping along the path through the wood. Her odd behaviour shows she is eavesdropping on a pair of men who have just walked past. One man returns and is furtively followed by the woman, and the intrigued Pedley checks the far end of the path but sees no sign of the second man.

Pedley lives in a studio in Jacob Street, which has a number of houses favoured by artistic types, and while eating his tea that afternoon decides to create a work based on the strange incident. He will call it The Eavesdropper and use his keen artistic eye to recreate the three strangers as actors in the scene. About a week later, he is working on the painting when his friend Mr Polton -- they first met in a Soho antique shop -- calls with a gift, a pewter tankard purchased in a shocking state from a Shoreditch junk stall and refurbished by the handy Mr P. Nor is this the only skill Mr Polton displays in the course of the mystery. Indeed, if he had ever turned to a life of crime he would have been difficult to catch. It is from Mr Polton that the artist, who has no wireless and does not read the papers, learns a murder by forcible administration of poison was committed in the wood during the very time he was painting the sylvan scene, and that from a description circulated in print and on the airwaves he is obviously the man being sought for interview by the police.

Enter Inspector Blandy, not to mention the brassy Mrs Schiller, a modernist artist separated from her husband and now living next door to Pedley, and Mr William Vanderpuye. He is studying with Dr Thorndyke and thus known to Mr Polton, who introduces him to the artist. It is while visiting the studio to arrange for a portrait sitting that Mr Vanderpuye meets Mrs Schilling, who pops in for a visit most days. The pair strike up a close friendship and Mr Vanderpuye is the last person seen with her before her disppearance. For while a dead woman is found locked into Mrs Schiller's room, she is not its tenant.

We now leap forward a couple of years. Mrs Schiller is still missing, but Drs Thorndyke and Jervis become involved in the case due to a large bequest which would be hers if she is still alive. A presumption of death has been requested but the solicitor feels uneasy about the circumstances. Is she alive, and if she is, why has she not been found despite sterling efforts by the authorities and a vast amount of publicity in the press? Who is the woman found dead in her room and what is the connection between them?

My verdict: Readers of this book learn another way to open a door locked from the inside. Doubtless most are familiar with at least two of them, the turn-key-from- the-outside-with-the-sugar-tongs and the push-key-out-on-to-a-piece-of-paper-shoved-under-the- door-and-pull-carefully-to-your-side. The latter works as I discovered when locked in my bedroom in a 1930s vintage flat as a witty jape, but you need a door with a gap under it. The method used in this case needs a particular type of key, common at the time so fair enough, and its use helps point up the fact that, despite appearances, the dead woman found in Mrs Schiller's room was not a suicide.

There are sufficient and fair clues, and the investigations are described in lively fashion. It turns out to be a more complicated case than it seems at first glance. I guessed part of the solution but not the whole, and all in all found this novel one of the better Thorndyke outings.

Etext: The Jacob Street Mystery by R. Austin Freeman

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: The Man In Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart

by Mary

Lawrence "Lollie" Blakely, narrator of The Man In Lower Ten, is a partner in the Washington law firm of Blakeley and McKnight. In this novel he describes "the strange events on the Pullman car Ontario, between Washington and Pittsburgh, on the night of September ninth, last".

Blakeley is going to Pittsburgh to take a deposition from John Gilmore, an ailing millionaire and the prosecution's chief witness in a big forgery case. Strictly speaking, it is his partner Richard McKnight's turn to take the journey, but he's cried off, claiming he's "always car sick crossing the mountains." However, the real reason, as Lollie well knows, is McKnight wishes to visit a girl he loves, as on a number of previous weekends.

While Lollie is packing a bag, McKnight drops in to give him certain vital documents relating to the forgery case. During his visit, even before Lollie sets out on his journey, mysteries start to gather. Who is the woman McKnight claims to see staring into Lollie's room from a house across the way, a house that has supposedly been empty a year? McKnight connects this strange event with the documentation Lollie is to carry, and advises him to guard it with every care, for its loss will mean disaster for the prosecution.

So Lollie visits Gilmore's house, where he notices a framed photo of a lovely girl named Alison, Gilmore's granddaughter. Needless to say, this photo makes quite an impression on Lollie. Having obtained Gilmore's deposition, Lollie visits a restaurant for a meal before taking the overnight train back to Washington, and while dining notices a couple whose relationship seems rather strained and that the man is somewhat intoxicated. At the station, he is just about to buy his sleeping berth for the return journey when a woman unknown to him asks him to buy her a lower berth when he purchases his, as she has been traveling in upper berths for three nights.

I would have thought anyone approached by a stranger in this fashion, and especially a lawyer, would consider it somewhat odd, the more so given the social mores of the time. In any event, Lollie being a gentleman obliges. Given the choice of berths, he gives the lady lower eleven and takes lower ten for himself.

However, when he goes to his berth later that evening he finds the man from the restaurant snoring away in it, evidently having mistaken it for his due to his intoxicated condition, and so Lollie instead occupies lower nine. But sleep eludes Lollie, so he is up and about in his jammies and bathrobe while just about everyone else aboard is in the arms of Morpheus. He eventually retires to bed and wakes up next day to find his clothing and bag (wherein is locked the vital legal evidence) missing and the man in lower ten murdered.

Forced to wear the clothing left behind by whoever stole his clobber and due to circumstantial evidence of a convincing nature, Lollie is suspected of the murder. He is saved from arrest by perhaps one of the most outrageous deus ex machina in detective fiction: a train crash in which he and one or two others are the only survivors.

But to be fair, this crash later leads to an important pointer on a line of enquiry in the investigation of the murder, although this pointer is one whose method of appearance rather strains credulity.

Suspected of murder, Lollie (arm is broken in the crash) returns home and finds himself plunged into all manner of strange goings on. With his partner McBride and one or two helpers he tries to find out the who and why of the death, while himself being shadowed by the police and fighting a growing attraction to McBride's light o' love.

The Man In Lower Ten is written in MRR's usual light style but offers a fairly dense plot with an occasional red herring and a large cast of characters bound together in occasionally unexpected ways. Narrator Lollie is not as giddy as some of her protagonists, though there are dollops of humour here and there. Ultimately the mystery is tied up in a satisfactory fashion. I haven't read all the author's works yet, but enjoyed this one, not least because it's a sort of locked room mystery -- but not quite. My eye always lights up when I see plans of houses or rooms or fragments of documents reproduced in the text, and this novel features a sketch of the carriage where the murder was committed although its role is minimal compared to what is revealed in similar diagrams included in, say, Agatha Christie's works.

Etext: The Man In Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Greene Murder Case, S. S. Van Dine

by Mary

It has been about l2 years since Tobias Greene died and under his will, if his children do not continue to live in the family mansion for 25 years after his death -- if they marry, their spouses must reside there also -- they will be disinherited. Naturally this has lead to disgruntlement and tension among the siblings, and interviews with their servants confirm there have been years of "daily clashes, complainings, bitter words, sullen silences, jealousies and threats" in the Greene family.

It all comes to boiling point when oldest daughter Julia is killed and her sister Ada wounded in what is initially thought to be a burglary gone wrong. It soon becomes obvious it was no such thing and the siblings do not hesitate to air their grievances against each other to DA John Markham, Philo Vance, and the usual company. In fact, when it comes to suspects, a third daughter, Sibella, declares flat out "If you're looking for possibilities you have them galore. There's no one under this ancestral roof who couldn't qualify."

The household consists of bedridden Mrs Greene, the four children left (Ada, Chester, Sibella, and Rex), German cook Gertrude Mannheim, given to going about muttering to herself, the maids Hemming, convinced God is smiting down the sinful Greenes, and Barton, who rightly reckons "There's something awful funny going on here", plus elderly butler Sproot who reads Martial, although only a snob would find that suspicious. Then there's Doctor Arthur Von Blon, who visits more often that caring for Mrs Greene would seem to necessitate.

Soon there is another death in the mansion....

My verdict: While I would not go so far as to observe that lying beneath the Greene case are what Van Dine in Lovecraftian mode describes as "obscure fetid chambers of the human soul. Black hatreds, unnatural desires, hideous impulses, obscene ambitions", the set-up is bizarre enough to make readers pay close attention to the details and the map of the house, and therefore one or two clues will probably be identifiable fairly easily. One vital to the solution is not presented in quite fair fashion unless you stretch your definition of fair, in which case I will begrudgingly agree that, well, perhaps it was. I wavered between three possible culprits and one of them was the right one -- but in all fairness, it was the last person I began to suspect. A dark novel.

Gutenberg ebook: The Greene Murder Case

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review: Beware Your Neighbour by Miles Burton

by Mary

Hallows Green is a quiet street of detached houses with highly respectable inhabitants, a microcosm of middle-class England. There's Walter Glandford, retired science professor, general practitioner Dr. Jeremy Teesdale, solicitor Peter Raynham, brothers Lawrence and Barry Flamstead, who live at opposite ends of the street and unfortunately do not get along too well, retired admiral Sir Hector Sapperton, philanthropist Miss Florence Wayland, former civil servant Charles Vawtrey, and bank manager Claude Dodworthy. An exotic note is struck in this residential backwater by Hopton and Rachel Egremont, the couple holding regular religious services with a vaguely Eastern flavour in their corner house.

Generally speaking the neighbours are friendly but alas, this soon changes following a series of anonymous communications, causing each resident of Hallows Green to look with suspicion on the others.

It all begins when Glandford's morning post brings a note informing him murder stalks Hallows Green. Miss Wayland receives a New Year card signed as from Death, while Peter Raynham is the recipient of an antique dagger blade inscribed Honourable Death Is Best. Lawrence Flamstead gets a drawing of a tiger with the message Media vita morte sumus or in the midst of life we are in death. Dr Teesdale's note, a torn-out advertisement inscribed H.C.N., is left under the windscreen wiper of his car. Sir Hector receives an envelope containing one of his own calling cards amended to show Death comes for written above his name.

Banker Dodworthy's communication arrives in the form of a parcel left in his bank's night safe. It contains a wooden box which by the agency of an explosive strip from a Christmas cracker goes bang when he (rather foolishly in my opinion!) opens it. Further, the box lid is embellished Next time...Death in poker work. Vawtrey is the recipient of a photograph of a skeleton marked, in reversed letters, Yours. Only Barry Flamstead, one of the warring brothers, and the religious Egremonts are left out.

It becomes apparent whoever is keeping the postman busy is a resident of the street. And since the inhabitants naturally want to keep the situation quiet to avoid the scarlet taint of scandal, enter the admiral's former colleague and now friend Desmond Merrion to investigate.

Hardly has Merrion arrived when Vawtrey's garden goes up in flames, gigantic footprints are discovered here and there, matters escalate, and ultimately murder is done. But who is responsible and what could be the motive for the crimes disturbing this quiet pocket of suburbia?

My verdict: I felt Beware My Neighbour leaned towards metamorphing into a literary curate's egg, yet I cannot say any part of it was actually bad. All through the novel I was racking my brains as to what messages the anonymous communications could possibly mean. There's much innocent fun to be had speculating on the matter. For example, did the honourable death dagger blade sent to solicitor Raynham point to a disgruntled former client or a shady incident in the legal eagle's past? Then too why were one brother and the religious couple left out of the general correspondence? The reader is drawn along through a string of strange incidents until Merrion begins to unravel what is going on. When the solution is revealed, readers may accept the motive behind the odd communications as fitting with the ultimate crime, though if like me they begin thinking about it later they may begin to wonder if the whole odd arrangement was over-egging the pudding somewhat -- not to mention pointing the finger into a very small circle, surely something the culprit would wish to avoid. So there was a little disappointment at the end of a novel with an otherwise excellent set-up. I for one would have loved to see what sort of plot Agatha Christie would have constructed using those letters as its kicking off point!

Etext: Beware Your Neighbor by Miles Burton

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

by Mary

This collection of stories appeared in the early 1890s and features Miss Loveday Brooke, who works for Ebenezer Dyer, head of a detective agency in Lynch Court, off London's Fleet Street.

Miss Brooke is in her thirties and began detecting as the result of an event (not described) by which she was "thrown upon the world penniless and all but friendless". With no way to earn a living, she chose this particular line of work, which had the effect of cutting her off from her friends and original position in society. By this we can safely deduce she is well bred, the more so as she has rooms in Gower Street and employs a maid. Miss Brooke is nondescript in appearance, making her occasional impersonation of, for example, a nursery governess seeking work or a lady house decorator easily carried off.

A few words about her various adventures:

The Black Bag Left on a Door-Step
Craigen Court is burgled, Lady Cathrow's jewels stolen, and her French maid suspected of having a hand in the job. Is there a connection between the theft and a bag whose contents include clerical trappings and a suicide note found on a doorstep not far away?

The Murder at Troyte's Hill
Highly unpopular Alexander Henderson, lodge keeper at Troyte's Hill, is found murdered in his bedroom, which has been turned not so much topsy turvy as completely rearranged in a bizarre fashion, with bed-clothes up the chimney, mantelpiece ornaments arranged in a line on the floor, the clock on its head, and so on. Yet nothing has been stolen.

The Redhill Sisterhood
Sister Monica has rented a house in fever-haunted Paved Court in Redhill, probably not the best location for the Sisterhood's home for crippled orphans. The Sisters take children begging around local villages each day and strange to relate, burglaries seem to follow in their tracks.

A Princess's Vengeance
Major Druce is engaged to the Turkish Princess Dullah-Veih, but his gaze has been wandering to his mother's amanuensis Mlle Cunier. Now the latter has disappeared, taking only her coat and hat...

Drawn Daggers
Miss Monroe, staying with the Revd and Mrs Hawkes, has lost a valuable diamond necklace but she and Mrs Hawkes wish the matter to be hushed up. Now Mr Hawke is receiving anonymous drawings of daggers, and with his wife conveniently away, he engages Loveday to look into the matter.

The Ghost of Fountain Lane
On holiday in Brighton, Miss Brooke investigates the matter of a blank cheque stolen from Revd Charles Turner, cashed for £600, and returned with the mysterious annotation 144,000 on its reverse. Then there's the ghost....

Miss Irene Golding of Langford Hall, Leicestershire, has disappeared and £500 is offered for aid in finding her. Her Italian maid may know more than she is willing to reveal. The final plot twist will be too weak for many to accept.

My verdict: The collection is not terribly sparkling and occasionally does not play fair with the reader, although its explanations of Miss Brooke's chain of deductions are reasonable and demonstrate one of her main traits: common sense. The stories will however certainly be an interesting read when viewed as an early example of the female detective, although sometimes too slowly paced for most modern readers.

Illustrated etext:

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Review: The Red Seal by Natalie Sumner Lincoln

by Mary

Twins Helen and Barbara McIntyre arrive at court to give evidence against one John Smith, caught burgling the McIntyre mansion. Strange to relate, the sisters ask lawyer Philip Rochester, who happens to be present, to defend Smith, which task he undertakes.

Smith is taken ill as he leaves the witness box and dies, whereupon he is discovered to be in disguise. He is James Turnbull, cashier of the Metropolis Trust Company, Helen's fiance, and Rochester's room mate. Incredibly, all three claim not to have recognised him. Turnbull's angina pectoris is thought to have caused his death, but Helen insists on an autopsy.

It transpires Turnbull was burgling the house because of a silly wager made with Barbara that he could not pull it off. Barbara asks her sweetheart Harry Kent, Rochester's partner in a legal practice, to find out who murdered Turnbull, for she and her sister are convinced his death was the result of foul play.

Soon the deceased Turnbull is suspected of forgery, Rochester goes missing, an eavesdropper lurks at a window, and a handkerchief is suspected as being the murder weapon. To further the busy plot, various characters play pass the red-sealed envelope, whose contents turn out to be the last thing most readers will expect.

My verdict: While the initial pace is slow, it picks up after a few chapters. The solution is complicated, not to say outrageous, so don't try reading The Red Seal if there is anything to distract you from noting every nuance. Cleverly worked red herrings mislead, and the explanation of the characters' roles in the tragedy and subsequent events features what must be the largest number of culprits-named-and-then-it's-someone-else's-turn-to-be-accused many readers will have read -- and all in a single chapter! Or to put it another way, the plot features twists galore. I suspect not many readers will guess whodunnit.

Etext: The Red Seal

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review: A Silent Witness by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

Dr Humphrey Jardine's narration treats of a strange chain of events that befell him when he was newly qualified, at a time when there were still horse-drawn cabs and the descent of dusk saw lamplighters at work.

His adventures began late one evening when he went for a stroll along Millfield Lane on the edge of London's Hampstead Heath. He sees a corpse, a clerical gent going by his garments, lying further up the narrow thoroughfare but when he returns with police reinforcements a few minutes later the body has gone. Naturally enough, the chaps in blue are politely sceptical about what Jardine saw or, as they see it, did not see.

Jardine returns next day to examine the lane and finds a suspicious stain on the fence near where the body had lain. He also picks up a tiny reliquary made of gold, its frayed silk cord suggesting it had been worn as a necklace or in some other way about its owner's person. Climbing up and looking over the fence, he sees obvious tracks leading away from the fence -- taken all together, suggestive circumstances to say the least.

Dr Thorndyke suggests Jardine act as locum tenens for one Dr Batson, thus pitching the young medic into a positive whirlwind of odd goings-on. After a particularly inventive effort at murdering Jardine, Thorndyke's colleague Dr Jervis takes over Jardine's locum tenems position pro tem and investigations get under way to find out who is assiduously trying to dispose of Jardine, a man with, so far as he knows, no enemies and with no relatives liable to benefit by his death.

My verdict: The plot unspools into a web of disturbing incidents, unexpected meetings and re-meetings, attempted murders, and a deserted house which nonetheless tells a great deal as the novel rattles up hill and down dale, or rather lane, in a landscape through which move a pretty young artist with a ferocious aunt, a mysterious stranger afflicted with a rare eye disorder, a Jesuit priest seeking news of a missing friend, and a "downy bird" or two of both genders -- not to mention a hidden portrait. There is much following about of various people and sending of telegrams, and, of course, despite lack of clews, Thorndyke cracks the case, although not in time to...but no, I shall say no more.