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.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Golden Age Mystery Review: The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley by Louis Tracy

by Mary

Artist John Trenholme is staying in the Hertfordshire village of Roxton, having gone there at the request of a magazine to do paintings of the local area before the railway arrives and ruins everything. His request to thus immortalise a nearby Elizabethan mansion is rebuffed by its owner, Mortimer Fenley, private banker and father of two half-brothers.

Trenholme finds out there's a public right of way across Fenley's parkland and on a lovely June morning he avails himself of it to paint the view -- which includes a young woman in a bathing suit taking a morning dip in the lake. He is thus on the spot to hear the shot that kills Fenley on his own doorstep. At this point one of my favourite sleuthing teams, Superintendent James Leander Winter and Detective Inspector Charles Francois Furneaux, arrive on stage when Scotland Yard is called in by oldest son Hilton Fenley. To add to the family's troubles, both siblings wish to marry their father's beautiful ward Sylvia Manning -- she of the bathing suit -- which worsens the already bad blood between them.

The younger son Robert is a ne'er-do-well who was in London when his father died, or was he? Could the murder be connected to a bond robbery at the Fenley Bank? How was the seemingly impossible crime committed when a prime suspect was known to be in the house when the murderous shot was fired from a wood some 400 yards away?

My verdict: Much as I have enjoyed the Winter & Furneaux stories, I must mark this one as a B. The Fenleys are curiously thin as characters and I felt the lesser players in the drama were more rounded out, probably because Tracy provides a different angle for the traditional supporting cast. Thus for example we have the oft bibulous butler depicted instead as a wine connoisseur and the village bobby as intelligent and quick thinking. On the other hand, the touch of melodrama towards the end of the novel seems somewhat out of place and prospective readers should be aware there are a few comments of an un-PC nature.

Etext: The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley by Louis Tracy

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: The Albert Gate Mystery by Louis Tracy

by Mary

The Albert Gate Mystery: Being Further Adventures of Reginald Brett, Barrister Detective, by Louis Tracy, begins with a locked, heavily guarded London mansion where more than one crime is committed in a single night, and then moves back and forth over the English Channel and around the Mediterranean.

Barrister Reginald Brett takes note of two items in the morning paper. The first reports an "affair of some magnitude" at a mansion in Albert Gate, London. Details are scanty so speculation is rife but what is known is that a party of high-ranking Turkish gentlemen, servants, and guards are living in the house under strict security. What's more, fourteen expert diamond-cutters have shown up from Amsterdam and are working there daily.

The previous night the Dutch visitors and the various Turkish attendants were detained at Scotland Yard, and Dr. Tennyson Coke, "the greatest living authority on toxicology", is among medical wallahs being consulted by the authorities.

What does it all mean?

Brett thinks it may well be connected to a brief note in the same paper reporting a close relative of the Turkish Sultan has it off to France in suspicious circumstances.

Brett has hardly started to connect the dots when the Earl of Stanhope shows up in an awful bate. It seems his fiancee, Edith Talbot, refuses to marry him until her brother Jack is located and cleared of wrongdoing.The Foreign Office put Jack in charge of arrangements for the Turkish visitors and their priceless gems and not only has Jack disappeared, so have the diamonds -- and five men have been murdered at the mansion, including the Turkish envoy, His Excellency Mehemet Ali Pasha.

And all this takes place before the end of the first chapter!

Brett agrees to take the case and goes to visit Edith Talbot, who tells him that due to the various precautions taken and certain structural alterations made before the Turkish gents arrived it was absolutely impossible for anyone to get into the house except through the front door and an entrance hall where a dozen policemen and an inspector stood guard.

Thus begins a merry chase that ultimately leads Brett and his companions across France and beyond.

My verdict: Fans of the impossible crime will find the explanation is disappointing but Brett is an interesting character. He is an analytical detective of the Holmesian type but deduces information and future actions based upon observation and rumination rather than extensive knowledge of bicycle tracks or cigar ash. Because these feats occur only occasionally in the narrative readers will find them convincing. The Scotland Yard detective turns out not to be so dim-witted as usually thought, and GAD fans will not be surprised at the thorough thrashing administered to a man instrumental in casting mud on the reputation of Edith's brother. One piece of justice meted out towards the close is so fitting that despite possible moral outrage on the part of some readers, bearing in mind the character's attitude (valiantly trying to avoid spoilers) I suspect most of them will laugh out loud....

Etext: The Albert Gate Mystery

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Inventing a Religion...or Not

Today at Poe's Deadly Daughters Mary and I write about the time we invented a religion for one of our Byzantine mysteries...or was it really imaginary?

Inventing a Religion...or Not.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Lord Chamberlain Lives!

by Eric

 photo c6d9849f2b7d71353348953c653ae62f_zpsfec68715.jpg Our writing has more energy than I do right now. It's still getting out and about. For example, the second ever John the Lord Chamberlain story is now available as an ebook from Head of Zeus. Under the title A Mithraic Mystery it appeared in 1995 in The Mammoth Collection of Historical Whodunnits and Historical Detectives. Our first Byzantine mystery (A Byzantine Mystery!) was a very short puzzle oriented story in which the the Lord Chamberlain was little more than a cypher, and honestly, not much like our subsequent sleuth. (We think it was malicious gossip passed on by Procopios) When editor Mike Ashley asked us for a second tale about John we decided to start fleshing the character out. For the Head of Zeus reissue we did extensive rewriting and we hope it can serve as a short intro to the series under the new title:

The Body in the Mithraeum

Byzantium AD 533: In a secret underground temple, the victim was blindfolded, bound with entrails and cut open with knife. In blood, a scrawled message: 'thus perish all who hate the Lord of Light'. Who could have performed such an abomination? Why has the Empress Theodora taken such a personal interest? John's investigation will lead him into world of hidden cults and lethal palace secrets.

The Body in the Mithraeum at Head of Zeus.

 photo 886deaf76d9ad08d4433bfcf38d33b55_zps84f5ca10.jpg For a much longer intro you can now purchase the first four novels of the series in an e-book "boxed set":

NOTE: We have suggested they might correct the spelling on the cover image!! Consider this .jpg a collector's item.

DEATH IN BYZANTIUM: At the heart of what is left of the Roman Empire, lies a city simmering with intrigue & treachery. Amid this maelstrom stands John, ex-slave, now the right hand of Emperor Justinian. It is John's skills as an investigator that Justinian prizes the most. But the emperor is not a sentimental man. Nor is he a patient one. John knows his position is precarious. One misstep and his enemies may have him. And if they don't, the emperor himself almost certainly will.

ONE FOR SORROW: When the body of a high-ranking treasury official is found in a filthy alley, John's investigation stirs the ghosts of his past and threatens his life.

TWO FOR JOY: John must discover why three of Constantinople's holy stylites have burned to death atop their pillars.

THREE FOR A LETTER: The murder of a child threatens Justinian's dreams of resurrecting the glory of Roman Empire. John will need all his wits to keep his job... and his head.

FOUR FOR A BOY: In this series prequel, John the slave takes his first steps along the dangerous path that will lead him to become Justinian's Lord Chamberlain.

Death in Byzantium

Lastly, Poisoned Pen Press will be publishing Ten for Dying in March, but more about that later.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: The Secret House by Edgar Wallace

by Mary

As is usual with Wallace's works, The Secret House gallops off to a cracking good start with a seedy fellow being interviewed for a job as assistant to the editor of a scandal rag called The Gossip's Corner -- an editor whose face is concealed during the interview by a bag-like fine silk veil tied under his chin. That would give most people pause, but the applicant takes it in his stride and gets the job.

Not long afterwards a millionaire named Farrington overhears two men arguing virtually on his doorstep about turning in the notorious blackmailer Montague Fallock, a man of whom there is no known photograph. Suddenly two shots are heard and both men lie dead.

Naturally when the police arrive Farrington's house is searched. Assistant commissioner T. B. Smith of Scotland Yard (who happens to live in the same London square) discovers the millionaire's area door is ajar. Not only that but he also picks up a gold scent bottle with the same perfume he detected in Farrington's hall although it is not that used by Doris Gray, Farrington's niece and ward. The only other clue is a silver locket engraved with a couple of lines whose meaning is unfathomable, discovered on one of the dead men.

Among other characters the reader meets Frank Doughton, who loves Doris, adventurer Count Paltavo, Doughton's rival for her affections, Lady Constance Dex, friend to Farrington and Doris, and Dr Fall, physician to Mr Jim Moole. Mr Moole is the never seen eccentric owner of The Secret House in the village of Great Bradley, and many are the stories told about him.

My verdict: The plot is a rich stew of sinister foreigners, fraud, murder, the search for a missing heir, a most peculiar will left by a suicide, disappearances, rooms that change in the twinkling of the proverbial eye, revenge, and much more besides. While some elements are far-fetched, still it's one of those yarns carrying the reader along at a breakneck pace until an unusual denouement putting Smith in danger of...well, better not say, but as a hint alert the reader to consider the estate on which stands The Secret House.