Category Archives: Mysteries

Vintage Mysteries: Sinister teacups

Review: The Peacock Feather Murders
by Carter Dickson

A keeper? Yes – a sinister setup
and tight plot full of surprises

Now, this is a locked room mystery.

First, Scotland Yard receives a letter warning them about funny business to come, giving an address and date. It’s almost identical to a letter they received two years ago – and that time there was a very strange murder that hasn’t been solved yet. Back then, a famous antique collector was found shot to death in an empty house. Ten valuable majolica teacups – they look like they’re painted with peacock feathers – had been set out on a table nearby.

Chief Inspector Masters isn’t going to stand for a repeat, so he sets a watch on the house. No one lives there; it’s for sale. Young Sergeant Bob Pollard gets keys from the realtor and searches the building. After that, he knows for sure it’s empty except, maybe, for a locked room in the attic. Pollard hides and waits, while more policemen watch the front door from the house across the street. Late in the afternoon Vance Keating – an acquaintance of Pollard’s – comes to the house, climbs the stairs, and lets himself into the attic room.

Before long Pollard hears a scream and two shots. He rushes in and finds Keating dying from a shot in the back of his head and another shot from behind that broke his spine. An old-fashioned six-shooter lies on the floor nearby. There are powder burns around both wounds, so Keating must have been shot from a short distance.

And there’s nobody in the room except Keating and Pollard. Nothing there at all except a table covered by a cloth worked with gold thread in a peacock feather design, and ten black teacups arranged around the edge of the table. Keating was murdered, and the police themselves can testify that nobody was in the room to kill him.

That’s only the start, of course. But from the very beginning, Chief Inspector Masters is not a happy man. He never approves of impossible murders, and he’s haunted by them. Still, where you find Masters and an impossible crime, you know Sir Henry Merrivale will turn up to figure out exactly what really happened. H.M. grumbles his way through the investigation while Masters nearly gets arrested for – apparently – assaulting an uncooperative witness; more mysterious notes arrive; and one of the suspects gets entangled with a truly gruesome piece of furniture.

And the end? Was there any doubt? Sir Henry explains everything, Masters arrests the guilty parties, and the world makes sense once more, except for the mysteries of human motives – which are too much for even H.M. to unravel.

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Vintage Mysteries: Too many eyes

Review: The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
by Erle Stanley Gardner

A keeper? A little out of focus, but yes

Where to start? Maybe I should tell you about Perry Mason’s new client, Pete Brunold, a one-eyed man who’s so concerned about how he looks that he has a whole wardrobe of custom-made artificial eyes. Now somebody has stolen his “hangover” eye and replaced it with a cheap fake…

But this story really starts twenty-odd years earlier, around 1910, with a traveling salesman (our friend Pete) and an innocent country girl. When he gets word about their coming baby, he grabs the next train to hurry back and marry her. After the train wreck, he spends months in the hospital, and by the time he’s able to try again to reach her, she has vanished. In other Perry Mason mysteries, this background would influence everything that happens in the story…not this one, though.

But let’s get back to the present day of 1935. Mason’s new client is worried that someone will use the stolen eye to frame him for a crime, but never mind that. Mason has yet another new client; this one’s a spoiled brat of an embezzler, but Perry feels sorry for his big sister and takes the case. Next thing you know, Hartley Basset (the embezzler’s boss) is found dead, clutching a glass eye. And the boss’s stepson’s wife – yes, the relationships are getting confusing, aren’t they – was knocked down by a masked, one-eyed man running out of the room where her, um, stepfather-in-law lies dead. (In a few more pages, she’ll disappear from the story.)

When Mason first sees the body, there’s no gun in sight – but soon afterwards, when the police arrive, there’s a gun lying near Hartley Basset’s empty hand, the one that’s not full of glass eye. And he’s lying on another gun. Oh, and he has a third gun in a shoulder holster…

Not long after that, Pete Brunold and Sylvia Basset (Hartley’s widow, and Pete’s girlfriend of twenty years ago) are both on trial for murdering Hartley. Since they’re Mason’s clients, we know they aren’t guilty. But that’s about all we can be sure of as the story twists and lurches from one situation to another. By the end, there are too many glass eyes, too many guns, and way too many criminals of various sorts for me to keep track of exactly what did happen.

But if you want to know the technical ins and outs of making artificial eyes using 1930’s technology, this is an excellent introduction.

Mystery and Suspense Challenge: Where’s the body?

Book Review: One Virgin Too Many
by Lindsey Davis

A keeper? Yes

If you’re a private detective (newly rich because it turns out you’re also a natural born tax auditor), what do you do when a poor little rich girl, about six years old, turns up – escorted by some of the family slaves – to announce that one of her relatives wants to kill her?

If you’re Marcus Didius Falco, and you already have enough problems making sure your own nieces – whose father, your no-good brother-in-law Famia, was recently and shamefully executed by a lion – are being taken care of, you just might pat her on the head and send her home. And then worry about it for days afterwards.

Not that little Gaia Laelia is Falco’s only worry. There’s his brother-in-law, Aelianus the twit, who has decided to become respectable by joining the priesthood of the Arval Brethren – and promptly stumbles over a body. Except when Aelianus takes Falco to investigate, there’s no body anywhere to be found. On the other hand, there seems to be an awful lot of blood-soaked grass…

And then there are the geese. Now that Falco has money, Emperor Vespasian has finally promoted him to the equestrian class, and given him an official job: Procurator of the Poultry, responsible for the sacred geese and the augurs’ chickens. There are probably more embarrassing responsibilities for a Roman citizen to be saddled with – but not many, and none noisier.

But what about Gaia? Could she really be in danger? Falco’s eight-year-old niece Cloelia has met her; they’re both among the candidates to be chosen as the newest Vestal Virgin. And Cloelia seems to think there was something wrong about Gaia’s family. It’s almost impossible to investigate, though. Gaia’s grandfather is the retired Flamen Dialis, former high priest of Jupiter, who doesn’t quite seem to realize that he’s retired; he expects total deference from everyone.

And getting back to Aelianus, it’s pretty hard to investigate a missing corpse, but Falco manages to dig up evidence that there really was a murder. More than a murder: it almost sounds as if a woman invaded the grounds of the Arval Brethren and killed the victim as if he was a bull intended for sacrifice. And, oh yes: Gaia seems to be missing.

Falco being Falco, he eventually proves that there’s one killer at fault in all the strangeness. He even locates little Gaia, still alive. Of course, Falco being Falco, his heroic rescue leaves him head down in the depths of a well with his tunic over his face, clutching the terrified child while being hauled up bare-bottomed to the snickers of his best friends…

Book reviews and Regency mayhem

Annnd – it’s a twofer! Just because I recently finished reading two books involving catching criminals that are more or less based on the Regency Romance.

I enjoyed both of them, mostly, but I think one approach worked a lot better than the other. So let’s see what we can figure out about what works and what doesn’t in telling a story, while we’re at it.

Review: Maggie Without a Clue

A keeper? Fer sure.

Speaking of Regency romances, somebody has to write them. That’s how Maggie Kelly makes her living. She’s a modern girl in modern New York, but her workdays are spent inventing mysteries for Alexandre Blake, Viscount St. Just, and his sidekick Sterling, to solve in London in the days of the Napoleonic Wars. She’s good at creating lifelike characters, so good that St. Just has decided to take charge of his own destiny. Three books ago, he and Sterling poofed into three-dimensional, solid, independent life in Maggie’s living room.

A period of adjustment followed.

By this story, the situation has kind of stabilized. St. Just has recognized that, in this world, he’s not independently wealthy, and he’s correcting that little problem by organizing street theater and starting a modeling career (since, like any good romantic hero, he’s dramatically handsome). Sterling has accepted twenty-first century technology and fads with great enthusiasm. Maggie has gritted her teeth about sharing her small apartment with both of them. Oh, and St. Just (who has accepted the alias of Alex Blake, Maggie’s English cousin) keeps solving crimes, annoying Maggie’s semi-boyfriend police detective Steve Wendell immensely.

Ah, but at least one part of the situation is about to improve! Poor old Mrs. Goldblum, who lives across the hall from Maggie, has offered her apartment to Alex and Sterling, since she has to hurry off and take care of her sick sister. Or is that an improvement? Never mind that Maggie’s friend Bernice has just found her husband – the one she thought drowned almost seven years ago – dead in her bed, and the police consider her the obvious suspect; what about the thugs who keep roughing up Sterling and searching Mrs. Goldblum’s apartment for something or other?

Alex intends to assert his independence from being only what Maggie wrote him to be. Also, he isn’t about to let Bernie get railroaded, and he’s definitely not going to put up with his new home and his old friend being attacked. He is, after all, the hero.

But what will his new independence do to his budding romance with Maggie?

I enjoyed this one. The mystery was pretty well worked out – including unexpected discoveries about Mrs. Goldblum, who isn’t all that poor and helpless. Maggie’s romantic tug of war between Steve and Alex continues; her friends and enemies are a colorful crowd who keep the story moving; Sterling’s and Alex’s adjustment to life in the real world and the current day is well handled.

Review: The Masque of the Black Tulip
by Lauren Willig

A keeper? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Once upon a time, back around the beginning of the twentieth century, the Scarlet Pimpernel helped to protect England from the French under Napoleon. Turns out he had help; a whole team of helpers with various color-coded code names. Lauren Willig is out to tell us all about their adventures undercover.

But so much for what’s happening around about 1800; what’s happening today? Well, there’s this American graduate student who’s researching the Pimpernel’s assistants, and she’s just found some new information.

But meanwhile, Miles Dorrington is hot on the trail of that notorious French spy, the Black Tulip, while keeping a protective (not romantic! absolutely not!) eye on Lady Henrietta Selwick. After all, he promised Hen’s brother, his best friend, that he’d take care of her, even if it means spending the evening at Almack’s. And at Almack’s, Miles stumbles across suspicious behavior that sends him into the slums of London after – maybe – the Tulip.

Oh, by the way, in our time that graduate student is having an awkward time dealing with Colin Selwick, who controls access to the long-lost correspondence that should clarify what the Pimpernel’s assistants were up to.

Meanwhile, Hen corresponds with her friend Amy in code – for both of them are involved in the Pimpernel’s circle too. She also goes into childish snits that might be appropriate for a sixteen-year-old high school student, but seem odd for a twenty year old brought up in a time when, we’re told, polite, formal behavior was important. And she gets caught – by Miles – hiding behind a bush in Hyde Park to spy on him when he takes the seductive Marquise for a drive.

Eager to find out what happens next? Sorry, time to check up on the modern characters again. They may be dull beyond words, but we can’t expect you to keep reading about all these old-timey folks that you can’t identify with, right? (Turns out that I really, really hate stories that try to split your attention between two completely different casts in two different centuries. Ahem.)

Well, eventually we find out, kind of abruptly, who is and who isn’t a spy. And the obvious couple admits they’re in love, after finding themselves compromised and having to elope, but okay, we’ve spent enough time in each of their heads to know they really want to get married anyhow. Oddly, I actually did enjoy the Regency parts of the book – maybe because they were so over-the-top. I hated being dragged back to the present day for no discernible reason, though. And I don’t know that the Regency story would hold up to re-reading; the characters had a tendency to lurch from situation to situation without much thought about what they were doing.

* * *

So – what works? First off, throwing yourself wholeheartedly into your story without worrying whether or not it’s silly. Both books feature overdone characters and situations; that’s a large part of their charm, and the weakest parts of the Black Tulip seemed to be included to assure us that the Regency story had some evidence to back it up. Second, give some thought to who these characters really are, and make them behave as if they have some idea of who they are, too. And if you can squeeze it in, let their personalities develop a bit without changing into somebody unrecognizable. Okay?

Mystery and Suspense Challenge – Where’s the money?

Review: Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

A keeper? Sure

Ten years ago (book time), four guys robbed a bank in Trenton, New Jersey. Only one of them was arrested, and the money never turned up. Now Dom Rizzi is out of jail, mad at the world, and determined to get his share of the loot. He thinks it’s in his Aunt Rose’s house, or at least that a clue to finding the money is there. But Aunt Rose is dead, and who inherited her house? His rotten cousin Joe Morelli the cop, that’s who.

Worse yet, his nephew Zook (well, technically, his name’s Mario Rizzi, but what kind of name is that for a serious online gamer?) is living with Morelli because Zook’s mother Loretta is in jail and Morelli’s sometime girlfriend Stephanie Plum the bounty hunter promised Loretta that she’d make sure Zook had someplace to stay.

Are you confused yet? Just relax and enjoy the ride. Summarizing the plot of a Stephanie Plum story is worse than a waste of time; it’s a short route to head-spinning befuddlement. What we have here is fast-moving farce with cops and robbers and miscellaneous other offenders who didn’t get out of jail free. Instead they had to post bond, with a little help from Stephanie’s boss who advanced the money. And when they don’t show up for their court date, it’s Steph’s job to locate them and bring them back to the police. She’s not very good at it. But somehow, she gets by.

A word of warning for those who object to raunchy language: these are not the books for you. You won’t find really explicit scenes, but there are incidents like the elderly man Stephanie has to track down who doesn’t like to wear pants. So she ends up spreading newspaper on the back seat of her car and taking him to the cop shop bottomless. And Steph can’t make up her mind between Morelli (totally hot, probably husband-and-father material, but as bullheaded as she is) and Ranger (even hotter, dangerous, mysterious, absolutely not husband material, and inexplicably fond of her).

There’s a large cast of characters who have accumulated over the course of the series – each book has a numbered title – and many of the regulars show up in Fearless Fourteen. (Including Stephanie’s friend Lula the retired ho’, who has decided to get engaged to her boyfriend Tank, whether he knows it or not.) This one actually has a more coherent story than some of the Plum books, since there’s an ongoing theme of trying to find the other three bank robbers and the money, and rescue Zook’s mother Loretta (who gets kidnapped by the robbers), and keep Zook from spraypainting Morelli’s entire neighborhood…. But there are more than enough detours, one-shot self-contained scenes, plots that start out separate and get entangled in the robbery story, and general chaos to keep you from focusing on anything too hard.

Third Sentence Thursday: Why ask for trouble?

The Chinese Gold Murders
by Robert van Gulik

p. 18: “There is still time; you could easily plead a sudden indisposition and ask for ten days’ sick leave.”

It’s the fourteenth year of Emperor Kao-tsung (663 a.d.). We’re in the capital of the vast Chinese empire listening to two young men try to persuade their good friend Dee Jen-chieh not to throw away his chance at a successful career. After all, all three of them have promising beginner-level positions in the heart of the imperial government. Why should Dee choose to become the magistrate responsible for a distant provincial town?

But Dee – Judge Dee, the hero of van Gulik’s series of mysteries – is determined to test his abilities with a post far off in Peng-Lai, doing work that actually means something instead of spending years writing memos. So his friend Secretary Hou reminds him that the previous magistrate was murdered – and nobody knows why or who the killer is. Hou urges Dee to use any excuse to back out of this idiotic plan.

Of course, Judge Dee doesn’t listen. Heroes don’t.

Mystery and Suspense Challenge: An honest man in an evil world

Review: Graveyard Dust by Barbara Hambly

A keeper? Yes.

New Orleans, 1834. A fine city, if you’re rich, white, and ruthless. Otherwise, not so much.

Benjamin January is almost broke (being a musician doesn’t pay very well, especially in summer when all the rich people leave the city), very black, and compassionate. He has only a few things going for him: Freedom, as long as he can prove it (he carries several carefully hidden sets of papers documenting his status as a free man with him wherever he goes). A good education that qualified him as both a classical musician and a doctor, thanks to the man who bought January’s mother to be his mistress and freed her and her children. Several good friends (though how much can January trust the white ones, his colleague the consumptive violinist Hannibal Sefton or the “Kaintuck” (Kentuckian) policeman Shaw?). His family, especially his married sister Olympe and her husband.

Now Olympe has been arrested and charged with selling poison to kill young Isaak Jumon. There’s no body, but Isaak’s brother Antoine swears that he was taken on a long midnight carriage ride to a mysterious house where he was left with his dying brother for several hours, then taken home just as strangely. (But Antoine takes opium; how much of his story was a drugged dream?) Meanwhile, Isaak’s mother Genevieve – who, like January’s mother, was a “placee”, an ex-slave mistress of a rich white man – is trying to get control of the money Isaak inherited from his father by claiming that Isaak is her slave!

But January lives in a world full of greedy, unscrupulous people – Genevieve Jumon is far from the worst. There are rivalries between the old French upper class of the city and the newly arrived Americans. There are many humiliating laws and customs that “people of color”, slave and free, ignore at their peril. There’s a city government determined to insist that, no matter how many people die in the prison, no yellow fever and certainly no cholera has reached New Orleans. There are prostitutes of all ages. There are hired assassins – one is after January. There’s an uncounted number of voodoo practioners (including Olympe), headed by the notorious Marie Laveau, who winds up as one of January’s allies in finding out what happened to Isaak Jumon.

And there’s Isaak’s grandmother Cordelia, once a beauty of the French court before the Revolution, a truly evil woman noted for unusual cruelty to her slaves and her sons alike. But Cordelia is very old now; does she have enough strength left to be the killer in this case? Maybe not. Even so, if you read this story prepare to be genuinely shocked at the crimes of one of the characters; they go far beyond the usual greed and revenge motives of mystery stories.

And Benjamin January? An honest man doing his best to keep his head above water in a harsh world, an intelligent man trying to understand the people around him, a strong, brave, and determined man struggling to protect the people he loves, a man who can coax information out of people at almost every level of his society and keep his own thoughts to himself. If he can’t save Olympe from the hangman and the yellow fever that’s killing one prisoner after another, nobody can.