Category Archives: Mysteries

Vintage Mysteries: Death, Deduction, Devil Dogs…Who could ask for more?

Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A keeper? Yes, absolutely, definitely, no question

Hound of the Baskervilles? It’s a really good story. Read it.

Oh, you want details? Okay, here we go. Poor Dr. Mortimer is terribly worried, so worried he has to talk to Sherlock Holmes right away. It seems that there’s a legend in his part of the world – Dartmoor in Devon – that a wicked 1600s ancestor of the wealthy Baskerville family has doomed them to be hunted to their deaths by a genuine, for real, hellhound with flaming eyes and jaws. Nonsense? Dr. Mortimer would like to think so. But if it’s just a foolish old superstition, what did terrify his friend Sir Charles Baskerville into running, panicked, until his heart gave out? And what, oh what, left those huge doggy footprints near the body?

Still, Sir Charles is dead. The family curse can’t do anything more to him. But what about the heir, young Sir Henry Baskerville, fresh from farming in Canada and enthusiastic about taking over his new role as the local squire? Nothing Dr. Mortimer or Sherlock Holmes can say will persuade him to stay safely in London.

At this point, Holmes disappears from the story until almost the end. Really, most of the book is Dr. Watson’s chance to shine, and he turns out to be a satisfying hero on his own. He may not be as brilliant as Holmes, but he’s brave and determined and smart enough.

Oh, and did I mention the escaped murderer? And the deadly bogs full of quicksand? And the assorted mysterious ladies? The sinister butler, and the missing boots?

When I first read Hound of the Baskervilles, sometime in my teens, it terrified me. It’s not so frightening now that I know how things work out, but it’s still exciting and interesting. And I like the ending, because Doyle realizes that the people who went through these dreadful experiences would take some time to return to normal – if they ever can.

It’s a good book. Read it.

Vintage mysteries: Unhappy New Year

Review: The Clock Strikes Twelve
by Patricia Wentworth

A keeper? Not her best, but good enough

Some people throw wonderful New Years’ Eve parties. On the other hand, there’s James Paradine.

It’s the end of 1942, and he’s gathered the whole family – including his niece Phyllida’s estranged husband – for a very special dinner. James has an announcement to make: someone has betrayed The Family, and James knows who it is. He intends to sit alone in his study until midnight to give the guilty person a chance to come and confess.

Someone comes, but not to confess. Next morning the butler finds James Paradine cold and dead and thrown over the edge of a balcony onto rocks. Who did it? Hard to say, when so many people could have a motive. There’s the person who stole the gun sight blueprints (that theft is what James was upset about). There’s the person who has been replacing his late wife’s diamonds with fakes. There’s his nephew Mark, who’s in line to inherit the family business and most of the family money. There might be Phyllida’s husband, if he’s angry enough about being kept away from Phyllida – or there might be his sister Grace, who adopted Phyllida years ago and means to make sure she’s the only person Phyllida loves. Or could it be his stepson Frank Ambrose? Frank had a German grandmother – is he spying for the Nazis? And there are four or five other relatives who could have grudges about this or that. The police are doing their best, but will it be good enough?

Mark Paradine hires Miss Silver, the brilliant spinster detective who, as usual, settles quietly into the household and waits and watches and chats and knits. (Miss Silver always knits. This time, she’s knitting an amazingly ugly dark gray and emerald green outfit for her niece’s toddler. In fairness to Miss Silver, wartime rationing left her with no chance to pick prettier colors.) Anyway, after just a couple of days, she points the police toward the right person. As always, there’s a happy ending (well, as happy as possible allowing for recent deaths in the family) for the deserving young lovers.

This isn’t one of Patricia Wentworth’s liveliest stories, but the mystery is well handled and the mixed motives are nicely traced out. (One of the problems, I think, is that we’re expected to split our concern between two star-crossed young couples. Instead of ratcheting up the level of worry over them all, this trick dilutes our interest.) Worth reading for Wentworth fans, but probably not the best Miss Silver story to begin with.

Vintage Mysteries: A swaybacked study

Review: A Study in Scarlet
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A keeper? Yes, but I’ll skip the middle section

What a strangely constructed story. The first half is a wonderful introduction to young Dr. Watson and young Sherlock Holmes, as they meet and get acquainted. Holmes shows off his trademark ability to glance at a stranger and deduce all sorts of odd details about the person; Watson shows off his trademark amazement.

Then Holmes is called in by Scotland Yard to analyze the scene of a murder. The dead man is lying in an abandoned house, with no wound, no obvious cause of death. Nearby, someone has scrawled the strange message “RACHE” on the wall, in scarlet letters. It almost looks as if blood was used for ink!

Holmes and the official detectives squabble over what it all means, and Holmes turns out to be right. (Is anyone surprised?) Of course, in this story Holmes is a young man, full of himself, but not yet accepted as an error-free expert. There’s another death, and a violent brawl, four men struggling to subdue one, before the killer can be arrested. That’s the first half of the story.

And then we leapfrog west several thousand miles from London to Utah and back in time several decades to around 1850, for a drawn-out western that only ties back into the mystery thirty-odd pages later. It could all have been summarized by a sentence or two explaining that the victims killed people who were dear to the murderer; motive is always a good thing, but not when it drags you so far from the story you intended to read. I suppose this part comes from the murderer’s confession – who else could have known about it? But it’s really not needed.

And at last, we find ourselves back – suddenly – in London, listening to Dr. Watson tell us about how the killer was questioned and explained the few details that Holmes hadn’t already figured out about how the crimes were committed. Nice wrapup, but it’s a shame Doyle took such a long detour.

I’ll keep it, though, mostly because it’s only the first hundred pages of a collection of much better, later Holmes stories, and also because I do enjoy the way we’re introduced to Sherlock the One and Only.

(And by the way, I love the cover of my edition. It’s a late-nineteenth-century photo, I suppose of a street in London, and kind of mysterious in its own way. What was the woman we can glimpse on the right doing? What about the man in the bowler hat who’s walking away from us? Is the man a little farther down the street turning around to look at, or speak to, Bowler Hat? What became of the little girl? Because, of course, these were all real people who are caught in a real instant of their lives. And this picture is all we’ll ever know about them.)

Third sentence Thursday – a moment in literary history

(What is Third Sentence Thursday? Open the book you’re reading to a random page. Post the third complete sentence on that page. Add a few comments about the book.)

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

p. 5 – “‘A fellow who is working in the chemical laboratory up in the hospital.'”

Up to this point, the story has been all about Dr. Watson and how he ruined his health as an army doctor in Afghanistan and India. Now the doctor is back in London, living on a pension, and looking for someone to share apartment rent with him. An acquaintance from Watson’s medical school days is starting to tell him about an eccentric young man who needs someone to share expenses with, just like Watson.

World, meet Sherlock Holmes.

Third Sentence Thursday – Is there a dog at all?

The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

p. 52: “He pounded on the panels of the door with his knuckles, and received no answer.”

Perry Mason is trying to locate his client – but nobody’s home at the client’s house except his housekeeper. She’s deaf. Will anyone ever answer the door?

Mason has been doing his best for his new client, Arthur Cartwright. Mr. Cartwright insists that his next door neighbor Clinton Foley trained his dog to howl just to torment Arthur, as well as poor sick Mrs. Foley. He wants the police to put a stop to the howling, but he’s afraid that Clinton Foley will take revenge on him.

Oh, and just in case anything happens to him, Cartwright wants Mason to help him make a cast-iron will leaving everything he has to Mrs. Foley.

Mason calls on an assistant district attorney – who owes him a favor – to start slow with an official letter to Foley. (That proves that this is a very early story; later in the series, nobody in the district attorney’s office would ever admit they owe Mason anything.) Next thing you know, Foley is accusing Cartwright of being a homicidal maniac and offering witnesses who will testify that the dog has never ever howled since it was a puppy. And Cartwright has disappeared.

And so has Mrs. Foley.

Vintage Mysteries – Was it Bob the Dog?

Review – Poirot Loses a Client by Agatha Christie

A keeper? Probably

The case began in mystery. Getting a letter on a morning in late June from an elderly lady with a problem was a normal part of Hercule Poirot’s life. But getting a letter that had been written in the middle of April, over two months earlier? Now, that was strange. That needed an explanation. And finding the explanation called for the talents of Hercule Poirot.

An ordinary detective might have settled for simply asking Miss Arundell why she waited so long to send the letter. But Poirot gets a chance to exercise his little gray cells – because Miss Arundell is dead. Falling down the stairs a few days before writing to him didn’t kill her, and besides, everyone insists that she must have slipped on the ball that Bob the Dog keeps leaving at the top of the stairs. No, no, she died weeks later, and that was perfectly natural too, just more of the liver disease she’d had for years. Everyone in town tells Poirot so when he starts to investigate (together with his friend Hastings, the less intelligent version of Dr. Watson).

What wasn’t natural was her will. Nothing mattered more to Miss Arundell than family, even though she disliked, distrusted, and disapproved of all her relatives. But soon after her fall, she made a new will – and this time, instead of dividing her property evenly among her nephew and her two nieces, she left everything to her annoying hired companion, Miss Lawson. And once she had made the new will, a few days after a seance during which Miss Lawson and her friends the Miss Tripps tell Poirot they saw a luminous mist forming around Miss Arundell’s head, she died.

Miss Lawson is shocked – shocked – by how rich she has become. Theresa Arundell, the pretty, dissipated niece, thinks it’s a real shame she won’t have any of the money to help her fiance Dr. Donaldson with his experiments. Her brother Charles feels sure he can coax some of the cash out of Miss Lawson’s hands and into his wallet. And Bella Tanios, the other niece? Who knows what she thinks? She’s wrapped up in her children, and she seems unwilling to say much of anything in front of her husband, shockingly foreign Dr. Tanios. (He’s Greek! The horror!) Is she afraid of him?

It’s all so perfectly normal. Life goes on; Miss Arundell is dead and can’t act for herself. But Hercule Poirot can act and will act, to prove that her death was deliberate murder, by a calculating killer who’s planning to kill again.

And Bob? Bob the Dog ends up (officially) belonging to Poirot, but he’s found his real soul mate in Hastings. Wuff.

Agatha Christie never writes great literature, but some of her stories are a lot more entertaining than others. I liked this one in spite of the 30’s quasi-racism against Dr. Tanios the Suspiciously Foreign Greek – maybe because the characters who went on and on about how undesirable he was  could very well have been showing their own prejudices instead of speaking for Christie. Meanwhile, the story had a nicely snarled plot and characters who were a little more complex than most of her paper doll people.

And, of course, if you got sick of the mystery you could always join Hastings in playing ball with Bob. Wuff.

Vintage mysteries – A murder full of mothers

Review: Champagne for One by Rex Stout

A keeper? Definitely

Archie Goodwin knew it was going to be an awkward evening. But he let his acquaintance Dinky Byne talk him into going to Mrs. Robilotti’s famous yearly dinner party for a select group of “graduates” from her first husband’s home for unwed mothers.

(A little note on history: Back in the 1950s, a young woman who was pregnant with no husband needed to keep the baby a secret. The newborn was given up for adoption; but what about the couple of months before the baby arrived? Homes for unwed mothers were a solution – apparently a combination of hotel / boarding school / maternity hospital, where she could hide until she looked respectably unpregnant again.)

Anyway, there’s Archie, dining, drinking, and dancing with the four unwed mothers and Mrs. Robilotti’s daughter Celia, and coping pretty well until Rose, one of the mothers, tells him that another mother, Faith Usher, is carrying a bottle of poison. Rose is worried, but Archie assures her that he’ll make sure nothing goes wrong.

A few minutes later, Faith drinks a glass of champagne mixed with cyanide.

Archie insists she couldn’t have poisoned herself, because he was watching her. And however it happened, he’s embarrassed. Archie doesn’t like to be embarrassed. Meanwhile, the police insist it’s inappropriate to embarrass such a respected citizen (such a rich woman, that is) as Mrs. Robilotti by calling it murder. Everybody insists there was no way to predict who would end up with the poisoned glass.

So if it wasn’t suicide and can’t have been murder, why is she dead?

Archie’s boss Nero Wolfe is the obvious person to solve that puzzle. But Wolfe does nothing for free. Not a problem. Somebody saw to it that the father of Faith’s baby was one of the guests at the party, and before long Wolfe is hired to find out what happened and keep the babydaddy’s name out of it.

Wolfe gets off to a bad start, and has to have it pointed out by one of the mothers, who tells him that he’s asking her exactly the same questions the police did. So Wolfe takes one of his patented several-bushels-of-air deep breaths and starts over. Faith seems to have been totally alone in the world – no old friends, no relatives except a mother she hated. Where, he asks, is Faith’s mother?

Of course the crew of assistant detectives finds her. Better yet, the one and only Saul Panzer tails her to a restaurant, and decides to hide in the same alley that Archie – who’s tailing someone else entirely – is already hiding in. Once Wolfe learns that those two suspicious characters know each other, it takes him no time at all to unearth the motive and put on a minidrama to show Inspector Cramer exactly how the murderer finagled the poisoned glass of champagne into Faith’s hand.

Faith’s still dead, and the killer is in big trouble, but everybody else gets a happy ending. Including Wolfe: the client pays up without a struggle, so he can sit back and spend the next few months growing orchids, his second favorite thing in the world, and eating fine food, his very favorite thing.

Vintage mysteries: Two books, two names, one writer

I’m going to double up on some of these writing challenge reviews – I was overambitious, and I’ll never manage to comment on all of the books individually. So, here’s my first twin review:

Review: The Problem of the Green Capsule
by John Dickson Carr

A keeper? Yes

Marcus Chesney loved to lecture people about how little most of us really notice. One night, he staged a little show to prove it – his friends and family had to sit in a dark room watching what happened in his adjoining office and getting ready to answer his questions, after the show, about what had just happened. (How did he get them to cooperate? Well, he was rich, and they had hardly any money except what he doled out.)

It was quite a show, too, especially when the weird-looking man in a long tight raincoat and gloves and top hat and dark glasses, with a scarf wrapped around his head to hide his face, stalked into the brightly lit room where Marcus sat “writing”. The intruder went up to Marcus, seized his chin, tipped his head back, and forced a green gelatine capsule into his mouth and down his throat – then turned and walked out. Oh, but it was all part of the show! Marcus pretended to collapse, and then announced that the show was over – the “invisible man” with the green capsule was his assistant Wilbur Emmett. And by the way, where was Wilbur?

It took only a few minutes to find him, outdoors unconscious under a bush, with his skull cracked. Get a doctor! But just then Marcus really collapsed – the green capsule was full of cyanide, and in a few more minutes Marcus was dead.

Was Marcus so passionate about his theories that he would stage his own murder? At least the whole show was filmed, so the police have a chance to study what really happened. Or do they?

Review: Nine – and Death Makes Ten by Carter Dickson

A keeper? Yes, again

(Apparently that grotesque cover is a reissue of the original 1940 design.)

There’s a whole group of vintage mysteries that are often called “country house” stories – get a handful of people isolated in a big old-fashioned English country house, and let the murders begin. Of course, there are various ways of setting up a limited pool of suspects, and this book uses a clever one: set the story on a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic in the first year of World War II, when only the foolish or desperate would risk being sunk by German submarines with  torpedoes.

The Edwardic sets sail from New York City to “a British port” with eight passengers listed. Or are there nine? Anyway, when somebody cuts Estelle Zia Bey’s throat on the second evening at sea, it can’t be that hard to identify the killer. Whoever it was left several fingerprints in her cabin. Before long, everyone on board has been fingerprinted and the prints have been studied – and the prints from Mrs. Zia Bey’s cabin don’t match anybody!

It’s a trick, of course, with more and more tricks behind it. And as the killer feels more and more trapped, more people will die. But is there a spy on board trying to signal enemy ships? Even if they can catch Estelle’s murderer, will any of them survive this voyage?

(Most of the Carter Dickson books are comic, or try to be comic. This one has a convincingly tense atmosphere, probably because, as Dickson explains in a note at the beginning, he based the situation on an Atlantic crossing he made in late 1939.)

Hmm, the authors sure have similar names, don’t they?

Back in the thirties through the fifties, people who liked mysteries involving impossible puzzles could choose from the latest books by either John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson. The two men had slightly different “flavors” – Carter Dickson liked to throw in some slapstick comedy with his series detective Sir Henry Merrivale – but other than that, their stories were so similar you’d think they were written by the same person.

And they were. John Dickson Carr wrote an amazing number of books, even for that period when popular writers churned out a couple of stories a year; so many that he felt he needed to use a different name for some of them. (I assume he got all the money, though.)

Anyway, these are two good examples of his work, even though neither one involves the “locked room” situations he was famous for. (Maybe because of that. Some of his locked rooms are pretty far-fetched.) Both have genuinely scary moments, and both lean harder on confusing you about the characters’ real personalities than on expecting the killer to pull off unbelievably complicated stunts.

Vintage mysteries: Poor pitiful Evelyn

Review: The Case of the Restless Redhead
by Erle Stanley Gardner

A keeper? Yes, I think so –
the poor thing has already been rescued once

(A couple of years ago my husband took a weekend to explore the Pennsylvania mountains with cameras. On the way through a small semivertical town, he noticed that their library was having a book sale, and had no choice but to stop. He came home with a cardboard box full of well-used discarded hardback Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries; I was thrilled.

And that’s how I met Evelyn Bagby, the Restless Redhead.)

Anyway, Evelyn has had a rough time. First her acting coach disappeared with just about every penny she owned, so she’s had to spend several years slowly working her way to Los Angeles to start her destined career as a movie star.

She’d be in Hollywood already if her car hadn’t given up in the small town of Corona, not far from L.A. – where she was arrested for stealing jewelry from the famous movie star Helene Chesney. Who, it turns out, used to be married to Evelyn’s thieving acting coach and is being blackmailed by him. But never mind that; Evelyn’s in trouble here. Her young lawyer is panicking at his first big case and botching the cross-examination, until the one and only Perry Mason wanders into the courtroom and takes an interest.

Next thing you know, Perry has taken Evelyn under his wing and found her a job, and is representing her in negotiating a settlement for false arrest. But who left a gun in her dresser drawer…and why?

Still, Evelyn’s glad she has the gun when a mysterious masked man tries to run her off the road as she drives down from the mountains. She fires a couple of shots out the window and scares him off; at least, she doesn’t see him again. Perry is worried, though, and makes her report the attack to the sheriff…who finds a masked man, dead, shot, in an upside-down car at the bottom of a ravine. Oh, and it turns out that the corpse is Evelyn’s acting coach, Helene’s husband.

But it was all just an unfortunate accident, or maybe self-defense, right? Well…once the police get a better look at the dead man, they notice that there’s no bullet hole in the mask – which was made out of a pillowcase like the ones on Evelyn’s bed and covers his whole head. Was he chasing her wearing the mask? Maybe. But he wasn’t wearing it when he was shot. Somebody climbed down to the wrecked car and put the mask on him, or else put the body in the car and then ran the car over the cliff.

And the story gets much more confusing. There are multiple bullets, a reclusive artist, and an arrogant businessman who’s engaged to Helene (remember Helene?) or maybe to her best friend Irene. After about 250 pages of red herrings, green herrings, and probably plaid herrings, Perry Mason dramatically unmasks the real murderer and the real motive in court – as he usually does.

It was kind of fun to try to make sense of the complicated adventures of the various bullets. And the story held my attention. I’ll keep it because most Perry Masons make entertaining reading every four or five years, if you let them sit until you forget the plot. But overall, this is a grade C Mason – one of the stories that relies too much on characters and events that appear out of nowhere. At the end, it leaves you shaking your head and asking “Who was that killer? And what was the explanation of the murder again??”

My third Third Sentence Thursday

The Masque of the Black Tulip, Lauren Willig, p. 65:

“If Miles could have also stripped himself of his white silk stockings and knee breeches, he would have, but somehow, he thought he’d arouse more attention striding in there buck-naked than he would clad as though for a court audience.”

Got your attention yet? We’re in the midst of a Regency spy story. Miles Dorrington, an undercover agent of His Majesty’s government in the war against Napoleon, is following a suspicious gentleman through the slums of London, and he’s dressed to kill because the chase started from an elegant evening at Almack’s. The suspect has just slipped into a low-life pub, and Miles has removed and hidden his jeweled shoe buckles before following. Even without jewels, he’s going to be obviously out of place. But there really isn’t much more he can do to change his appearance without making things even worse.

A page or two earlier, we get treated to a wonderful mangling of one of those detective story cliches. The suspect left Almack’s in a sedan chair carried by two strong men (a fairly common type of London transportation in those days). Miles jumps into the next available one and orders the front-end carrier, “Follow that chair!”

(The carrier just says, “That’ll be extra if you want me to run.”)