Tag Archives: Vintage Mystery Challenge

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: Switchbacks

Review: The Case of the One-Eyed Witness
by Erle Stanley Gardner

A keeper? Yes – this one’s confusing fun

We lived in California for two years when I was a child, and one thing I remember was switchbacks. Driving up into the mountains, the road would climb steadily up the side of a cliff for what seemed like a long time, then suddenly it would turn almost 180 degrees and continue climbing, but going the opposite direction.

Perry Mason seldom leaves California, so I guess it’s appropriate that this story is full of switchbacks. It starts when Mason’s dinner with his girlfriend / secretary Della Street is interrupted twice. First, he gets a phone call from a terrified woman who tells him she’s sending him money, then hangs up before telling him any of the important details except for a name and address. Soon afterwards, a girl whose job is to wander from table to table selling cigarettes bursts into tears at him and tells Perry and Della a pitiful story. It seems that her ex-husband stole her baby and sold it for adoption, and she doesn’t dare try to get the child back because she’s part Japanese. (This book was published in 1950, only five years after World War II. Was prejudice against the Japanese that strong back then? I suppose so, since the story had to sound plausible to the original readers. Fortunately, this is only a small part of the setup.)

Anyway, Perry’s got a paid-up but nameless client and a bit of contact information to use to unravel the situation – but his only contact is killed when the man’s house burns down later that night. Now what? Well, Paul Drake, Perry’s private detective, manages to trace the woman who phoned. Oops – she’s vanished and her husband is very evasive; is she still alive?

Well, of course she is. Her husband’s the one who gets murdered. So Perry digs in getting ready to defend her. The only little problem is that she insists she never phoned Perry or sent him money. She seems obsessed with protecting her son – well, her adopted son. Hmm. Turns out she was being blackmailed – the blackmailers claim her son’s birth mother is part Japanese, and they’ll tell the world if she doesn’t pay up.

Oh yes, and one member of the blackmail ring was – of all people – her husband. (Boy, has she got motive.) And remember the man whose body was found in his burned-out house? Well, he’s alive, alive enough to try to pull a gun on Perry Mason.

It’s a twisty, turny story, and somehow by the end Erle Stanley Gardner manages to connect all the strange bits and pieces of the plot – even the weepy cigarette girl back at the very beginning of the story – so that Mason can hand them over to Lieutenant Tragg with a nice big bow on the top, and the reader can close the book feeling dizzy but satisfied.

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.

Vintage mysteries – Wouldn’t it work better to fake a new identity?

Review: The Three Coffins
by John Dickson Carr

A keeper? Meh. Maybe.

In its favor: It’s very short (so it doesn’t take much shelf space). If you don’t let yourself think about plausibility, it’s got a nicely eerie atmosphere. Against it – well, let’s continue with the review.

It’s the early 1930s in London. Professor Grimaud and his friends are gathered at their usual pub when a gaunt stranger pushes into the group and starts talking about “three coffins” and tells Grimaud that “my brother” wants the Professor’s life. Does Grimaud call the police? No. He tells his friends that he’ll deal with this by…buying a painting!

After that, things get stranger. About 10 o’clock one snowy evening, a looming figure arrives at Grimaud’s house; soon after he enters the Professor’s office people hear what sounds like a gunshot. They break down the locked door and find the professor dying – but what became of the intruder? He seems to have disappeared. Stranger yet, he left no footmarks in the snow either coming or going!

The police, of course, want to talk to the man, known as Pierre Fley, who threatened Grimaud in the pub. And they succeed in finding out where he lives, not far from Grimaud. But when they get to his street, Fley is dead too. At 10:25 by the clock in a jeweler’s window, witnesses saw him walking alone down the middle of the street; they heard a gunshot and saw Fley collapse, all alone. But when a doctor examines him, there are powder burns on his coat – so whoever shot him must have been within arms’ length!

There’s more weirdness. Various witnesses tell us that the afternoon before he was shot, Fley quit his job (he was a stage magician) and told the theater manager “I am going back to my grave.” The – figure – who was last seen going into Grimaud’s office was wearing a full-face mask, so nobody can say what he looked like. Grimaud’s oldest friend tells a strange story of how, thirty years ago, he rescued the Professor from being buried alive near a Hungarian prison.

Alas, this is a John Dickson Carr story, so everything has to be untangled with a matter-of-fact real world explanation in the end. It all turns out to be a sad tale of blackmail and betrayal and revenge, with one impossible murder carefully planned and the other accidental. And yet, it’s the murder that was thought out in detail ahead of time that I don’t believe in.

I’ve read that Carr liked to set up models to demonstrate that his impossible situations could really happen. I can easily picture him chuckling over this Rube Goldberg setup with his cronies, utterly satisfied that It Could Be Done and never stopping to ask if it would be done. I just don’t believe that a man in danger of his life would take a chance that nothing would go wrong (and in fact, things do go horribly wrong). Not when he could do the same thing he had already done once to escape danger: disappear and restart his life someplace else. (If this is confusing, I apologize. I can’t go into more details without giving away the whole mystery. *If you want an explanation, go to the bottom of this post and follow instructions.)

There are other odds and ends that annoy me about the story, especially Carr’s dismissive attitude toward the young women in his books. Is this just a typical thirties attitude, or a typical male attitude? No, I think it’s Carr. Authors like Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, writing at the same time, don’t come up with anything half as hostile as this remark (it’s said by a young woman talking to her husband about Grimaud’s daughter): “If I had ever treated you the way she treats Boyd Mangan, and you hadn’t landed me a sock under the jaw, I’d never have spoken to either of us again.”

But there’s one sentence that I truly love. Doctor Fell – Carr’s great detective – announces at one point that he is now going to discuss locked-room mystery stories. The other characters protest, and one asks him why. Says Doctor Fell:

“Because we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.”

Unfortunately, the rest of his lecture doesn’t live up to that sentence, but it’s still a wonderful line.

* Hmmm – maybe I’ll rot13 a complete explanation of what Carr says happened. (Copy the rest of the post, go to www.rot13.com, paste the gibberish into the box and decipher it by clicking the “Cypher” button.) Tevznhq naq Syrl ner oebguref. Lrnef ntb, jvgu gurve guveq oebgure, gurl gevrq gb rfpncr sebz wnvy ol snxvat gurve qrnguf – Tevznhq, gur fgebatrfg, jnf fhccbfrq gb oernx bhg bs uvf syvzfl pbssva naq qvt hc gur bgure gjb. Vafgrnq ur nonaqbarq gurz. Gur guveq oebgure fhssbpngrq orsber ur naq Syrl jrer sbhaq. Syrl vf oynpxznvyvat Tevznhq, naq Tevznhq qrpvqrf gb xvyy uvf oebgure. (Ntnva.)

Tevznhq tbrf gb Syrl’f ebbzf naq fubbgf uvz, gura ehaf sbe vg. Syrl vf sngnyyl jbhaqrq ohg abg dhvgr qrnq; ur’f gelvat gb trg gb n qbpgbe jura ur frrf Tevznhq ng n qvfgnapr naq fubbgf uvz. Tevznhq fgvpxf gb uvf bevtvany cyna – ur znl abg or irel onqyl uheg ng guvf cbvag – naq znxrf uvf jnl ubzr. Gur ubhfrxrrcre vf uvf nppbzcyvpr. (Gurl jrer ybiref bapr.)

Tevznhq unf yrsg n ovt zveebe cebccrq hc vafvqr gur qbbe bs uvf ebbz fb gung jura gur ubhfrxrrcre bcraf gur qbbe, Tevznhq’f frpergnel frrf Tevznhq’f (ersyrpgrq) snpr nccebnpuvat gur “vagehqre’f” onpx – gur frpergnel oryvrirf Tevznhq unf yrg gur fgenatre vagb gur ebbz, ohg bs pbhefr gurer arire jnf n frpbaq zna – bayl Tevznhq. Tevznhq urnirf gur rabezbhf zveebe hc vagb gur svercynpr puvzarl bhg bs fvtug, ohg guvf pnhfrf gur urzbeeuntr gung xvyyf uvz.

Naq jul qvq gur jvgarffrf fnl gung Syrl jnf xvyyrq nsgre Tevznhq? Orpnhfr gur wrjryre’f pybpx jnf jebat! 😉

Vintage mysteries – When did the General die?

Review – The Unpleasantness at the
Bellona Club, by Dorothy Sayers

A keeper? Yes

Harrumph. The Bellona Club is no place for unseemly, inappropriate, unpleasant events, don’t yer know. It’s one of the stuffiest gentleman’s clubs in London, catering to retired army officers – mostly grumpy old men annoyed by a handful of younger fellows, veterans of the Great War (not yet called World War I) that ended less than ten years ago, mostly with varying degrees of what they call shell shock and we would call PTSD.

Anyway, old General Fentiman has spent nearly every day at the Bellona Club for years and years, and no one is very surprised when he’s found dead sitting in his favorite chair. After all, he’s about ninety years old, and his heart was bad. Still, it’s unpleasant to have a member’s corpse unnoticed for so long that the body is completely stiff except for one knee.

Even so, there wouldn’t have been much fuss if the General’s rich sister hadn’t made such an inconvenient will. If she dies first, the General inherits almost everything she has – and he’s left all his property to his two grandsons. But if she outlives him, nearly all her money goes to the sort-of-niece who lives with her, and the General’s grandsons will have to make do with the few thousand pounds he had to leave. She died the evening of November 10, and the General’s body was found during the Armistice day celebrations on November 11 – but when exactly did he die?

It’s not a police matter; there’s no crime here. (Or is there?) But Lord Peter Wimsey was on the spot when the General’s body was discovered, and he’s investigated a number of mysteries. If only he can be discreet, maybe he can clear things up without too much unpleasantness. The trouble is, once Lord Peter sticks his long nose into a situation, you never know where he’ll wind up.

There’s actually a lot to be suspicious about, it seems. General Fentiman’s grandson Robert says the General spent his last night visiting the mysterious Mr. Oliver, but who is he and where does he live? And why did Ann Dorland – who will inherit everything if she can prove that the General died before her “aunt” did – give up trying to paint and start studying chemistry and medicine? Will George Fentiman – Robert’s brother – run amuck yet again? Why did Dr. Penberthy fudge some of the details in his initial examination of the body? And will Lord Peter be kicked out of the Bellona for persistently bringing up unpleasantness?

In the end, justice and Lord Peter triumph, life improves for all the suspects who turn out to be innocent, and the murderer – yes, there’s a murderer, did you think there wouldn’t be? – gets what he, or she, deserves. On the way we get glimpses of a variety of colorful characters in London of the late 1920’s, while being hustled rapidly through a maze of things that might have happened but didn’t and things that seem unlikely to have happened but did. Not great literature (though better than average for a twenties mystery), but thoroughly entertaining.

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.