September 2018 in Review

I had most of the last week off so I was looking forward to getting in some solid reading hours. Instead of blitzing through my to read pile though I found myself getting caught up in everything but reading. Whenever I did find time to read I struggled to get engaged with the material I was trying not necessarily because it was bad but just it didn’t fit my mood. This is very frustrating!

On a more positive note I do think I have turned a corner with my reading and I have a few novels I am excited to write about. One of those, Ellen Wilkinson’s The Division Bell Mystery, I had expected to share my thoughts about today but I’m pushing the review back a day to make room for this monthly recap. Expect a review of Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Lucky Legs later this week too.

One other thing this month has in store is my first blogiversary. I plan on recapping the whole year and picking out some favorite titles. While last month may not have been as productive as I had hoped, I am pretty blown away when I look at the list of all of the titles I have read in the last twelve months and I look forward to giving some thought as to which ones to pick as the best of that first year.

Before I get to that though I have to look back at the titles I read in September and pick my Book of the Month. The contenders are:

Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present (Modern Scholar)
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy
Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edogawa Rampo
Murder for Lunch by Haughton Murphy
Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston
The Man Who Loved Clouds by Paul Halter
Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer
Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Bertie and the Seven Bodies by Peter Lovesey
Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull
Windy City by Hugh Holton
The Department of Dead Ends by Roy Vickers

I suppose the good news is that with a couple of exceptions the books I read in September were of a very high standard. When it comes time to put together that Best of Year One list I wouldn’t be surprised if several of the titles from this month end up in contention.

Several titles were in contention this month but it really came down to a decision between two novellas. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s Lady Killer is a really striking work that combines elements of social criticism with an excellent mystery story. The story’s heroine is certain that she knows that another passenger plans to kill his wife and yet no one aboard will listen to her including her husband.

What sticks with me most about that story is its powerful ending which provides resolution and yet it isn’t really a return to order or even necessarily justice. Most impressively it convinced me to go out and acquire several other books by the author and I look forward to discovering more of her work in the future.

The other title that grabbed me was also punchy and provocative, though it pushes the envelope even further on presenting us with an unsympathetic protagonist who we know has killed a woman and a very bitter, hard-boiled ending.

Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was a book that frequently made for uncomfortable reading. It is made all the more powerful by its unusual presentation with sections of the judge’s summation placed between the chapters in a huge typeface and its short, punchy chapters. Even though you see the ending coming it is brutally direct and while there is little mystery here, I think the reader is engaged in a challenge to interpret these characters and understand their relationship and actions.

Lady KillerBoth of these works really shook me up and engaged me in their stories and I don’t think you can go wrong with either. In fact, if you loved one I think you are pretty likely to love the other. But I have to pick one and so I settled on Holding’s novel which has the benefit of being able to strike an unexpected note in its conclusion. It was a truly satisfying read and I can’t wait to tackle The Girl Who Had to Die later this month!

Acquisitions: I may not have got around to reviewing as many titles as I had hoped but I did at least manage to pick up a few books that I am bursting with excitement to read. The Niece of Abraham Pein is another mystery by J. H. Wallis. I had devoured several of his novels earlier this year and then hit a brick wall with those available through interlibrary loan so when this cropped up at a relatively affordable price I couldn’t help but snap up a copy.

I also acquired a copy of Leonard Gribble’s The Inverted Crime – a novel that will doubtlessly not be an inverted mystery at all but even if I am disappointed on that front I am excited to try it. I look forward to reviewing these, and many more titles, this coming month.

The Department of Dead Ends by Roy Vickers edited by E. F. Bleiler

DepartBack when I first started getting interested in inverted mysteries I went and sought out suggestions of authors who wrote that kind of crime story. One of the names that kept coming up was Roy Vickers whose Department of Dead Ends stories often clearly established the killer’s identity in the first few paragraphs.

The collection I am writing about today contains a selection of fourteen of those stories – about a third of the total written. They are selected by E. F. Bleiler who, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, opts to arrange them out-of-order. The Rubber Trumpet explains the work and methodology of the Department and while the other stories stand on their own, I appreciated them all the more for reading that tale.

Vickers’ stories are not exactly formulaic but most stories adhere to a structure in which we learn the killer’s identity, see how they came to commit the crime and how they plan to cover it up. Many of the crimes occur in a moment of desperation or anger, often being strangulations, and in quite a few the cover-up will involve the assistance of another person within the case.

The investigation is usually just a couple of pages long and typically will hinge on the discovery of a strange detail, in a few cases completely disconnected with the crime itself. The detective is able to work from that strange element to assemble a chain of logical deductions that will eventually lead to some fact in the alibi being overturned or that will help the police make a key connection.

These stories were originally published in monthly mystery magazines, mostly Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I will say that they are probably best enjoyed in small doses rather than trying to read them all in one or two sittings. I haven’t read enough other Vickers stories to know if Bleiler’s selections favor a particular type of story but I think if you make the decision not to organize them by publication date then you should take care not to put similar stories next to each other.

In spite of that complaint I should say that the quality of the collection is generally strong and I think there are some excellent stories on offer here.  The Henpecked MurdererThe Rubber TrumpetLittle Things Like That and The Man Who Murdered in Public are all very strong stories and each are worth a look.

Continue reading “The Department of Dead Ends by Roy Vickers edited by E. F. Bleiler”

Windy City by Hugh Holton

WindyCityI was not familiar with Hugh Holton before picking up Windy City, the second in his series of novels to feature Detective Larry Cole of the Chicago police force. The book jumped out at me though for being told in an inverted style and I was curious to discover Holton’s take on the form.

The novel opens with a retired prostitute being followed by a man in disguise intent on raping and killing her. When he breaks into her home he is surprised by her cop fiancé and hastily acts to kill him and dispose of the body.

Within a few pages we know the killer’s identity: Neil DeWitt, one of the richest men in Chicago. We also learn that his wife Margo is fully aware of his proclivities and, when she makes a slip up in conversation with Police at a gala, we learn she has some of her own.

Unlike many inverted stories the detective does not need to search for the killer. Cole suspects the pair from the beginning of the novel but the challenge for the police and for the reader comes in proving the connection, particularly when the DeWitts hire a corrupt former governor of the state to represent them.

This proves to be an intriguing starting point because it enables Holton to focus on a small group of characters. We spend a lot of time in the novel following the DeWitts and seeing them plot and scheme to try and throw Cole off their trail and I do think we get to know them well as a result. The problem for me was that I found their characterizations very hard to accept as credible.

The two characters are given some back story and Holton does take the time to explore their motivations. Unfortunately the aspect of their story that is the least detailed is the early phase of their relationship as they begin to commit crimes and explore their sociopathic desires together. Given their status as a married pair of murderers makes them unusual, it is all the more disappointing to see this aspect of their relationship not treated with much depth or detail.

Instead Holton focuses on following their reactions to Cole’s investigation and attempts to throw him off the trail. This sort of a cat-and-mouse game has the potential to be interesting and there are a few points where I feel it is quite successful. One of those comes at the end of the second section of the novel where there is a big development in the case but unfortunately the next chapter takes the action to a lurid and melodramatic place undermining any good work the previous chapter had done.

Not only does Cole quickly identify the killers, he seems to quickly work out their plans and their likely next steps. The positive aspect of this is that it enables the book to sustain a surprisingly brisk pace but it may prove disappointing to those who want to see the police having to work hard to make those key connections.

Cole is not the most dynamic of protagonists although his family are appealing and sympathetic characters. He is shown to be persistent and hard-working however and I did appreciate that Holton uses his own Police background to flesh him and the other Police characters out.

That is not to say that this is an entirely realistic police procedural. That one of his team is nicknamed the Mistress of Disguise or High Priestess of Mayhem suggests at least a little eccentricity but the conflicts within departments and details of the cultivation of relationships with the coroner’s office feel more grounded in something approaching reality.

There are however some plot elements that struck me as too far-fetched to be taken as credible. This is not just a matter of the lucky breaks that Cole seems to get but also some of the risks that the couple willingly face when carrying out their tasks often leaving evidence pointing right at them. While being immensely wealthy could conceivably shield them from some accusations, their behavior is so inept and obviously suspicious at points it is hard to imagine how they wouldn’t have already come under deeper suspicion.

As much as I wanted to love this book I came away feeling frustrated and disappointed. I thought that the pair of killers had a lot of potential but the decision not to treat the story in a realistic way but rather as a thriller contributes to their story feeling somewhat ridiculous.

In spite of its faults however I would say that it was an engaging read. There were some good ideas here and while I think it gets the balance wrong, it is at least quite interesting.

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

ExcellentExcellent Intentions is a Golden Age crime novel that tells the story of the trial of a person accused of killing Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate, a highly disagreeable landowner. This is not a legal thriller but rather a fairly conventional mystery as the accused’s identity is held back from the reader and they will have to deduce it from the court proceedings.

On the day of his murder, Cargate was set to make a journey by train. After complaining to the station master about a small delay and the conduct of his staff, Cargate enters the compartment and is observed appearing to take snuff from his pocket and putting it to his nostril before violently collapsing. Upon examination of the snuff case the police discover that the contents had been laced with poison.

The bulk of Hull’s story establishes the case for the prosecution, building up a timetable and establishing the personalities of the suspects and their possible reasons for wanting Cargate dead. Once this information is provided a handful of chapters at the end detail the remainder of the trial, the jury discussions and final outcome.

I have to say that I am undecided about whether I feel this structure worked. On the one hand, I think Hull does manage to hide the accused’s identity well while still providing enough clues that it can be fairly worked out. I also think that there is something inherently interesting in exploring the power of the jury and the personalities that make one up although I think it misses the opportunity to consider that in even greater detail. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed by how little we hear from the defence although, like Kate, I understand its necessity to preserve the surprise of the suspect’s identity.

The other issue I had was with the character of the victim, Cargate, who seems cartoonishly horrible from the start of the novel. While I do not require a rigidly realistic approach in my crime reading, this presentation of the character verges on being inadvertently comical and comes close to rendering the opening of the novel ridiculous.

Cargate is presented as being underhand in his dealings with his staff and others while also possessing an argumentative and vindictive streak. Moments before his death he is threatening to report staff at the train station for accidentally bumping into him and for the train being a couple of minutes late. Couple that with his refusal to consider employing anyone local, preferring to acquire much more expensive servants in London.

Inspector Fenby is tasked with investigating the death and starts interviewing suspects, compiling a short list of three or four credible killers. This section of the novel is, as a consequence, quite slow and I would not disagree with PuzzleDoctor’s description of it as being a ‘bit time-tabley’. Be prepared to spend a lot of time trying to work out who was where and when!

Fenby does not have an awful lot of personality and there are no attempts to build him up as a character. He largely exists to fulfil a role that drives the story forward while being credible as a witness and investigating officer. I think he does that reasonably well but it does make the middle of the novel seem a little dry.

The suspect pool is thankfully a little more entertaining and imaginative than the sleuth and it contains several colorful characters. I was entertained by the stories told of meetings held on the day of Cargate’s murder and think that the puzzle of who was responsible was interesting, if not enthralling.

Though not a perfect read, I do think that this is a solid and intriguing one. For those keen to try Hull’s work, I would certainly suggest looking at The Murder of My Aunt first.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Changes to the final two paragraphs of this review were made within moments of publication – I had accidentally tapped post while writing. Whoops!

Bertie and the Seven Bodies by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheSevenBodiesA few months ago I read and reviewed the first of Peter Lovesey’s novels that featured Bertie, Prince of Wales as a sleuth. Bertie and the Tin Man was a highly entertaining read, rich in humor and character, but the mystery itself disappointed.

Bertie and the Seven Bodies is the second of the three novels and I am happy to say that the plotting here is far stronger. It probably didn’t hurt that I find a week’s shooting holiday to be of more interest than the world of Victorian horse racing!

Once again Lovesey uses the device of presenting his story as a memoir of the case written by Bertie himself in later life. This enables him to inject his narrative with plenty of character, having Bertie pause at points to reflect on events and to go off on little tangents. Lovesey also has fun presenting us with situations where he has Bertie’s words and actions in the past contradict what the older Bertie claims he was doing.

The events the older Bertie recounts to us take place at a shooting party being held in the country house of an attractive young widow. During the dinner that takes place on the first evening Queenie Chimes, an actress who plays bit parts in West End productions, collapses face-first into their dessert and is rushed to a doctor for medical treatment. Near her place setting is a scrap of newspaper with the word Monday written on it and while the guests do not realize it yet, this is just the first in a series of murders that will take place during that party.

Before long Bertie has decided he will take command of the situation and find the killer himself. This is, in part, due to the practical consideration that he wishes to avoid scandalous press coverage of his proximity to several murders but it is also a reflection of his supreme (and somewhat misguided) belief in his own abilities.

Lovesey illustrates Bertie’s overconfidence in his detective prowess early in the novel with several sequences in which he attempts to make Holmesian deductions about people based on small pieces of physical evidence. These scenes are not only quite entertaining, they also establish one of the running themes of the Bertie novels – that those who orbit around him are obliged to be deferential to him regardless of his actual skill as a detective. In fact the reader may justifiably feel that Bertie’s role as detective is, in part, responsible for the book’s high body count as at several points he moves to reassure the other guests that he has identified the guilty party and it is all over.

A quick look at various Goodreads reviews shows that Bertie is quite a divisive protagonist with multiple reviewers labelling him as ‘unlikable’. Certainly he is a pompous figure and his philandering ways will likely prompt some eye-rolling but he can also be quite charming and self-aware showing that he is all too aware of some of his weaknesses. The comparison I would draw would be to the television character Frasier who possessed several similar faults – the fun is in them seeking to maintain their dignity in the face of potential humiliations such as their amorous misadventures.

As the title suggests, multiple murders await the reader and a large part of the fun is in figuring out who the next victim will be and how they will be disposed of. I appreciated the variety of methods utilized and how well this aspect of the novel pastiches elements found in several Christie works.

Lovesey provides us with an interesting mix of suspects from a variety of backgrounds and personality types. I might argue that the female characters are a little stronger and more richly drawn than the males though that really reflects Bertie’s greater interest in getting to know them. Each character is treated seriously as a suspect however and I think several possess interesting motivations.

The solution to the puzzle is quite clever and fairly clued but I did find that I guessed at it after drawing a parallel to another work. This didn’t hugely bother me as I think the manner of the confrontation at the end is interesting but it did dull the impact of the revelation a little. Your mileage may vary however and if you have not read the book it draws from it will likely come as quite a satisfying revelation.

While this is the second book in a series, you do not need to have read the first in order to understand this and so I would suggest that you skip ahead to this one. Also, if you are an audiobook fan I can recommend the splendid readings of the first two books in this series by Terrence Hardiman whose plummy, rich voice is a perfect fit for Bertie and he handles the comedic elements brilliantly

Overall I found Bertie and the Seven Bodies to be a funnier, more tightly plotted outing than his first. It is not just a very good Christie pastiche, it is a fine mystery novel in its own right and I think it managed to blend its comedic and serious elements together very well to create something quite special and surprisingly original.

Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Lady KillerI had my first taste of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s work just a few weeks ago when I read and reviewed Net of Cobwebs. I was deeply impressed with that novel’s clever and thoughtful presentation of its unreliable protagonist and was hungry for more so when I came across a copy of Lady Killer I couldn’t resist putting it to the top of my To Be Read pile.

Seven months before the novel begins Honey married Weaver Stapleton, a wealthy older man primarily for his money. While their courtship had been pleasant, the couple find themselves arguing constantly and she is wondering if she has made a terrible mistake.

The novel begins with them taking a Caribbean cruise together but as the voyage gets underway Honey begins to become suspicious of a fellow passenger whose new wife seems sick, complaining that the food tastes strange, and whose luggage mysteriously vanished before they set sail. She soon begins to worry that the husband plans to kill his wife but whenever she tries to raise the matter with Weaver or her fellow passengers her fears are dismissed.

The blurb you will find on popular e-book sites will give you more details about the plot but this novella is short enough that I don’t want to spoil too much about where it goes. Suffice it to say that there is a body and the latter half of the novel has elements of the detective story about it, albeit couched in the style of a psychological thriller.

Lady Killer is about the relationships between men and women and their comparative statuses within 1940s society. Honey is intuitive and persistent but she is hindered in her efforts to protect her new friend by gender expectations and roles. Whenever she discusses her fears she is treated as hysterical by the crew and by her fellow passengers, male and female, forcing her into a position where she has to act on her own. Even the person she believes will be a victim appears to refuse her help.

While Holding writes in the third person, she frequently slips into a first person perspective for a line or two to share Honey’s thoughts or state of mind and she does not show us events from anyone else’s perspective. This means the reader only really gets to experience them as Honey interprets them, making her a potentially unreliable narrator.

The reader feels Honey’s growing isolation throughout the novella and her building sense of desperation as her efforts to intervene keep being blocked. I was also quite struck by how I started to question the opinions I had formed about what had happened in light of the responses of her fellow passengers and the authority figures on the boat. Could she really be imagining it? You feel her powerlessness in those moments and though Honey can at times be quite rude and unpleasant, I found her determination in the face of these obstacles to be quite endearing.

The tension steadily builds throughout the first half of the book, climaxing with the discovery of a body on the boat. That moment is effective, not only because it transitions us to a new phase of the story in which Honey becomes a more active detective-type figure but also because it allows from some further ideas and themes to be introduced, complicating Honey’s relationships with her husband and her fellow passengers.

Honey’s relationship with Weaver is simultaneously the most intriguing and the most underwhelming part of the narrative. This is initially presented to the reader as an example of an uneven power dynamic where Weaver feels he is better than Honey and so resents what he regards as her shortcomings yet later in the novel we get to hear an alternative perspective on that relationship.

The reason this aspect of the story ultimately underwhelms is because of the way it is resolved or, perhaps more accurately, is not resolved at all. The narrative seems built towards having a major confrontation between the two and yet Holding never gives us that sort of moment.

I was far more impressed with the resolution to the mystery element of the novel which I found to be very cleverly worked. I was particularly taken with the final few pages of the novel which strike a sharp yet ambiguous note that I am sure will stay with me for a while. I can’t remember the last time I was so struck by an ending that managed to simultaneously feel like it came from nowhere and yet is the logical culmination of all that had gone before.

It was an impressive end to a novella that I found to be highly engaging both as a mystery and as a piece of social commentary. Not only is it an even better read than Net of Cobwebs, it is a book that makes me want to run out and buy copies of everything else that Holding ever wrote.

Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

HopeNeverOne of the things I have learned since starting this blog is that humor is entirely subjective. What may strike one reviewer as being restrained may seem like little more than juvenile slapstick comedy to others. Perhaps the only thing more personal than that is politics so no doubt I am on doubly sound ground here…

The premise of the novel is that Joe Biden is struggling to adjust to life after the Vice Presidency. His Secret Service protection ended shortly before the start of this novel and he enviously watches news reports about the celebrity friends Barack Obama is now hanging out with. He is surprised then when one evening the former President shows up in his garden smoking on a cigarette to tell him that his favorite Amtrack conductor is dead having apparently committed suicide on the train tracks.

The reason Obama is sharing this information with him is that a map to Joe’s house was found among his personal possessions leading law enforcement to be concerned that he may be in danger. Joe cannot see the man as a potential assassin but then he struggles to believe that anyone who worked on the trains would commit suicide by lying down in front of one knowing how it would affect the driver.

Hope Never Dies affectionately riffs on Biden’s public persona as an everyman and Obama’s as being somewhat aloof and professorial. Generally speaking it avoids being too political, reflecting on the nature of the men’s political legacies rather than savaging their successors. There’s a bit of stuff about Hillary’s run but it is mostly from the perspective of Joe feeling that had he been the candidate he would have wound up in the White House and beyond a throwaway gag about the Russia investigation the Republican side of things isn’t touched on at all.

For what it’s worth I found Hope Never Dies to be more chucklesome than hilarious. There is nothing new in the way either man is portrayed or anything subversive or out there. I suspect that Republican readers may roll their eyes at moments but they will not find much to object to while Democrats will likely be pleased that it has fun with both men without ridiculing them other than a few jokes about Biden and Obama aging in office.

The best way of judging whether this will work for you is just to start reading an excerpt. The opening two chapters are very short, set up the mystery and basically sum up the book’s approach to each man.

As important as the comedic elements are to this novel, I think it is easier to assess this book as a piece of mystery fiction.

Shaffer’s novel touches on several different sub-genres of mystery fiction resembling at times the modern cozy with its focus on interpersonal relationships, the adventure novel and even the gentle thriller. It blends these elements to tell an incident-driven story in which Joe is interviewing people and reacting to the things he is observing and the actions of others. There are even a couple of pretty solid action sequences.

It is not, however, a work of fair-play detective fiction. For one thing, there is not much of a focus on identifying suspects, working out alibis or assessing motives. For another, some important information is withheld from the reader until very late in the novel. Neither of these things affected my enjoyment of the novel as the action drives the story very effectively but those hoping for deduction may be a little disappointed.

The case does touch on some themes that do feel very much of the moment including rising levels of opiates use in America amongst groups that would not have traditionally been labelled as at-risk and the expense of medical care and the devastation unexpected bills can have on personal finances. These issues are not addressed from a party political standpoint (after all, the opiates epidemic was discussed by politicians of both parties in the 2016 campaign, particularly in the New Hampshire primary) but rather they serve as background in understanding the events that take place.

I felt that the solution to what had happened was fine and I did enjoy the action sequence that followed the reveal of the killer’s identity. The moment of revelation itself however felt anticlimactic and a little drab given how colorful the story had been up until that point.

What did work for me was the rendering of Joe as a sleuth, using his knowledge of his home state and contacts he had built up over decades working as a Senator to follow-up on leads. He approaches the case with heart, occasionally bordering on schmaltz, and also with a genuine interest in connecting with people. He does not possess many technical abilities beyond a few things he has noticed in episodes of Law and Order but the case does not require much of him other than that knowledge of people. This is a similar model to that found in Peter Lovesey’s Bertie Prince of Wales stories (although Joe is far more self-aware than Bertie) and I think it works well.

His angst about whether Barack still has time for him is perhaps stretched out a little too much throughout the novel but that relationship is interesting, as is the thematic discussion of when it is time to take a step back. That discussion reminded me a little of a book I recently read and reviewed, Murder for Lunch, as Reuben Frost also feels a little lost now that his professional career is over and he is looking for a sense of purpose. I do feel that this is one of the most successful aspects of the novel and it helps make it easy to relate to a former Vice President.

While I may not have laughed quite as much as I hoped, I did find Hope Never Dies to be a fun and entertaining read. It works as a pastiche of the buddy cop relationship and while it does feel a little odd to read fictionalized renderings of living figures, I think Shaffer captures their public personas fairly well. I am not entirely sure that it could work as a long-term series unless further elements were added to the mix but should a sequel appear I would probably check it out.