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Mystery Monday Review – Much in Evidence

Monday, August 16th, 2021

Much in Evidence by Henry Cecil

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Taking £100,000 in cash out of the bank to play the ponies at a later date, bald and lame Mr. Richmond is persuaded to insure it by his banker. Luckily. That same night he is robbed of the entire treasure and conked on the head by two house-breakers disguised in the red noses and long white beards of Santa Claus – or Father Christmas, as the British say.

His insurance company, though grumpy over the whole matter, pays out the claim. But their investigator, Miss Clinch, remains highly skeptical – or sceptical, as the British have it – of Richmond’s version of events.

She makes deep dives into the records of past claims, not as easy a task in back in paper-ridden 1957 as it is nowadays with our complete and accurate in every way banks of data. Three different insurance companies say they dealt with a lame and bald man on three smelly claims. Miss Clinch finds that Mr. Richmond’s typewriter wrote letters to the scammed insurance companies. Mr. Richmond ends up in the dock, with the two coincidences of appearance and typewriter as damning circumstantial evidence against him.

As is usual with Cecil, the plot does not involve a murder, which makes a nice change from the usual crime novel. The dialogue is clever and clear. The characters have a lot of variety from the quietly competent defense lawyer Stanhope to the barrow boy Mr. Brown to the coolly professional home invaders educated at a tony private school – or public school, as the British say. The alcoholic solicitor Mr. Tewkesbury makes a re-appearance from The Painswick Line; I don’t usually like alky humor but he’s pretty funny in a ‘W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber’ way. Full of twists that are impossible to predict, the plot hinges on coincidences, all piled high until the whole edifice comes tumbling down in a rousing climax that borders on fantasy.

Henry James said that Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs had a “hard lucidity.” Cecil’s lucidity is light, with plain prose, graceful dialogue, and difficult legal points explained comprehensibly. Fans of comic novels, courtroom fiction, and dry English humor will enjoy this short novel during plane trips or hospital stays. The acceptance of human beings as they are is cheerfully realistic.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

Monday, August 9th, 2021

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

by Erle Stanley Gardner

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Our story opens with ace lawyer Perry Mason being forced by his secretary Della Street to deal with the mail. At the last minute, he is rescued by a visit from a man from Australia who claims to be a bishop. Mason suspects William Mallory from the first because Mallory stammers, a speech disorder that would thwart a career that involved public speaking.

The bishop has a bizarre story involving an inheritance. He says the wealthy but rotten magnate Renwold C. Brownley — now there’s a Gardnerian ornate name – broke up his own son’s marriage. He then forced his daughter-in-law, Julia Branner, to flee to Australia, where she had to put her baby girl up for adoption. Greedy granpa Renwold C. Brownley wanted the child, his only grandchild, and hired detectives to find her. The bishop tells Mason that dodgy PI’s have brought forward a young woman who claims to be the heir. Julia however says it’s not so. The bishop tells Mason all this on background, predicting that Julia herself will soon contact Mason.

Mason takes the case, but feels dubious that he knows everything there is to know. Mason tells his PI Paul Drake to have Mallory followed. However, after Mallory is attacked in his lodgings and recovers in hospital, he disappears on his way to embark on a ship back to Oz. Mason meets Julia to get her story straight. Then the victim is offed and it turns out to be – you got it in one — Renwold C. Brownley. Julia, though a client accused of murder-one, is totally uncooperative with Mason in that she won’t even tell him why she is innocent.

Any number of imposters go through their poses in this novel. Take it from a reader who’s read stack of Mason stories, this features one of the most complicated plots ever devised by Gardner, who gloried in complexity and felt confident his readers would keep up. Because the number of suspects is not large, it is fairly easy to guess the culprit, but I’ll bet the reader will still be enlightened by Perry’s reveal to Della and Paul.

Published in 1936, this is only the 9th Perry Mason novel (of 52 in all) so Mason and the DA Ham Burger have a cordial enough relationship to have a conference outside of the courtroom. Later Burger was to give no quarter, which was okay with Mason who never quailed from a fight.

Bottom line: Well worth reading for both hardcore fans and readers who may be wondering why back in the olden days Gardner was the best-selling mystery writer in the world.

Mystery Monday – Death Walks in Eastrepps

Monday, July 26th, 2021

Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In the early 1980s Dover Publications reprinted classic British whodunits from the first half of the 20th century. Their selection criteria guided them to choose well-written stories that had the familiar elements that we mystery readers like to see in Golden Age mysteries: unique London enclaves, the quiet English village, foggy nights, dotty Dickensian characters, horrid deeds, imperturbable inspectors, plot twists galore with stolen love, impersonations, poison pen letters, etc.

Critics say Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931) was the best of the over 30 novels written by the writing team of Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer. The most interesting aspect is that the plot is told through many points of view. During the courtroom drama, we view the action from the points of view of the jury foreman, a court stenographer, a constable, and a playwright.

Vincent Starrett (1886-1974), an American writer and journalist, considered this book “one of the ten greatest detective novels.” This was also reprinted more recently (2011) by Arcturus Publishing in their Crime Classics series.

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Something in the Air

Monday, July 19th, 2021

 

Something in the Air by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This 1988 mystery is the 20th appearance of the Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. His bank, the Sloan Guaranty Trust, has a 30% interest in Sparrow Flyways, a ‘no frills’ carrier that has had great success as a result of the deregulation of the airlines in the late 1970s. Steady growth and profit-earning have buoyed the stocks of the employees who own about 30% of the company.

The success of the company has made a media darling out of its charismatic CEO Mitchell Scovil, a born salesman. Accordingly, he has fallen into patterns of thought that sometimes strike leaders who have achieved much in only a little time. He has convinced himself that a flourishing Sparrow Flyways is the result of his entrepreneurial genius, with only slight contributions from the co-founders, legions of subordinates, and plain dumb luck. Lacking self-awareness, he has become more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, most dangerously for himself and others, less skillful at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Mitchell Scovil is developing a grandiose plan to make the regional airline go national. Many employees, nervously watching the established competition and their stocks, are against expansion. After a loud meeting, the spokesman of the workers is murdered at Logan airport. The cops focus on Scovil. And our hero John Putnam Thatcher, in his unassuming way, figures out the real culprit.

Besides the excellence characterization of clueless leadership, Lathen features two strong female characters. Eleanor Gough has been quietly resourceful and proficient at many tasks since the inception of the airline. But she gradually realizes that she must get Scovil to see the risks of expansion. Unlike Scovil, she feels responsibility for the employees and their livelihood. She feels it unjust that though Scovil is too willing to gamble with risks, the employees would be the ones to suffer most if expansion was a bust. With her sense of duty, she becomes more liable to throw her weight around. During an interview with Thatcher: “For the first time in his life, he realized that an expression of ladylike attentiveness is the feminine equivalent of a poker face.”

The other interesting female character is auditor Phoebe Fournier. She’s young and intelligent with figures, but not good at reading people. She sees people too much as mere means to her ends, not living breathing people with lives just as vivid and real to them as her life is to Phoebe. Lathen has fun putting Phoebe through hoops on her long winding road to the realization that she’s not the smartest person in every room. Lathen usually has a set piece that involves public chaos; to get Scovil’s attention Phoebe sets up an industrial action that is a hilarious disaster.

Emma Lathen was the pen name of Mary Latsis (economic analyst) and Martha Hennissart (attorney). Both knew the worlds of business and the federal government, so they felt at home the constantly changing business environment and the variety of personalities to be found in the public and private sectors. As old-school feminists, they have acerbic fun satirizing men who know full well and deplore that other business executives are kept afloat by their secretaries but never in a million years would think that the secretaries be paid commensurate to the service they deliver to the company.

Mystery Monday Review – The Paper Moon

Monday, July 12th, 2021

The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

This 2005 mystery is the ninth story starring Inspector Salvo Montlbano. For those of us who have Mediterranean genes, Salvo of Sicily is utterly relatable. He’s smart and intuitive and a devil for both work and the nice things in life like good food. But he is also grouchy, short-tempered with a sarcastic bent and sharp tongue. He is shocked and scared that he is not exempt from getting deeper into middle age. Surrounded by colleagues like the numbskull Catarella, he doesn’t like drama but creates a lot of it simply by being himself. And the drama of his personal and police life is often pretty funny.

Compared to other books in the saga, this one focuses more on the investigative aspect, leaving little space for Montalbano’s personal life. For instance, a weekend visit from his long-time GF Livia takes up about three lines. The case unfolds in a linear way and without any particular twists until the final surprise.

There are many laughs in the story but there are harsh aspects as well. It is a murky story of drugs and sexual transgressions featuring incest, adultery, impotence, a coerced abortion and a sexual assault committed by the police. Some scenes are not for the faint-hearted.

This is worth reading mainly because Salvo Montalbano finds himself dealing with two astute women. He will need all his self-control and wisdom as he negotiates his way between dangerous Michela the Fury and Elena the Cheetah, who tries to charm him with innocence and spontaneity.

 

Young Adult Historical Fiction Review – The Hummingbird Dagger

Tuesday, July 6th, 2021

The Hummingbird Dagger

The Hummingbird Dagger by Cindy Anstey

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

England, 1833.  Young Walter Ellerby is out cavorting with a friend near his family’s estate and is involved in a frightful accident with a strange carriage. A young woman from the carriage is injured in the accident and the men with her seem cagey and uncooperative.  The young woman is taken back to Hardwick Manor by Walter’s older brother, Lord James Ellerby, and the men from the carriage make their escape.  Thus begins the mystery of The Hummingbird Dagger.

The family is deeply concerned about the young woman’s welfare and takes responsibility for her care; however, there is more than physical wounds to recover from- the young woman has no memory of who she is or why she was traveling in the carriage. The Ellerbys begin calling the young woman Beth and they all develop an attachment to her and do what they can to protect her and help her regain her memory. Throughout Beth’s recovery she is plagued by nightmares of a bloody dagger with a hummingbird carved into the hilt. In addition to the nightmares, there are other kidnappings, secrets, murders, and attacks that make Beth’s story even more confusing to herself and the Ellerbys.

The Hummingbird Dagger is the first novel I have read by Anstey and I found it a solid 4-star young adult mystery novel. I thought the characters were endearing (I rather loved Caroline, Lord Ellerby’s sister, and Dr. Brant), but I could have used a little more character development. I thought the pace of the novel was good and I did not unravel the mystery early but, in hindsight, there were a few breadcrumbs left along the way. The novel was wrapped up well and I think there is the opening for other novels featuring some of the same characters.  I, for one, wouldn’t mind another visit to Hardwick Manor.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Three Couriers

Monday, June 14th, 2021

 

The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

I was lucky enough to have fall into my lap the 1929 spy mystery The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie. A prolific writer before and after his work in the secret world during the Great War, Mackenzie portrayed spying not so much as a noble clandestine fight against the Germans and Turks but as a running contest against His Majesty’s army and navy authorities and embassy and consulate employees that put the “dip” in “diplomat.”

Stationed against his will in Greece, our hero, the unfortunate Waterlow, has to put up with endless French machinations and the never-ending nincompooperies of his own agents, both British and Greek. When he finally succeeds in counter-espionage, his masters and betters utterly ignore the vital intercepted message. “This is a Charlie Chaplin war” he mutters as he bravely moves on to the next fiasco.

In The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), Chesterton makes a case for the futility of espionage, an ironic theme Somerset Maugham was to exploit in the Ashenden stories. But it could be that Mackenzie was the first to write a spy story as a black comedy of errors. The Three Couriers does not have much plot. However, the incidents and set pieces are hilarious as the hapless spies move in on the couriers. The characters are Gogolian grotesques. One wonders if he involuntarily stored these outrageous impressions in his head and wrote to get shut of them.