Sunday, February 27, 2011

IN BRIEF: About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women

Like Willard Huntington Wright who created his alter ego "S. S. Van Dine" to narrate the Philo Vance novels Fulton Oursler created "Anthony Abbot," a fictitious police reporter, who documents the cases of Commissioner Thatcher Colt. Similarly, as with his primary influences of Ellery Queen and Van Dine, also present are a slew of police and assistant D.A.s who work closely together on each case. The novels are a blend of the fair play detective novel and the police procedural.  In my opinion the Thatcher Colt books were some of the best of the early police procedurals and still have a very modern feel to them. For anyone familiar with modern police work via TV crime dramas like the various "Law and Order" series reading a detective novel by Anthony Abbot won't seem very old-fashioned at all.

Peter Slade, a theatrical agent, is "afraid of women" but is ironically pursued by three – one of whom is less than half his age – who all claim to be his secret love. He is found shot wearing only a bathrobe and hanging out of his apartment window. There is a subplot about Colt running an undercover drug sting that is wrapped up in the final pages. The ending is quite a surprise and smacks of the tricks of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie. Had I been paying attention I would've caught on since all the clues were there.

The middle part of the book dragged on a bit with lots of interviews with minor characters. The story picks up again when one of those characters - Norma Sutton, a drug addicted, has-been actress who was in love with Slade - is found shot in her home and a drug king is found shot on the roof of her building.

This is the last of the police procedurals that are somewhat based on actual New York City criminal cases. The Thatcher Colt books are notable mostly for the discussions of police techniques and the politics of police work in an urban environment. This book is heavy on talk of fingerprinting techniques and ballistics. You learn all about the paraffin test for gunpowder residue and a myriad of technological wonders that aid in measuring bullet marks both on the bullets and inside the barrel of the guns.

Friday, February 25, 2011

VIDEO: Organizing the Bookcase

Les Blatt posted a link to this video at his Classic Mysteries blog. It's excellent.

Stick around for the credits - the book titles start slowly scrolling by until...


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Mr Fairlie's Final Journey

Happy Birthday, August Derleth. I was too late with this blog by two years to get on the bandwagon with the celebration of his centennial birthday, but he looks just as good at 102 as he did at 100. Don't you think? And in lieu of lighting up a century's worth of candles I offer up this review of the only Solar Pons novel in the "Pontine Canon" as his devotees like to call it.

I have been reading a lot of Derleth mystery novels and stories lately. I have noted he seems to be fairly obsessed with the "wealthy family plagued by a menacing homicidal killer" plot best exemplified by such the classic mystery novel The Greene Murder Case and in the movies by Kind Hearts and Coronets. Nearly every one of the Judge Peck novels feature this plot -– almost always with some ancient doyenne who consults the Derleth detective in order to prove that accidental or seemingly natural deaths were in fact murders. In Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey this is once again the case making it the sixth detective novel of Derleth's where I have encountered this plot. How many variations did he dream up? It's almost like a drinking game could come out of reading one of these books. Spooky remote mansion - drink! Ancient matriarch appalled – drink! Female relative as companion to matriarch – drink! Several relatives who suffered unusually violent "accidental" deaths – drink for each one you encounter. You'll be plastered by the end of a day's reading and slightly befuddled how one writer could be so lazy in his plots.

Jonas Fairlie is the Farwell family business manager. As the vigilant and highly moral overseer of the Farwell family's printing firm Fairlie has been noticing some unusual behavior among some of the Farwell members. He and Sir Charles take a trip to Scotland and when they return Sir Charles rewrites his will. Then a series of accidents send a handful of the Farwell family members to the great beyond. Jonas Fairlie suspects foul play. He was en route via train to see Solar Pons and discuss his theories when he is callously murdered with chloroform. Pons is called in by the local police when they find his calling card in Fairlie's waistcoat pocket. There is indeed a murderer at large striking down the Farwell family, but proving the accidents to be murders is problematical for the genius sleuth.

I like the Solar Pons stories, but because I have read this story numerous times before in the Judge Peck series I was impatient with it. I have memorized the formula and it's easy to identify the tricks – most of them already overused by the time this book was published in 1968. But I made my way through to the end hoping for something extra. Other than a cliffside battle between Pons and a villain that ends in a plunge to rocky seashore below (mirroring of course the Reichenbach Falls episode) there was little thrilling or exciting in this book.

I also have a problem with Derleth's penchant for writing "period" prose. The story is supposed to take place in 1937 but you never get this at all. There are cars present, but the characters might just as well be riding around in hansom cabs. The mood and writing are imbued with an Edwardian haze and the smell of gaslit lamps and the clip-clop of horses' hooves practically drift off every page. I understand that Pons was inspired by Sherlock Holmes but why set the stories in the 20s and 30s if  the characters are going to speak and behave as if they were in living in Doyle's era? Maybe I'm being picayune here, but I think Derleth fell into a Victorian/Edwardian time tunnel each time he started writing about Pons.

There is one surprise that comes in the telling, but it is saved for the final paragraphs and the "evidence" that confirmed Pons' suspicion about this secret was pretty flimsy. Derleth's clues in his novels are not often well hidden but I admit this one slipped by me. Although I did wonder why Diana Fairlie would admit to having read The Wind in the Willows aloud if she lived entirely alone. I should've made the obvious association as Pons did.  Guess it was all that tipping of the glass in the previous 172 pages.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

IN BRIEF: Tragedy on the Line (1931) - John Rhode

Fairly routine story about the death of Gervase Wickenden, a wealthy single man, and the battle for his fortune between his heirs - a motley group of nieces and nephews. His body found alongside train tracks not far from his home, the face crushed beyond all recognition, can only be identified by his clothing and personal effects. An inquest rules the death an accident. Enter Dr. Priestley who smells foul play. He and his secretary, Harold, discover a bullet hole in a fir tree opposite the accident site and are determined to prove that Wickenden was shot and that the "train accident" was done after the murder to obliterate any signs of a bullet wound.  It's a bit repetitive in the telling with lots of rehash and recapping as if it were a serial (This is a unfortunate practice of Rhode/Burton in his early books).

For me the best part of the book was the character of Nancy Wickenden -- an outspoken, no-nonsense, modern woman who dares to live with a man and remain unmarried. Her dialog is sparkling and witty. The scene where the uptight and conventional Supt. Haslet visits her apartment and finds a different man and woman (Nancy's brother and his girlfriend using her place in lieu of a hotel) in the apartment is hysterical from a 21st century point of view. Also, Wickenden's lady friend to whom he was engaged is a lively and modern character.

Priestley plays a peripheral role providing the police with the impetus to pursue the case then disappears into the background until the end when he serves as the murderer's confessor in the rather Anthony Wynne-like final chapters. The murderer, suffering from injuries received in a motor vehicle accident and with only hours to live, tells a long-winded tale of the past revealing Wickenden to be a sadistic rogue who allowed his seemingly devoted wife to suffer a cruel death when he tired of her. The crime turns out to be a vendetta years in the making similar to the one constructed by the killer in Queen's Tragedy of X. Even the most astute reader would never be able to figure any of this out and it's far from the kind of "fair play" plot expected from a writer who was a member of the Detection Club.

This was the first Rhode book I read from start to finish. My judgment is that he gets a raw deal as a writer whose books are boring. Tragedy on the Line held my interest all the way despite its unfair ending. I have also read The Claverton Mystery which is a remarkable detective novel on many levels. However, Priestley overall seems too intellectual and lacking humanity in a kind of Holmesian way for him ever to be one of my favorite detectives in the genre. Though I should add once or twice he shows a sense of humor in Tragedy on the Line and, at end of this book at least, exhibits a tender compassion.

IN BRIEF: The Death of Mr. Gantley (1932) - Miles Burton

One of Burton's earliest and breezily written books. It's the fifth book under this pseudonym and features Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion. Also on hand are Inspector Driffield (a relative of J.J. Connington's Sir Clinton?) and a clever police constable who do some excellent detection early in the book before Merrion takes over and shows up all the policemen.

This is a somewhat complex tale of two relatives who die within 24 hours of each other. Lady Gantley's death is from seemingly natural causes, but her brother-in-law, Arthur, was obviously murdered. There is some involved business about wills dealing with precedence of deaths and who will inherit what depending on who dies first. Gantley is discovered in a car wreck dead from a bullet to his right temple. Just prior to the murder the reader knows Gantley was attacked by an embittered ex-employee who threw a rock at his car and caused the wreck. But was Mr. Gantley dead before or after the car crashed? The position of the body and evidence of lividity (earliest discussion of this type I've encountered in a crime novel from the Golden Age) makes it seem impossible that he could've been shot while the car was in motion. A missing suit and shoes and a missing box later found in Gantley's houseboat are important clues to the final solution.

A seasoned detective novel reader will see through the deception fairly early on. The novel is well clued but at times very subtle with those clues. Nevertheless, I figured it all out well before the halfway mark. A good example of the fair play detective novel: lots of action, very plot motivated with some nice character touches among the supporting players. The hateful Charles Harrington could've stepped out of the 21st century. He reminded me of the self-satisfied, wannabe artist/musician slackers we're plagued with these days.

Unfortunately, like most of the very early Miles Burton titles this is a very hard to find book. It was published only in the UK and had only one paperback reprint.

Monday, February 21, 2011

NEW STUFF: Ten Little Herrings - L.C. Tyler

"My name is Elsie."

"Hi, Elsie."

"And I am a chocoholic."

Maybe Elsie Thirkettle isn't headed for some strange 12 Step Program for truffle addiction, but her constant craving for chocolate certainly gets her into a sticky mess in the second of L.C. Tyler's farcical detective novels Ten Little Herrings. She steals a box of chocolates (evidence from a crime scene) and devours the contents nearly poisoning herself. She breaks out of a hotel under police sequester so that she can get her daily fix. But her prized box of Apollinaire chocolates is confiscated when she makes her crash landing re-entry in a scene right out of a Blake Edwards movie. Yes, chocolate is definitely her undoing. But I'm getting way ahead of myself.

Elsie meets up with her client, mystery writer Ethelred Tressider, in the Loire valley at a hotel hosting a stamp collecting fair. There are mysterious circumstances as to Ethelred's being there and he is, as usual, not forthcoming with Elsie. She would like to take him back to England but the murder of a British guest keeps them hostage of sorts when the local French police insist that all occupants remain until everyone can be interrogated. Just when Elsie and Ethelred think the police are done and they can leave another guest is killed. And then a third attack. The police continue to detain all guests.

It seems they have been cast in a parody of No Exit with a French hotel of exceedingly low standards serving as their private hell. No multi-channel cable TV, no spa, no exercise room, no real amenities at all. What to do beside roaming from the uncomfortably furnished, claustrophobic "lounge" to the dining room to the terrace in repeated cycles? Elsie decides she might as well get to the bottom of all the madness by turning detective and questioning the guests herself. Trouble is everyone else has the same idea. The hotel becomes a veritable beehive of amateur detection with even two Danish children armed with magnifying glasses and notebooks joining in the hunt to nab the murderer.

Elsie takes center stage for most of the story and there is a broader comic sensibility here than in the first outing where Ethelred was in charge of the narrative. There is still the interesting alternation between Elsie and Ethelred as narrators, but Elsie's is the dominant voice this time. She's determined to beat Ethelred at his own game.

For the first part of the book Ethelred lingers in the background, more of a distant observer than a true participant. His contributions to the story seem like a sardonic Rod Serling commenting on the action. He lectures us on murder methods ("I have always found poison immensely convenient." and "Stabbing somebody to death is easier than you think."), his personal life ("I number fictional characters amongst my closest friends."), and -- of course -- the life of a writer:
I had not done any actual writing for months but I nodded. Writers are used to deluding themselves that all sorts of things are 'work' – searching the Internet for references to themselves, checking their Amazon ranking, blogging, making coffee. I'd done a few of those. I was working.
When Elsie makes the surprising discovery of a cache of diamonds in a train station locker and complicates matters by doing a switcheroo the plot takes off in full force. From this point forward I was reminded of many of the Inspector Clouseau movies - especially A Shot in the Dark. The one-liners and the broad comedy increase with a frenzy. Elsie does her best to finger the killer in one of those "Let's gather all the suspects together" scenes, but... well, let's say it doesn't go very well for her. There are more twists in the denouement than a go-go dancer on speed.

The final page ends with an utterly surreal bit that made me laugh out loud for the first time and left me hungry for the next book, The Herring in the Library. I'll have to order it pronto -- along with a box of some fine chocolates. But I think I'll skip the peach truffles.

NOTE: Ten Little Herrings has been nominated for an Edgar. The second time Tyler has received a nod for Best Original Paperback.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: The Fifth Tumbler

In the detective fiction collecting world The Fifth Tumbler has a reputation for being one of those highly sought after books. It tops many collectors' want lists and they wait agonizingly for a scarce copy to come up for sale anywhere. When it does there is often a flurry of traffic (on-line at least) to purchase the copy no matter what it's condition. While the book may be prized by a collector lucky enough to have captured an elusive title like The Fifth Tumbler, it is all too rare that the contents of the book live up to its prize status. Clyde Clason's first mystery novel is, sadly, not one of those double rarities.

This is the first appearance of Clason's mild mannered, absurdly erudite professor of ancient history and sometime archaeologist Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough (why is it professors of archaeology must have such goofy names?). As with many of his cases he just happens to be on the premises when a baffling murder occurs, usually one of the impossible crime nature or a locked room murder. The title of his first sleuthing adventure hints at the recurring motif of locks and keys and does not refer to a drinking glass nor an acrobat.

The story is almost exclusively set in the Hotel Equable on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Elmo Swink, a dislikable man with a habit of womanizing and drinking heavily is found dead in his locked room. He has been poisoned by an ingeniously contrived booby trap - when he opened his door he caused a test tube containing a solution of potassium chloride and sulfuric acid to fall to the hard floor. When the two liquids mixed upon impact it released the poison hydrocyanic gas so popular with mystery fiction murderers. Lt. Mack is stumped as to how anyone could have procured the ingredients and fashioned the booby trap, then locked the door without anyone seeing all the activity that must have been involved in staging the crime. Westborough asks meekly and politely if he may sit in on the interviews of the hotel residents and begins taking notes.

Anyone who has read Clason's books (many have been re-issued by the wonderful couple at Rue Morgue Press) will know that these mysteries can get very eggheady as the investigation proceeds. Clason likes to populate his books with characters who have technical and scientific knowledge, characters who are well read and have a habit of alluding to their favorite works and writers, and characters who have other arcane bits of info that will somehow find itself into the dialog. Westborough, of course, is the main lecturer and allusion dropper - much of his prattle is just that and has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. This kind of pretentious malarkey is also found in the works of Ellery Queen and S.S. Van Dine. Some may find this quaint, some may find it eye-opening, with me it gets old very fast.

We have mini lectures on organic chemistry, the various methods of creating prussic acid, and the numerous uses of potassium cyanide (one of its ingredients) in business and industry. The night clerk Chris Larson just happens to be taking a course in chemical engineering and willingly shows off what he knows to help the police. But whereas a few sentences might suffice to relay this information to the reader Clason goes on for pages. There is also a lecture on how locks work, emphasizing the difference between a cylinder lock and a "paracentric" lock which is apparently the lock of choice at the Hotel Equable. While I was finally satisfied that a mystery writer had the smarts to explain it's not easy to pick many types of locks, I did think that Clason was indulging himself with the lock business as well. But then locks and keys have an awful lot to do with this book. The preponderance of locked doors, locked rooms mysteriously accessed, lock picks and hotel passkeys in the book makes The Fifth Tumbler a fitting title. Especially so when Westborough uses the inner workings of a lock as a metaphor for his approach in solving the crime:
"Let me elucidate by means of an analogy. The situation is not unlike the mechanism of a pin-tumbler lock."
"I'll be taking locks to pieces in my sleep," Mack declared with emphasis. "There's five pin tumblers, and the wedges on the key have to raise 'em all in a line before the plug can turn. That what you mean?"
"Exactly. To carry the parable a step further, I might add that four of my tumblers have reached the proper height, but an obstinate fifth prevents the lock from opening."
When the time comes for Westborough to reveal the identity of the murderer we get yet another long lecture and a killer who, when faced with his mistakes, crumbles under pressure and confesses. But his motive is kept secret for yet another chapter when the requisite surprise is delivered with a resounding thud. This is the only part of the book that fails to honor the fair play tenets of the detective novel. Although some background is given earlier in the book only the most imaginative reader could have made the outrageous leap required to connect the murderer and his motive. For me this was not so much a surprise as it was one of those eleventh hour tricks found in many of Carolyn Wells' mysteries. You expect a rabbit to be pulled out of the hat, but instead a kangaroo jumps out, hops all over the page, and practically thumbs its nose at you. You feel kind of stunned and cheated, no smile on your face and no desire to applaud.

UPDATE:  The Clyde B. Clason bibliography.  All books feature Prof. Westborough as the detective.

The Fifth Tumbler (1936)
The Death Angel (1936)
Blind Drifts (1937)
The Purple Parrot (1937)
The Man From Tibet (1938)*
The Whispering Ear (1938)
Murder Gone Minoan (1939)*
Dragon's Cave (1939)*
Poison Jasmine (1940)*
Green Shiver (1941)*

*These titles are available in trade paperback reissues from Rue Morgue Press.  Tell them I sent you.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Shadow of Your Style

The blog is not even one month old and I've surprisingly received one of the many awards that get bestowed on those lucky enough to be read by award givers. I am surprised and flattered. I doubt I'll be receiving any more unless the traffic picks up around here (the light is always green, by the way). But no matter. I'm glad it's the blog that's thought of as stylish. If anyone saw my unkempt clothes, unshaven face and bare feet while I was typing madly at this computer the award would most likely be taken away in an instant.

An official thank you goes out to Bev from "My Reader's Block" who gave my this award and who I think is largely responsible for the birth of this blog. It was her Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge that got me to see the light. And I'm glad I did. My world became just a little bit bigger and I've found some nifty, well-read people who like the same kinds of books I do. Not at all a bad decision, I'd say.


I am supposed to pass on this award to three other bloggers. So here goes (in alphabetical order just like they do in theater programs):

Carol Carr - Author of India Black - a Victorian era historical mystery with a brothel madame who also works as a spy. I have yet to read her book, but Carol's eclectic and sophisticated taste in vintage mysteries impressed me. Buy her book and read it!

Steve Lewis - Creator of Mystery*File. Here's where I first started guest blogging on a regular basis.  I submit an article once a month over there now. Excellent source for unusual mystery reading and also movie and TV reviews. (yeah, yeah, it's not "newly discovered." Sue me.)

Yvette - Her blog is called "in so many words..." If there were awards for gracious and friendly people I'd hand one out to Yvette in a heartbeat.  I enjoy reading her book reviews, her movie reviews, and heck almost everything she writes about. Thanks for reading my snippet for that flash fiction contest, Yvette. Try this award on for size. It'll fit swell.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Crooked Wreath (1946) - Christianna Brand

I am beginning to think that Christianna Brand was a master of the multiple solution. This is the second book of hers where I have encountered such ingenuity in constructing several solutions to the same crime. Ellery Queen did it well in some of his early books (The Greek Coffin Mystery, most notably) and other writers tried their hand at it such as Anthony Berkeley, J. J. Connington, Leo Bruce, Michael Innes and even the Grand Dame herself Agatha Christie, who tried everything at least once. But with each of those writers' books it was always a detective (or detectives) propounding the different solutions. What Brand does is unique to her for the time period. She has the suspects accusing each other in ways that make use of all the facts and clues.

Sir Richard has been found dead in his study in a lodge separate from the estate. A sand covered pathway leading to the lodge is tended to daily by a gardener who uses a roller to remove marks and then adds more sand to the path. Only one set of footprints is found leading to and from the lodge and they belong to Claire who discovered the body first thing in the morning while bringing Sir Richard his breakfast tray. An autopsy will later prove he had been poisoned the night before. How did the murderer get into the lodge and administer the poison without leaving any traces of having entered or left?

One of the characters, Edward Treviss - the young grandchild of Sir Richard's second wife Bella - is thought by nearly everyone to suffer from an odd psychological condition that sends him into fugue states where he possibly engages in activities then has absolutely no memory of having done them. In an effort to shield the 18 year old man from police suspicion the family lies about certain events and misleads Inspector Cockrill.

It is Sir Richard's will, however, that causes everyone to turn on each other. Prior to his death Sir Richard threatened to disinherit every one of his blood relatives and he planned on writing a new will that night. Problem is no one could find the will. Later it is discovered that the will was witnessed by the gardener and his wife so it must exist. But where is it? Destroyed? Hidden? And that's when the plot starts swirling into a maelstrom of accusations.

Christianna Brand (circa 1950)
Unlike some old melodrama where one character jumps up from the davenport, points a finger and maliciously shouts, "You! You did it, you murderous fiend!" the accuser in a Brand mystery has ample facts to back up the claim. In The Crooked Wreath (also published as Suddenly at His Residence) this happens no less than five times. The jury foreman at the inquest accuses a character, the gardener's wife accuses someone else, one of the grandchildren accuses her cousin's wife, and two other grandchildren accuse the former's husband. In each instance such clues as the lack of rose petals on a walkway, a glass with no fingerprints, a fountain pen with a plunger, a dog that can catch sugar cubes in his mouth, a shattered vase, and the ability for a syringe to shoot liquid several feet are all insightfully used to construct a case against the accused. It's an enviable feat to concoct so many variations of how the crime could have been carried out - especially since it's a rather odd poisoning murder. Brand exhibits finesse and ingenuity in each of the five accusations. Even Mrs. Brough, the gardener's wife, who seems such a minor character at first, steps into the foreground with not one, but two daring pronouncements of her own. She first dares to point the finger at the victim's widow (her employer!) and does so defiantly and wickedly. Later she exudes an unctuous side when she insinuates that an illicit sexual romp occurred and attempts to blackmail the two parties involved.

Aside from the merry-go-round of pointing fingers I could not help but notice an interesting parallel to another very well known crime novel. At one point Bella, Richard's second wife, has an long theatrical monologue in which she reveals how much she loathes the estate and the haunting presence of Serafita, Richard's first wife. In a scene right out of Du Maurier's Rebecca Bella says "...more and more the memory of her came to dominate [Richard's] life -- and my life." And then as passionately as Maxim de Winter denounced his wife she concludes her speech with this revelation: "I kill for possession of this place! I hate every stone of it!" The memory of the estate's first mistress pervades Brand's story just as the first Mrs. de Winter taints and haunts Manderlay. Serafita was a former dancer and on the anniversary of her death a wreath of her favorite roses is placed around her portrait. Little boxes containing her gloves permanently adorn the mantelpieces throughout the home, her old ballet slippers also serve as mementos. It is as if - like Rebecca - she is still alive and will not leave the house.

Little do the characters realize how the house itself will play a crucial and shocking role in the harrowing climax. I doubt any reader will see what is coming although there are plenty of clues to the disaster that ends the book. It is a gripping and intensely cinematic finale -- perfectly suitably for such a brilliantly engineered detective novel.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Man on All Fours (1934) - August Derleth


This is the second of detective novels in a series of ten that feature Derleth's little known second series detective - Judge Ephraim Peck. Derleth is probably better known in the mystery world as the creator of Solar Pons - a Sherlock Holmes spin-off Derleth created when he wanted more Holmes tales but Doyle was not writing them. While Judge Peck shares some aspects of the Holmesian/Pontine method of detection related to physical evidence and the examination of clues he is more in the manner of the intuitive amateur sleuth popular during the late 1920s.

Here is an extremely Gothic detective novel set in a stifling mansion in northern Wisconsin. A family haunted by the deaths of two sons and several grandchildren at early ages and living under the dreaded shadow of hereditary insanity is at the mercy of a homicidal maniac who is killing members of the household. Several members of the family claim to have seen a creeping man both in the house and on the grounds. He appears to be crawling on his hands and knees each time he is seen. The unyielding matriarch seems to know more than she is willing to let on and continually withholds evidence, lies, and covers up the truth. Who is she protecting?

August Derleth, circa 1950s
Before the culprit is found four people will die and a fifth barely escapes with her life. Multiple methods of death (stabbing, gunshot, strangling) lead one to believe that the murderer is completely mad. Which member of the family has finally succumbed to the curse of their line? Or is it indeed the "creeping man" -- some weird intruder living among them? There is some nice detective work on Judge Peck's part including business with dust analysis in two locked rooms that is crucial in uncovering the truth of the creeping man's identity. The book ends melodramatically with a chase and shootout on the mansion's rooftop with some absurd action bits. For example, the 73 year-old matriarch climbing on the roof and grabbing the murderer from a stone parapet. That's some super senior!

Derleth was only 25 at the time of this book's publication. At this point in his career he was still very much a pulp writer. This book has quite a bit of Lovecraft, his writing mentor and friend, in it: the "shunned" house, the familial curse, the manner in which the insanity takes shape in those afflicted, the forbidden third floor and it's locked rooms. Derleth also tries to bury his clues, but he shows his hand clumsily in this book. The emphasis on dread and Gothicism led me to guess the identity of the murderer the instant the character was introduced.

I am in the process of reading most of the Judge Peck books and I am beginning to see themes and something of a formula to them all. A lengthier, in-depth article covering the rest of the titles in the series I own (four more of the ten) and Derleth's approach to and growth in writing detective novels will be posted here shortly.

UPDATE (Feb 15):  I corrected the date of publication. I haven't a clue what possessed me to type 1929.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books - Deliver Me From Eva

Deliver Me From Eva (1946) by Paul Bailey

As we approach Valentine's Day I thought I'd dig around in my reading logs to find an appropriate love story for today's Forgotten Book. And I think I found the perfect candidate. It's Deliver Me From Eva by Paul Bailey. Based on the title's pun you may think this is some tongue-in-cheek love-turned-hate story. Not by a long shot. That head on a platter ought to be a giveaway.


Mark Allard has just met the love of his life on board a train from San Francisco and in a three day whirlwind romance he and Eva Craner are married. Never mind that he's already engaged to Emily, the daughter of his business partner. He'll just break the news to her later – if he ever sees her again. See he's been taken to Eva's home, a secluded palatial mansion she built (yes, she's a magical architect) expressly suited to Mark's tastes right down to the library made up of all his law books and favorite novels and the huge collection of his favorite classical recordings. How did she know? Eva is a superwoman engineered by her mad scientist father Dr. Craner, a legless and earless freak now confined to a uniquely constructed "glider" on wheels, who was raised by a brilliant naturopath after she rescued him from his ignominious life at a Dickensian orphanage.

Did I say this was love story? Well, it certainly starts out as one. Mark loves Eva. He adores her. He can't stop thinking about her and the unbelievable things she has done for him. That is until he meets her father. Then Mark has a lot more on his mind than his love for Eva. And a lot to worry about.

Dr. Craner has discovered that the plates of the human skull can be manipulated to allow the brain to grow (something Harry Stephen Keeler might have invented) and in the process allow the person to achieve perfection. The resulting efforts of his experiments produced his beautiful, multi-talented daughter Eva, and his stunningly handsome, athletically built son Osman who also happens to be a brilliant pianist.

Centipede Press reissue
As for the rest of the Gothic cast of characters we have the doctor's former guardian, the secretive Margot, now imprisoned after she dared to rebel and attempted an escape. Then there's Castleman, butler/tutor/lab assistant, the doctor's man-of-all-work with a subtly sinister demeanor. Rounding out the household is the demented maid Insa who hates the doctor with an intensity so rabid the reader can only suspect she was the victim of something unspeakable.

And woe to those who defy the doctor. No one can ever leave Thalamus (the anatomically named estate) without Craner's permission. Will Mark manage to escape? Or will he succumb to the worst of Dr. Craner's experiments and become the perfect husband for his perfect wife who will give birth to perfect children? You can only guess. And you will most likely be wrong.

The book was published by Murray & Gee, a very minor house in the post-WW2 era and one not exactly known for choosing the most literate of writers. The rear of the DJ on this book advertises two of the better known "alternative classic" mystery writers (as Bill Pronzini dubs them in Gun in Cheek) -- Milton Raison  and Jimmy Starr. Bailey's prose is on their level with interesting dollops of August Derleth-like antiquated syntax and vocabulary. When the action really gets going Bailey's dialog leans towards the pulp emphatic mood and melodramatic movie-speak. Here's a perfect example that occurs just before the grisly, violent climax:
"You insufferable limb of perdition!" I growled through my teeth at Craner. "I'll kill you for this!"

"Your sutures are opening beautifully," I heard the doctor purr. "Astonishing progress in two treatments!"

"Leave me alone!" I howled in anguish. "In God's name, let me out of here! Please let me out!"

"Why certainly, Mark. We're nearly done. Now please relax." The doctor's bald head and smiling face bent to my vision. Assuredly, were it closer, I'd have torn at it with my teeth.

"Don't tell me to relax," I moaned. "I'll kill you, if I never do another thing!"

"That's shameful talk for a son-in-law," he said, pressing viciously at my throbbing head. "You seem ungrateful for the opportunity I'm giving you. [...] I'm giving you life and light, such as you've never known before." And Craner said it almost tenderly.

"You're a lying fiend, and murderer!" I screamed, threshing madly at my straps.
Paul Bailey, the perpetrator
Deliver Me From Eva is one of the most lurid, over-the-top horror novels I've come across in quite some time. It exceeds the creepy revulsion of The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck tenfold, it out-pulps anything in Weird Tales, and has more decapitations than a historical novel set in the French Revolution. I can't bring myself to tell you what happens to all those heads. Thankfully, we are spared any Salome allusions (other than the DJ illustration). But given the tendency to a florid prose style I wonder why Bailey wasn't tempted to throw in a few.

My one caveat is that the book ends so unimaginatively. After all the build-up, all the weird mystery, and a bloody climax to rival that of Sweeney Todd, we are left with a wimpy nebulous finale dominated by New Age mumbo jumbo and Margot's endless cryptic references to Eva's cycle (no, it's not that time of the month for her). Many questions are left unanswered. Instead of being satisfied I was left scratching my head, a bit confused. Anticlimactic to say the least. But our hero and his Eva are together in the final pages. Just like any good love story, right?

Centipede Press, a small independent publisher, reprinted the book and copies are apparently still available at their website and other sites catering to horror fiction. A handful of copies of the original 1st edition being sold online start at $100 a pop and rise sharply in price from dealer to dealer. It's too bad that no cheap paperback reprint exists that would make this book easily accessible to a wider audience.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

NEW STUFF : The Insane Train - Sheldon Russell

Here's a great recipe for a crime novel cocktail: Start with one part inmates of an insane asylum, add one part WW2 vets living as hobos under a bridge. Stir in one railroad yard security man. Shake vigorously. Serve on board a train immediately. You're bound to get a dead body or two in that mix-up. This is The Insane Train -- Sheldon Russell's wild ride of a crime novel that takes the reader from Barstow, California where an insane asylum has been destroyed in a mysterious fire to Oklahoma where the asylum founder wants to relocate his charges in a converted nineteeth century army fort. This is the second novel featuring an excitingly original character – Hook Runyon, a one-armed railroad security man, or "yard dog" in the parlance of train men.

It sure took a long time for the train to get going. As for the journey itself, based on the jacket blurb I thought was going to be reading And Then There Were None on rails. Instead the story turned out to be more of a crime thriller with a colorful train background that kept pushing its way into the foreground. In fact, the train journey itself takes up only a third of the book. No sooner does the killer strike but is eliminated in a gruesomely described scene. It's less "Who done it?" and more and more "What the heck is going on here?"

The story has many tangential elements. For a second book there seemed to be a bit too much emphasis placed on Hook's life as it related to his job rather than the story of the inmates, the vets and the killer wreaking havoc on and off the train. I was disappointed that the mystery took a back seat to Hook's little romance with a nurse, Hook's impending hearing with railway officials, Hook's problems with a brutish thug of a cop, and the many mechanical and navigational problems encountered on the beat up train that takes the inmates to Oklahoma.

One aspect of Hook's life that I did like came as a complete surprise. He is an avid book collector. There are quite a few amateur detectives in the genre who have this hobby, but it's often mentioned just in passing. I usually go out of my way to buy any mystery that has book collecting as part of the plot, so this was a nice bonus.

Hook's hobby comes to the foreground in two informative scenes that tells me Russell must be something of a bibliophile himself, if not a bibliomaniac. When Andrea, the nurse, asks Hook if it's an interest of his he replies that it is rather "[a]n obsession. and I'm not the best company when I'm in the midst of a hunt." But he asks Andrea to tag along with him not once, but twice. She seems to bring him good luck, too, as he finds a few book treasures in their days out together.

As a study in the failing corporate railway industry of the post WW2 era this crime novel works very well. For a detective novel enthusiast like me it left me with mixed feelings because the author keep leaving the main story hanging while he went off with Hook someplace else. Still, I'll be looking for the first book (The Yard Dog) to see how that compares. But there's no doubt that Russell loves trains. He is like one of your old college instructors who knew how to take a topic that might seem incredibly dry and make it come to life in a fascinating way.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Philip Wylie & the Detective as Superman

I'm putting my money on Wylie's one time amateur sleuth, Agamemnon Telemachus Plum, for the fictional detective with the most ridiculous name. He appears in the 1943 mystery novel Corpses at Indian Stones, an entertaining story with an locked room murder. Our hero prefers to go by Aggie and he's a professor of anthropology, an archaeologist and "something of a hobbyist in vertebrate paleontology." His baggy out of style clothes, stooped posture, "wispish Vandyke" and downward cast eyes give people the impression that he is "wizened." It's no wonder then that he's treated with ridicule and derisive comments. But they don’t seem to bother Aggie too much. He's pretty much a misanthrope and shuns all forms of socializing in groups. But the inhabitants of the town where he's summering are in for a surprise. Appearances are deceiving and Aggie will prove to be someone utterly different than how they perceive him.

Aggie has come with his aunt Sarah Plum to the fictional upstate New York summer getaway of Indian Stones. She has a plan for some matchmaking but Aggie will have nothing to do with that. Within a few hours of arriving he finds a calling card impaled on a knife on the door post of their cottage. He pulls the hunting knife out and sees on the card the name Henry H. Bogarty and wonders who it might be. Without thinking he puts the knife on the porch banister and goes inside. A series of local characters are then introduced in an nicely handled expository section, among them the highly disliked Jim Calder who's come to have it out with Sarah over something very personal. Shortly afterwards Calder is found dead in the woods. He's been crushed between two logs that made up the fatal parts of a deadfall – some kind of bear trap. Aggie's keen powers of observation reveal several clues that make him think it's not an accident.

Enter the local police in the person of sharp witted Wes Wickmann. Wes is not easily persuaded that a murder has been done, but assures Aggie and Sarah he'll keep his eye out for suspicious behavior. A few days later Dr. Davis is seen taking photographs around the gruesome accident site. Later, he also turns up dead. His body found in a locked makeshift photographic darkroom, the missing hunting knife buried in his chest. Wes and Aggie join forces to root out the villain wracking havoc and littering the town with bodies.

This is a book that lends itself to one of those Dell Mapback "What this book is about" teasers. In fact Aggie lists the unusual elements in a long list just to aggravate Wes:  "You've got a knife, a calling card, a fox, an automobile, some veal bones that were in it. [...] You've got the deadfall and the bread and the honey and so on. You've got a wine cellar, a bottle of hock, an open cellar window, a secret door, a secret safe that contains straw and some chips from boxes. You've got broken telephone wires, a missing million in gold and platinum..." And of course two dead bodies. But were they murdered? One seems more like an accident, the body in the locked room might even be a suicide. And what happened to Hank Bogarty? Why was the fox wearing a dog collar? Who took the gold? Where is it? Have no fear, Aggie figures it all out.

To appreciate this deceptively lightweight mystery novel even more you need to know about Wylie's other work. One of Wylie's better known books is the one that directly precedes this mystery novel. A Generation of Vipers, is a polemical work filled with vicious tirades about hypocritical views of sex and his savage indictment on mothers he called "Momism." Earlier in his career, Wylie wrote two books that touched on his interest in the superman archetype. One, The Savage Gentleman, is about a young man raised in the jungles apart from any women or female influence. The other is said to have inspired the superheroes of pulp magazines and comic books like Doc Savage and Superman. That book is Gladiator, his first real novel completed in 1926, accepted by Alfred Knopf in that year, but not published until 1930.

In Gladiator the main character, Hugo Danner, is the product of a scientific experiment in which his father injects his pregnant mother with a serum that later endows Danner with superhuman strength, speed and bulletproof skin. He is seemingly invulnerable, but he keeps all these powers hidden. What he really wants is acceptance. Ironically, Danner is made an outcast, shunned and feared for his freakishness.

All of the ideas presented in those three books resurface in the character of Agamemnon Plum.  In Aggie we see yet another version of Danner with intellect substituted for superpowers and the fear that Danner encountered replaced by ridicule that Aggie experiences. Additionally, unlike Danner who has a tragic end, Aggie is redeemed in the eyes of many of the characters - mostly the women - when he literally must strip himself of his professorial facade and reveal the real man beneath the baggy clothes. Wylie seems fascinated with the virile male physique and its effect on how others perceive it. Aggie, in a scene where he is wearing only swim trunks, is described as "a man knotted with lean muscle, a man with the build of an acrobat, a man of visible, formidable strength." Not at all what most people think of when presented with a "rabbity" professor of anthropology.

It is the women who are primarily impressed and who almost immediately change their opinions of him. Beth Calder, previously his primary taunter, sees him walking to the canoe and rowing out into the lake, and says, "We've got that guy all wrong. He's dangerous." And Mrs. Drayman slightly stunned by Aggie's appearance remarks, "He isn't little, even." The woman who Aggie is most drawn to, however, is not surprised at all.

Danielle Davis - daughter of the second murder victim - is convinced there is something hidden about him. His athletic ability and physique only confirm her suspicions. She is an outspoken, outrageous and defiant young woman who takes every opportunity to draw attention to herself in the most socially inappropriate ways possible. Wylie likes these two extremes of misanthropy - the withdrawn intellect who prefers solitude and loathes people and the über-extroverted rebel who couldn't give a damn what anyone thinks of her behavior. They are - of course- destined to end up together in the book's final pages.

Philip Wylie (from Life, Jan. 1942)
As a detective novelist Wylie tries to honor the traditional fair play tenets of the Golden Age, but there are several instances of Aggie's observations that come up out of nowhere. Aggie may have seen it, but the reader was not told until pages later. These are mere quibbles though. The plot is engaging enough. The banter between Aggie and his bedridden aunt,  suffering a bout of mumps for most of the book, is amusing. The crimes are puzzling including the very odd solution to the locked room murder. Finally, the confrontation between detective and culprit is presented in a well done send-up of the know-it-all amateur sleuth's lecture.

For me the most fascinating part is this odd reworking of the themes in Gladiator and The Savage Gentleman in the character of Aggie. It is almost a complete reversal of the other books. Aggie goes from social outcast to accepted hero merely by taking off his clothes and getting in a canoe. At the same time it's a quaint idea and purely of its time. No writer would ever want to attempt something like this in our age of a health club mad citizenry utterly obsessed with appearance and fitness.

UPDATES (Feb 7, 2011)

1. For more on Gladiator go to this unusual site completely devoted to the book. Make sure you visit "The Inscription" page, especially, to learn how Wylie felt about the sci-fi and mystery books he wrote in the 1930s.

2. Corpses at Indian Stones is the only pure detective novel Wylie wrote solely himself. After 1943 he wrote a handful crime fiction books but they are mostly in the thriller or espionage category. He did, however, write three other detective novels in collaboration with Edwin Balmer who was also co-author on When Worlds Collide and its sequel After Worlds Collide. They are:

Five Fatal Words (Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932)
The Golden Hoard (Stokes, 1934)
The Shield of Silence (Stokes, 1936)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

LEFT INSIDE: Ned Guymon's Skull & Claw Bookplate

One of the interesting sideline hobbies that arose from my obsessive and never ending book collecting is my interest in bookplates.  I started researching the artists, the companies that produced them and sometimes the name on the bookplate itself. In addition to bookplates I have started an odd ephemera collection that consists of items used as unusual bookmarks or were just left in a book and forgotten.  That collection so far includes receipts, bus transfers, postcards, theater tickets, photos, a 1954 car registration, a cruise ship menu, and even a photostat of someone's Social Security card.

This is the beginning of a monthly look at those items.  I'm starting with perhaps the most "famous" item - the bookplate of prominent detective fiction collector E. T. (Ned) Guymon.  For more about Mr. Guymon's collection And his place in the world of detective fiction bibliomania you can visit Bowling Green State University's Browne Library of Popular Culture by clicking here.


Several years ago when I was reshelving this bookplate fell out of one of my many mystery novels. Only recently have I started making notes on what book the various objects came in.  Unfortunately, this one comes from a time when I wasn't making those notes. I pride myself on an excellent memory, but try as I might I just don't know what book this was in.

I did a Google search on "Ned Guymon bookplate" to see just who he was and, strangely, the first hit I got was a photo of a Ph.D. candidate with a tattoo based on this bookplate. I don't understand why someone would want this permanently inked into their skin. But hell I don't understand the fascination with tattoos these days anyway.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Mystery at Friar's Pardon

Mystery at Friar's Pardon (1931) by Martin Porlock 
(pseudonym of Philip MacDonald) 


Philip MacDonald is best known as the creator of Colonel Anthony Gethryn who appeared in 12 detective novels and one short story between 1924 and 1959.  Among some of the more inter-
esting books are The Link, The Noose (the very first "Collins Crime Club" novel), The Maze (US title: Persons Unknown) and Nursemaid Who Disappeared (US title: Warrant for X). Gethryn was immortalized on screen in the persona of George C. Scott who doggedly pursued a murderer systematically knocking off the men whose names appeared on The List of Adrian Messenger.

MacDonald also created an alter ego - Martin Porlock - and under this pseudonym wrote three varied and entertaining detective novels none of which feature a series detective. The first and most innovative is Mystery at Friar's Pardon.


A haunted house, poltergeist activity, and a legend of previous owners of Friar's Pardon drowning in a locked room in the forbidden East Wing are at the heart of this excellent example of a Golden Age country manor detective novel. Several nervous and suspicious servants, a foppish secretary, the browbeaten niece, her billiard-playing mismatched suitor are among the many suspects when Enid Lester Greene, a harridan of a romance novelist, is found dead in her locked bedroom. She has succumbed to the curse. True to the legend she has drowned, but no water no any trace of water can be found in the room.


This is one of my favorite little known books in the subgenre of the impossible crime.  While it may be filled with typical stock British characters of the period, the writing is so lively and witty it made me laugh out loud several times and not in derision. The locked room puzzle is devilish and well clued. The denouement occurs at a séance staged as a last resort by the amateur detective, Charles Fox-Browne, in order to clear the name of the woman with whom he has fallen in love. It's one of the best confession by entrapment scenes in a Golden Age novel I've read in a long time.


Th
e addition of possible supernatural events and an impossible crime of bizarre nature make me think that this is MacDonald's homage to John Dickson Carr's books. However, this book predates all but three of Carr's better known impossible crime novels that have similar plot motifs. Perhaps this work of MacDonald's inspired Carr! This book certainly seems as if it were right out of the Dr. Fell series.

BLAST FROM THE PAST: Lee Thayer on "What's My Line?"

Thanks to a lively discussion on Lee Thayer related to my previous post on The Mystery of the 13th Floor and the 1001 Midnights Thayer article that Steve Lewis posted at Mystery*File we now have this video Mike Grost found. At the time Thayer was over 80 and had written 57 books. She nearly stumps the panel!




Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Stranded on Lake Shore Drive

It's officially winter with a blizzard of epic proportions out here in Chicago.  The weather experts are saying this may top the whopper of '67. I have no memory of that one being just a little toddler at the time. But when our family moved to Connecticut in the 1970s I certainly experienced my fair share of insane winter weather. We had ice storms that shut down our town and left us snowbound and without power. We huddled around our fireplace, cooked on sterno kits that my mother used for her holiday buffets, and took our fat basset hound in the backyard to frolic in five foot drifts.


I've been in Chicago now for over 25 years and only have lived through only one real snowstorm back in 1999. This one is pretty darn nasty compared to that. While I was lucky enough to get home yesterday evening without any incident, I am just learning that hundreds of people in cars and CTA buses were stranded on Lake Shore Drive here in Chicago for hours. Some headed home at 3:30 in the Hyde Park neighborhood on our South side were unlucky enough to encounter huge snowdrifts or car accidents that left them stuck in their cars for up to 12 hours. Rescuers from fire departments around the city have finally got the last of the stranded people. The road is officially closed now and the work begins to remove the cars and buses.

This blizzard is far worse than I thought it would be. It is crippling not only the Chicago but the entire the state of Illinois. I have heard that a highway to the west of -- Interstate 39 -- is officially closed from Bloomington (in the center of the state) to Rockford (just south of the Wisconsin border). That's a total of 133 miles. Closer to my home, here in the northernmost neighborhood of Rogers Park, portions of our public transportation train line, the CTA Brown Line, is shut off in the west. My sister who lives in a northern suburb tells me that surrounding towns have lost power. Our lights flickered three separate times, thankfully we're still with electricity and phone service.

My partner and I cleared the walkway in front of building twice and kept attacking the drifts that were blocking our rear entry that leads to the parking lot. I'll probably be getting to it again later this morning. The drifts in the parking lot in the rear of the building are up to my waist. I'm 5'9" tall. Fun! I'm saving the parking lot itself for the guys we hire to clear it out. They at least have a snow plow. But somehow I'm not sure they'll be coming today.

Send out your good thoughts to this part of the Midwest. We could always use a few prayers. And maybe a gigantic sunlamp.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mystery of the 13th Floor (1919) - Lee Thayer

Thayer's first book published in 1919 introduces her detective Peter Clancy at the ripe young age of 15. Here he acts as boy sleuth with the help of a sassy Irish secretary named Maybelle Riley, but his role is only incidental. He appears briefly at the start and then again at the end of the tale, though he is instrumental in clearing the name of a wronged man.

James Randolph Stone, a curmudgeon of a lawyer, is stabbed in an apparent impossible crime only seconds after a will was witnessed by two office associates who left his office and closed the door. No one is seen leaving the office.  Seems the criminal must've entered from the outside of the building, but the office is on the 13th floor and the fire escape was on the other side of the very long office. There could've been no time to enter, stab the lawyer, and leave in the short amount of time that passed when he was left alone and the time he cried out.

Though the book begins in the mode of a detective story it quickly transforms itself into a crime thriller. At the center of this involved story is the will which disappears from the office shortly after the body is discovered. Everyone wants the document and is willing to do anything to retrieve it. Nearly everyone in the story ends up committing a crime of some sort as they all try to gain possession of the missing will. Vandalism, blackmail, extortion, burglary – you name it, someone will do it. Additionally, many of the characters decide to withhold information or lie in order to protect the person they suspect of committing the crime. This happens no less than three times. Eventually we have several scenes where the good guys end up delivering Sunday School sermons on forgiveness and honor to one another when they all learn that they have misperceived each other. There is much hand shaking, embracing and calling each other "white."

It's all very old fashioned. I was most reminded of Carolyn Wells' early books. The writing has a tendency to drift off into sentimental reveries that are attempts to flesh out characters but only serve to interrupt the flow of action. In this book Thayer has a tendency to overload the book with incident, even though many of the action scenes are well handled. Her weakness is an indulgence in melodramatic scenes that alternate with sentimental passages. The good characters are virtuous and self-righteous. The villains are conniving, self-interested and despicable. Few characters are painted in shades of gray (or any other color) - it's mostly black and white with Thayer.

At last the lock gave way. - from Chapter 16. Gregory Commits a Crime
My favorite character is Philip Gregory the only fully realized character who escapes the stereotyping and comic phonetic dialects that Thayer inflicts on many of her characters. Gregory is the senior lawyer in Stone's firm and he happens to overhear a bit of crucial information uttered by two villainous conspirators. Because this information - the actual location of the stolen will - can clear the name of Jimmie Stone (the nephew accused of the murder confined to jail for most of the book) Gregory decides to become a vandal and burglar in order to obtain the will and free the prisoner. His plan backfires, but the reader can't help but root for this older gentlemen who up to that point in his life was never anything but a proper gentleman.

Interestingly, there is a character who can be none other than the author herself in fictional form.  Phyllis Calvert, Jimmie's love interest, is an independent young woman who makes her living as a freelance magazine artist and bookplate designer.  For many years, Thayer devoted her life to commercial art and made quite a name for herself as a book jacket illustrator.  Nearly all of her mystery novels feature her art work on either the cover (as above) or as the DJ illustration.  Should you have one of her books look for her distinctive LT she signed on all her work somewhere in the lower portion of the drawing on the DJ.

The solution comes as a deus ex machina and was a bit of a letdown.  A confession is discovered in the hands of the guilty party who has committed suicide. The confession, a lengthy floridly written document, is read out in the courtroom at the eleventh hour -- literally an instant before the jury delivers its verdict. We learn of the motive, and the method and the secret of how the crime was committed as well as a very detailed backstory on the murderer who we knew nothing about anyway. ("What?" I hear you say. "How unfair.") The murderer turns out to have been an extremely minor character introduced in a single paragraph who uttered exactly five sentences at the start of the book and was never heard from again until the penultimate chapter.

I'd say that this book would be interesting only to Clancy fans who are curious of his origin in a series that lasted well into the late 1960s. I'm guessing that Clancy actually aged chronologically -- something that seems rare in series detectives from this period. But it's only a guess since I have never read any of Thayer's other books. In order to find out if I am indeed correct I would have to read six more novels before I got to Alias Dr. Ely (1927) in which Peter impersonates a physician, and therefore must be a young man in his 20s. After finishing this one and then having read Mike Nevins' less than laudatory entry for Thayer's books in 1001 Midnights, I really have no desire to venture further into her work.