Monday, August 29, 2011

Great Black Kanba, by Constance and Gwenyth Little


Great Black Kanba
By Constance and Gwenyth Little
1944


You don't run across books by the Little sisters every day (or at least I don't) and so I was looking forward to reading this one. Then I started it. And set it aside about halfway through. And then came back to it several weeks later determined to give it another chance. And plowed through the rest of it with no small amount of effort solely for the reason of seeing how they were going to wind things up. And cut loose with a great big sigh when I'd finally wrapped it up.

The Little sisters were Australian-born New Jerseyites who wrote a total of 21 novels between the years 1938-1953. For whatever reason they chose to use the word "black" in the titles of all but the first book. I read The Black Paw a while back and recall that I was not disappointed by it at all. The sisters have been described as writers of "screwball cozies" and while that tendency was apparent in The Black Paw it wasn't here.

Great Black Kanba is the nickname of a train that's making its way across Australia. Along for the ride are one Cleo Ballister, who is suffering temporary amnesia and may not actually be Cleo Ballister at all. At some point she meets a group of people who may or may not be distant relatives that she's never seen before. They all climb aboard, a few murders take place, Cleo's memory starts to come back in bits and pieces and 240 plodding pages later it's all sorted out.

Brevity is the soul of wit, as the saying goes, and I'd propose that it is also the soul of the detective story. My thoughts on this one are the Littles should have done as Elmore Leonard famously said and leave out the parts that no one reads.

More on the Little sisters here.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter, by Barry Grant


Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter
By Barry Grant
2010


In my typically haphazard fashion I somehow managed to read Barry Grant's second Holmes knockoff before reading the first. Okay, so be it. That first adventure was The Strange Return of Sherlock Holmes and Grant is apparently a sort of pen name for one Barry Grant Brissman (sez one source).

I try to read as little as possible about books before actually sitting down to read them, so it came as a bit of a jolt to realize that Holmes was operating in the present day here, along with his journalist sidekick, James Wilson. This has all come about because the great detective was recently defrosted after spending nearly a century frozen in a glacier. Yep. Really.

Which leads one to believe that this is not going to be your standard Holmes knock-off. But actually, if you push these details to the side, it is a fairly standard Holmes knock-off - to a point. I say that because about thirty pages from the end the author goes completely nutso and winds things up in a ridiculously over the top manner that would have fit quite nicely into any of the most lurid pulp fiction rags of yesteryear.

Which might not work for everyone, admittedly. I think the key here was just to abandon oneself to the sheer silliness of it all and go with the flow. Holmes purists might cringe at this sort of thing, but I gave it high marks all around.

For someone else's thoughts on this decidedly loopy book, take a look at this brief piece from Cleveland.com.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Shorts: Max Carrados & John Silence


A Victim of Higher Space
by Algernon Blackwood
1914


The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage
by Ernest Bramah
1914


So there I was, skimming through the archives of Project Gutenberg, trying to see what I could see, when I came across some John Silence stories by Algernon Blackwood and some Max Carrados stories by Ernest Bramah. Because my To Be Read pile is rather sizable at the moment and I don't like reading on the PC or printing out reams of text I decided to just select one of each. Coincidentally, the ones I selected seem to be from the same year.

First, the John Silence story, which really didn't do much for me. Obviously, it's not fair to judge by one story so I won't. I'll also point out that I've read some of Blackwood's other fiction, not to mention a great biography by Mike Ashley, which I reviewed a few years back. I liked most of the other Blackwood stories I've read. Most were more in the horror/supernatural vein and his short story The Empty House still stands out for me as one of the creepier tales I've ever read.

As for this John Silence yarn, not so great. Silence, if I've got my story straight, is something of a psychic detective or investigator. In this tale he's visited by a man who keeps slipping in and out of another dimension. This, as you might guess, is causing him a great deal of stress and inconvenience. Silence hears him out and suggests a remedy, which the man later tries, successfully. That is the end of that.

Which isn't much to hang a story on, quite frankly. Not that I mind a tale which is primarily comprised of two guys sitting around talking. I read some of Asimov's Black Widower tales recently and like them quite a bit, even though they're basically a bunch of guys sitting around talking. But I'll need to give Silence another shot before coming to any hard and fast conclusions.

The Carrados story, on the other hand, was quite entertaining, if perhaps just the tiniest bit farfetched. Carrados was a blind detective whose short fictional adventures were collected in several volumes between 1914 and 1934. This story finds him looking into a case in which a man is suspected of planning to bump off his wife. It's a fairly clever yarn and one in which a kite plays a prominent role (enough said), but it has a seriously downbeat ending that I didn't see coming at all. Not one to leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside but it made for entertaining reading even so.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Murder on the Moor, by C.S. Challinor


Murder on the Moor
By C.S. Challinor
2011

According to the author's web site this is the fourth of five mysteries starring "Scottish barrister-sleuth" Rex Graves. This episode finds Graves hosting a house party, of sorts, at his new home in a relatively remote region in the Scottish moor. His old flame turns up, which is decidedly inconvenient since his new flame is already on hand. Things go downhill even further when the old flame is found dead in the nearby loch. Oh, and there's a child killer at work in the area, which makes for an especially grim undercurrent to the proceedings.

Not much else to say about this one except that if you like them short, sweet and fairly straightforward you'll probably like this one. I did.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and the American Angels, by Barrie Roberts


Sherlock Holmes and the American Angels
By Barrie Roberts
2007


It wasn't my intention to make a study of Sherlock Holmes knockoffs, but I've read several lately and have two more on deck as I write this. Roberts wrote nine Sherlock Holmes books in all - this one was the last before his death in 2007. I didn't find this one as entertaining as the last novel-length Holmes pastiche I read, L.B. Greenwood's Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Sabina Hall, but it was fairly readable even so.

Things get rolling with Holmes deciphering a coded communication in the newspaper classifieds, which leads to a murder and then another one, apparently related to the first. The plot thickens considerably from here, with the possible involvement of a terrorist group responsible for assassinating American president William McKinley tossed into the mix, along with a cache of gold coins that went missing several centuries earlier.

All of which finds Holmes and Watson headed to the Scottish Highlands to get things sorted out. Where they encounter various obstacles, including a few attempts on their lives, before Homes wraps things up, collaring all of the villains and locating the missing gold.

Not bad. Not great. If you simply can't get enough Holmes, you may want to take a look.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Reminiscences of Solar Pons, by August Derleth


The Reminiscences of Solar Pons
By August Derleth
1961


If you're like me, you probably know of August Derleth as the guy responsible for posthumously rescuing H.P. Lovecraft from the dust bin of obscurity. Until recently I was not aware that he also published a number of volumes (looks like nearly a dozen) of the adventures of one Solar Pons, whose marked resemblance to Sherlock Holmes is no accident.

This is apparently the fifth volume of collected Pons stories. There are eight stories in all, along with an introduction by Anthony Boucher and A Chronology of Solar Pons, by Robert Patrick.

The stories were all published in the late Fifties and early Sixties, except for The Adventure of the Black Cardinal. This appeared in 1930 and, coincidentally or not, was the one I liked the least. A tale of a rabble-rouser fomenting dissent against the Catholic Church, it bogged down a bit in politics and church history. A nice scene, however (small spoiler warning), at the end with Pons in a light aircraft, ready to take out a baddie with a machine gun.

The other low point for me, The Adventure of the Troubled Magistrate, wasn't a bad tale but was merely a bit too straightforward and obvious. In the so-so category, The Adventure of the Cloverdale Kennels, which asks us to speculate how and why a man might have killed himself by placing a rifle in a tree outside his window and using a piece of string to pull the trigger. The Adventure of the Praed Street Irregulars involves a kidnapped kid and international intrigue and didn't really do too much for me either.

The stories I found more interesting included The Adventure of the Mazarine Blue, which has to do with a rare butterfly and a mysterious thirteenth coffin that turns up in a crypt where there were only twelve previously. Missing hats - and quite a few of them - pose an interesting problem in The Adventure of the Hats of M. Dulac.

The Adventure of the Blind Clairaudient presents a slightly farfetched tale of a woman who claims to be able to hear the future and who doesn't particularly like something she's just heard. Which leaves The Adventure of the Mosaic Cylinders, the longest and, for me, the most entertaining story in the book. It finds Pons unraveling an interesting puzzle that has to do with the cylinders of the title, a poem and some valuable antiquities.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Dark and Stormy Night, by Jeanne Dams


A Dark and Stormy Night
by Jeanne Dams
2010


How can you pass up a book with a title like A Dark and Stormy Night? I certainly couldn't and it turned out to be worth the investment of my time and energy. The action takes place at an English country house weekend and things really get rolling after a body is discovered and a rip-roaring storm leaves the group cut off from the rest of the world.

The plot thickens and the casualties start to stack up, as so often the case in these things. Amateur detective Dorothy Martin and her husband, a retired police constable, have to step lively to try to get it all sorted out without getting knocked off themselves. A few interesting twists as things wind to a close and though I did see most of them coming I'd still give it high marks overall.

This looks to be the tenth of as many Dorothy Martin books by Dams and, in my opinion, it ranks right up there with the best of the traditionally styled English country house murder mysteries. Definitely worth a look, if you're keen on this sort of thing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Shorts: The House in the Mist, by Anna Katharine Green


The House in the Mist
By Anna Katharine Green
1905

Project Gutenberg edition

To the best of my recollection, this is my first experience with the fiction of Anna Katharine Green. According to Wikipedia, she was active in the field between 1878 and 1923, with this work falling more or less in the middle of that span.

I don't know if I'd call The House in the Mist mystery fiction, at least not in the sense of a whodunit with a detective or law enforcement officer trying to crack the case. But it's close enough for government work and a pretty entertaining novella, clocking in at about fifteen thousand words.

As our narrator approaches and eventually enters the house mentioned in the title, he soon finds himself joined by a gang of mostly unsavory characters, one of whom is a lawyer. As it turns out, they are all there for the reading of the will of a wealthy sibling who has passed on recently. Which is about as much as I can tell without spoiling things.

Though the ending was rather obvious not so far on, that didn't really diminish the story in any way. Green has a way with atmosphere and with expertly sketching out a group of unlikeable characters that you wouldn't really want to meet in real life. For some reason I kept thinking of Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery as I read this, if just for the atmosphere and general creepiness of it all.

Worth a look.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Death at Wentwater Court, by Carola Dunn


Death at Wentwater Court
by Carola Dunn
1994


If you've got a mystery that takes place in a mansion, manor, country house or castle, sign me up. I kind of a sucker for that for sort of thing and this one was no exception.

Death at Wentwater Court kicked off Carola Dunn's popular Daisy Dalrymple series of mysteries, which is now closing in on twenty books. I've read one other - Mistletoe And Murder. This time around the setting is 1923, at Wentwater Manor, the home base for usual gang of aristocratic doofuses that tend to populate this sort of book.

Daisy is on hand to profile the family and house for a magazine article, which is a bit awkward, given her own somewhat aristocratic background and the notion that it's almost scandalous for one of such breeding to actually dirty one's hands with honest work. Before long a visiting blueblood with a decidedly bad reputation dies in an ice-skating accident. Or was it really an accident? Well, one can certainly hazard a good guess on that score.

Dunn has Daisy work more or less hand in hand with the police on this one, pulling off the always tricky feat - with some skill - of having the amateur detective actually be able to detect. The plot moves along briskly, taking some interesting twists and turns before coming to a somewhat offbeat ending. Not to reveal too much about that, but let's just say that things aren't quite painted in the nice, neat shades of black and white that you often find in this type of yarn.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Red Threads, by Rex Stout


Red Threads
By Rex Stout
1939


One of the high points of the Nero Wolfe novels, for me and probably a lot of other readers as well, is the love/hate relationship between Wolfe, his smartass sidekick, Archie Goodwin, and the perpetually harried Inspector Cramer. Which makes for some entertaining exchanges, to be sure. But if you've ever wondered why Inspector Cramer is not the focal point of his own series you need look no further than Red Threads, which Stout published in 1939, after about five or six Nero Wolfe books had seen print.

Which is not to say that Red Threads is necessarily a bad book. I wouldn't go quite that far. What I would say is that it is very methodical and workmanlike and devoid of many of the qualities that made the Wolfe books so easy to breeze through. Without those qualities about all you have left is a plot, which almost nobody ever accused Stout of having a good handle on, and what seem like endless blocks of dialogue. Here's a book that could have been stripped down to the novella length of many of the Wolfe stories and probably wouldn't have lost anything in the translation.

The plot is actually not such a bad one, by Stout's standards. A wealthy man is bludgeoned to death inside the elaborate shrine he's built to his Native American wife. He's found with a scrap of red yarn clutched in his fist of the type known as bayeta, which is apparently a type of Native American fabric with quite a pedigree. From there to the solution it's basically just a whole lot of legwork (and dialogue) to sort out the whole mess.

What I found oddest about this one is that we really don't know any more about Cramer by the time it's all said and done than we did at the beginning or than we might have learned from one of the Wolfe stories - except that he has a daughter in high school. That's really it.

I'd rank this one as an interesting curiosity for serious Wolfe fans, but that's about it. Then again, as a fairly serious Wolfe fan, it might just be that I'm not able to be truly objective about its merits or lack thereof.

For some perspective on this one from back in the day, look here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Whodunit, by Philip Pullman


Whodunit
By Philip Pullman
1998


Selecting a dozen or so mystery stories with the purpose of introducing this sort of thing to a young adult audience is probably something of a daunting task. Pullman, best known as author of the His Dark Materials books, does a decent enough job. He includes stories from many of the big names, including Doyle (The Speckled Band), Bentley (The Little Mystery), Sayers (The Inspiration Of Mr. Budd), Christie (The Adventure Of The Egyptian Tomb) and Queen (Cold Money). Not quite so well-known but still in the whodunit vein, one of Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers stories.

There are also a number of stories that to my way of thinking don’t really qualify as whodunits, including an excerpt from Emil And The Detectives, by Erich K√§stner, a Saint story by Leslie Charteris, an Italian folktale by Italo Calvino, and some lighthearted crime yarns by Stephen Leacock and Damon Runyon. There's also Fingerprinting A Ghost, a non-fiction piece by Tony Fletcher, and a smattering of other stuff.

Whether or not the world really needs more of these broad overviews of the field is not for me to say, but this one makes for some entertaining reading, if not always quite delivering what it advertises.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Seven Faces, by Max Brand


Seven Faces
By Max Brand
1936


My local library system is not exactly overflowing with classic mysteries so when I came across a volume by Max Brand (Frederick Faust) I was rather surprised. Especially since I had assumed that Brand was more of a Western writer. As it turns out, I was right. The Max Brand Web site calls him "The World's Most Celebrated Western Writer."

But given that only about 300 of his estimated 500 books were Westerns that leaves a fair amount of room to delve into other genres, such as this mystery. Seven Face deals with the problem of how a man traveling on a train under police guard could be taken from said train and bumped off in a rather gruesome manner. As the plot thickens it turns out that there was a partnership gone bad some years back at a mine in Nevada and some old scores are now being settled as a result.

Not too bad, all in all, though Brand's pulp leanings are quite in evidence here. This is a fast-paced, rollicking tale that reads like it was written by someone who spent little time lingering over the finer points of fiction writing.