Friday, September 30, 2011
Keeper of the Keys
by Earl Derr Biggers
I'm not completely sure what I expected as I set out to try a Charlie Chan novel, the first one I've read. I've never seen any of the movies and yet had somehow built up an image of a rather goofy Chinese detective speaking awful pidgin English and spouting quaint homilies lifted from a fortune cookie.
I couldn't have been farther off the mark, except for those homilies, and quite frankly Biggers might have gone a little bit over the top in that particular area. But that's a minor quibble. There is actually another Chinese character who's integral to this book and he does speak awful pidgin English, but Chan is articulate and mild-mannered and yet a rather formidable opponent for anyone who attempts to cross him.
The story takes place at Lake Tahoe, in winter, which is quite a novelty for the Hawaiian detective. He's been called there to tackle a fairly mundane job but when he arrives at the lakefront house he finds his employer has called together the current husband of his ex-wife, an opera singer, as well as two of her other ex-husbands. The opera singer turns up before long and not so long after that she turns up dead, shot to death in an upstairs room.
From here on out Chan works hand in hand with the local sheriff, who admits that he's not really qualified to do this sort of thing, and the sheriff's retired father who preceded him as sheriff. Together they manage to sort it all out and while the crime and solution were nothing terribly exceptional the entire package was sufficiently well constructed to make for quite a page-turner.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Murder 101: Locked Room Mystery
Written by Walter Klenhard
It's the best TV movie that stars Dick Van Dyke and features a locked room murder. I guarantee it.
But seriously. The Hallmark Channel turned out four of the Murder 101 movies between 2006 and 2008. This was the third one. They starred Van Dyke as criminology professor Dr. Jonathan Maxwell and his son Barry Van Dyke as an ex-cop who now works as a private investigator. Various other members of the Van Dyke clan turn up in the movies - a total of four of them are featured in this episode.
The setting this time around is a popular new age center headed by a messianic healer named Samuel (I didn't catch his last name - perhaps it wasn't given). He is fairly likeable and down to Earth as these messianic healer types go. The locked room murder - Samuel is shot - takes place in a sealed meditation chamber. There are only two keys and both are held by inhabitants of the chamber. When the door is broken down Samuel's four pupils are in such a deep trance that blanks fired from a policeman's gun elicit no response.
All of which could have made for a decent enough locked room mystery. Things proceeded in a relatively entertaining fashion for a TV movie, but the major drawback was the solution to the murder. I'm no expert on locked room crimes but I'd have to rank the solution to this one as a flat-out cheat.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
The Casino Murder Case
From a story by S.S. Van Dine
This cinematic outing finds the esteemed Mr. Philo Vance investigating three cases of attempted murder by poison, one of which is successful, and a shooting which may or may not be a suicide. All of the victims of these crimes are members of a wealthy, eccentric family who own a casino.
I didn't find this one particularly exciting for about the first three-quarters of the movie but things began to kick into gear after that. Overall, I'd say I preferred the somewhat more offbeat The Dragon Murder Case (which I reviewed recently) to this one.
Trivia fans will want to note that the sergeant is played by Ted Healy, who worked with the Three Stooges before they hit it big. Also on hand, in an uncredited role as an auctioneer, William Demarest, later renowned for his role as Uncle Charley in My Three Sons.
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Movie: The Smiling Ghost
From a story by Stuart Palmer
There are a few traces of a mystery in The Smiling Ghost, but things are played mostly for laughs with a few halfhearted chills tossed into the mix. Which doesn’t make for great art but if you can put your brain on hold for an hour or so and take it as it comes you could do a lot worse.
Lucky Downing's luck has apparently been of the bad variety lately. When we see him at the beginning of the film he's fending off creditors and is therefore quite pleased when a wealthy heiress offers a tidy sum for him to pose as her fiancée for a month. When he gets to the requisite mansion full of eccentric relatives and starts to discover what happened to the heiress's previous fiancées he's not quite so pleased.
And so it goes, through various twists and turns and wacky antics until the baddie is finally revealed. If you're looking for something along the lines of Palmer's Hildegarde Withers adaptations, such as the Penguin Pool Murder or Murder on a Bridle Path, look elsewhere. If you're simply looking for some good old-fashioned silly fun, look here.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Nine - And Death Makes Ten
By Carter Dickson
John Dickson Carr is known for many things, but one of the things I like best about the dozen or so of his books that I've read is the sense of atmosphere he's able to create. He does this to great effect - at least at first - in the unfortunately titled Nine - And Death Makes Ten.
It's early in World War II and a group of nine passengers are making their way across the Atlantic on an ocean liner designed to carry many more people. It's a dicey time to be making such a voyage, given the likelihood of being picked off by enemy submarines. A chance that's only enhanced by the fact that the ship is carrying a cargo of military equipment.
You might not be surprised to find out that before long a murder takes place. Not long after, and fairly well into the book, the ninth of the ship's passengers is revealed - it's none other than Sir Henry Merrivale. Whose buffoonish mannerisms pretty much shoot that whole oppressive atmosphere thing in the foot. Before it's all said and done there are more murders and the explanation of the rather complex crimes takes up a considerable chunk of the book.
As I noted recently in a review of the movie version of The Dragon Murder Case, featuring Philo Vance, it's a whole lot of fuss and bother to go to just to bump someone off, especially on an ocean liner where you could probably just push them over the rail, with no one being the wiser. But if you're reading these intricate GAD puzzle mysteries you're probably not a real stickler for realism. I'm sure not.
For some additional perspective, see what Puzzle Doctor had to say about this one.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
A Death For Adonis
By E.X. Giroux
A sculptor's model is found dead. To add insult to mortal injury, he's also been chopped to pieces. What's left of him is found in the arms of the artist who was sculpting him, in a house where everyone else has been drugged. The sculptor is judged insane and is shuttled off to an institution, where he spends the next several decades in a catatonic trance. Enter barrister Robert Forsythe, who's retained by the sculptor's niece to look into this very cold case. The hope is that he'll be able to clear her uncle's name.
I wasn't able to find much information on E.X. Giroux, aside from the fact that it's the pen name for one Doris Shannon, who turned out ten novels between 1984 and 1993 chronicling Forsythe's exploits.
As I've noted before, I tend to not be very systematic when reading the works of any particular author. But in this case I lucked out, given that A Death For Adonis is the first of the Forsythe books. It's also quite a page-turner, if I do say so myself. I tend to favor brevity when it comes to mysteries and this one comes through, clocking in at a mere 149 pages and whipping by in what seemed like no time at all.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
The Dragon Murder Case
From a novel by S.S. Van Dine
A man dives into a pool in full view of his companions. He does not surface. The pool is drained, turning up nothing but what appear to be dragon tracks. Enter Philo Vance, a somber district attorney, and a wisecracking police sergeant, who convene to determine exactly what transpired.
This one's good fun all around, in spite of the somewhat farfetched nature of the crime. But then where would the GAD have been without murderers who went to such ridiculous lengths to carry out up such complicated crimes?
This actually marks my first exposure to Philo Vance. I've been meaning to read some of the books, but thus far have fallen afoul of the "so many books, so little time" dictum.
Friday, September 16, 2011
The Second Confession
By Rex Stout
I've noticed something as I've been reading my way through most of the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe stories and a handful of the Robert Goldsborough knockoffs. The stories in which Wolfe has a personal interest in the case he's working on tend to be more interesting than those in which he's just trying to collect a fee. Which is all that he's trying to do at the beginning of The Second Confession.
As things get rolling Wolfe has been called upon by a captain of industry to confirm that his daughter's boyfriend is a card-carrying Communist. Once upon a time this was the kind of thing that was considered to be pretty serious stuff. Archie is dispatched to do the legwork, engages in a couple of legally and ethically dicey actions to further that end and lo and behold, the plot thickens, with a certain party hitting Wolfe where it really hurts. I won't go into it much further than this, except to say that this is the second novel of a trilogy (of sorts) in which high-powered gangster Arnold Zeck plays a role. The final volume - In the Best Families - pulls out all the stops, but this one ain't so shabby either.
Which isn't much of a review, when you come right down to it, but in the interest of not spoiling things I'll just say that this made for some good reading and would probably be even better if you read the three Zeck books in order, something that I didn't do.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Faked To Death
by Dean James
You could argue that Shakespeare and other great poets of yesteryear elevated the writing of sonnets to a fine art, one that may never be surpassed. I'm no expert on that sort of thing but I'll bet that even today there are people turning out pretty decent sonnets. Which is a somewhat gawky way to make the point that even though our forefathers and foremothers from the Golden Age mined out many of the major veins of classic/traditional mystery fiction there's no reason why someone can't pen a good one in a similar style nowadays.
Take Dean James, for example. I was a little leery of picking up Faked to Death, the second of four Simon Kirby-Jones mysteries, because of the fact that the protagonist is a vampire and I'm really, really over that whole vampire thing. It seemed a bit gimmicky but I forged on and found out that Simon is actually a gay vampire who writes history, ghostwrites mysteries and dabbles in amateur detective work on the side.
The fact of the matter is that Simon being gay or being a vampire doesn't have much of a bearing on what happens in the book. He could just as easily have been a straight plumber or a bisexual werewolf who carves duck decoys for a living without having any significant effect on the events as set forth by James.
Said events are laid out in the form of a country house weekend murder mystery, with a slight twist. Being that the principals have gathered for a writer's conference being hosted by one Lady Hermione Kinsale. They are mostly mystery writers and are a somewhat motley and dysfunctional group - what a surprise. Of course, it's not long before someone's gotta go and Simon and his assistant Giles promptly spring into action, trying to solve the crime while staying on the good side of the police.
Worth a look, for sure.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra
By Paul Gilbert
My foray into the world of Sherlock Holmes knockoffs continues, in spite of the fact that I haven't read the Arthur Conan Doyle works yet. My understanding is that the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra was alluded to in one of the Doyle stories but not much in the way of details were given. Which has led people like Paul Gilbert to speculate as to what exactly the circumstances of this case might have been.
With pretty decent results, if I do say so myself. It gets underway when a ship, the Matilda Briggs, is found drifting in a London dock with no one aboard but a dying cabin boy. Things get a little more complicated when Holmes and Watson are visited by the son of a great explorer who has recently been traveling in Sumatra and various other parts of Asia.
A good chunk of the book is in the form of letters from the father to the son but to say much more would be to take a chance on spoiling things. Suffice to say that Gilbert puts forth an interesting explanation as to how this famous case played out and we'll leave it at that.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
In addition to his many achievements, such as being President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was also apparently a vampire hunter. But did you know that he was also a mystery writer?
Okay, maybe not so much, but when I was browsing around the quite nifty Project Gaslight site recently I ran across a piece by none other than Abraham Lincoln. It's called The Trailor Murder Mystery and it first saw the light of day in 1846 in a publication called the Illinois Whig.
The Trailors were a trio of brothers from Illinois, who were suspected of a murder which may or may not actually have occurred. The story was based on a real-life case in which Lincoln, the attorney, was involved. He concluded, "it is readily conceived that a writer of novels could bring a story to a more perfect climax, it may well be doubted whether a stranger affair ever really occurred."
Read it here.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Sunday, September 4, 2011
The Ruby Raven
by Michael Dahl
Silly me. The fact that Finnegan Zwake, protagonist of The Ruby Raven, is a teenaged boy who lives with his mystery writing uncle, should have tipped me off to the fact that it's a young adult novel. Which fact I didn't pick up on until I did some additional research on the series, which apparently numbers five volumes.
If I'd known this in advance, quite honestly, I might not have picked it up. But since I was already part of the way through I was sufficiently absorbed in the story to keep going. It's a tale that finds Zwake and Uncle Stoppard headed to Occo (a country that's supposedly located near Morocco) for the Ruby Raven ceremony. This is a prestigious and lucrative prize for mystery writers, who have to be present to actually win the million smackers.
The rest of the nominees also get to split a million dollars and so when some of the nominees start winding up rather dead-ish the assumption is that someone is covering their bases and trying to insure that they get a bigger slice of the pie. But things get a little more complex as the story progresses and there are some reasonably interesting - if perhaps a bit farfetched - twists and turns along the way.
A rather exotic location and plenty of humor, if you like that sort of thing, but if you're looking for a mystery of the sort where you can deduce who's doing all the killing by the clues provided you're pretty much out of luck. Unless I had a whopping mental lapse at some point along the way, I can't recall the killer even being mentioned before the end. But it's a pretty entertaining yarn all the same, enough so that I'm going to drop by my local library and pick up another book in the series.
Friday, September 2, 2011
Plot It Yourself
By Rex Stout
In Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels much is made of the detective's reluctance to leave his home on business. it's a trait that Rex Stout uses to good effect on those rare occasions when the fat man actually does get up and leave the house to tend to a business matter. This plays out in somewhat less dramatic fashion in Plot It Yourself than in some of the other novels. What's much more dramatic, this time around, is when Wolfe, frustrated with his performance on the case, swears off beer and meat until everything is straightened out.
It all has to do with a series of plagiarism cases that are being brought against high-profile authors. Given the way that each of these cases plays out it's become apparent that they're a scam that's being masterminded by the same person. So a group of the aggrieved decide to turn to Wolfe to figure it out. That's also about the time that several of the players in this drama - the ones who asserted that their works were plagiarized - start getting bumped off, presumably by the person who dreamed up the con in the first place.
If you're like me and you're kind of lame-brained when it comes to keeping track of details, you might want to make a scorecard for this one. Stout throws out a lot of information, especially at the beginning, but in the end I didn’t see any clues that would definitively have pointed the reader in the direction of the killer. It made for good reading all the same and it was actually the first Stout-penned Wolfe novel I've read for a while. Short and sweet at a mere 136 pages (in the paperback edition I read) and worth a look.