Sunday, October 30, 2011

Movie: I Love A Mystery

I Love A Mystery
The Decapitation of Jefferson Monk
1945




An updating of the popular radio series, this nifty piece finds a pair of detectives looking into the case of a wealthy socialite who's convinced he'll be killed in three days. Is there a shadowy Asian secret society a work? Ultimately it's all for naught as the man loses his head - literally - in an auto accident. Which is not a spoiler. The tale is told in flashback from this main event, with a few nice twists thrown in for good measure.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Death of a Cozy Writer, by G.M. Malliet


Death of a Cozy Writer
by G.M. Malliet
2008


From what he had seen of Mrs. Ketchen, he thought it unlikely she had any idea whether on any given day her employer was at home, pinned under a lorry, or planting gunpowder in the basement of Westminster.

The term "cozy" kind of rubs me the wrong way. I can't quite put my finger on why - there's just something about it. The fact that Malliet's Death of a Cozy Writer uses this particular term in its title is really my only quibble with the book, for which the author scored the 2008 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

The cozy writer in question, the wildly successful Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk, has summoned his four children to his manor house, presumably to tell them of his impending marriage. It should probably go without saying that they're a pretty dysfunctional bunch all around and Sir Adrian's new wife was accused and acquitted of killing her former husband, to boot.

Of course, there are a few murders, including the one that's pretty much telegraphed by the title, and Detective Chief Inspector St. Just and Sergeant Fear are brought in to make sense of it all. While there's probably nothing here that you haven't seen half a hundred times before in this sort of book, Malliet handles it all with such skill that I wouldn't begrudge her that Agatha Award.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, by James Anderson


The Affair of the Mutilated Mink
by James Anderson
1981


Never a week goes by without a nobleman being murdered in his library...or a don in his study, or an heiress in her bath.

A number of the mystery bloggers I follow focus on more traditional styles of mystery fiction. Not surprisingly, given their interests, they tend to zero in on certain authors who are under-appreciated nowadays. Some of the authors I've discovered thanks to their tireless cheerleading are William De Andrea, with his Matt Cobb mystery series; the many and varied historical mysteries of Paul Doherty; Paul Halter, the French author who apparently grabbed the torch once held by locked room master John Dickson Carr; and Herbert Resnicow.

To this august group of under-appreciated authors, I'd propose adding James Anderson. Though he apparently wrote quite a few works before his death in 2007, for my money the books that deserve to be remembered are his trio of country house mysteries. Which consist of The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy (1975), The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981) and The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks (2003).

If you figured that the country house mystery had its heyday sometime in the 1930s, well, you may actually be right. If you figured that no one's written a decent one since then you have to look no further than Anderson's books for proof to the contrary. Set in the 1930s, the events of the books play out at the estate of George Henry Aylwin Saunders, the twelfth Earl of Burford. Who's perhaps a bit dotty, but all in all is not a bad chap, as these rich, titled fellows who populate murder mysteries are concerned. The other main players in the immediate family and household are the Earl's formidable wife, his daughter Geraldine, or Gerry, and the exceedingly proper butler known as Merryweather.

Since these are country house mysteries, there are, of course, a rotating cast of visitors, victims, suspects and law enforcement. In this volume there are a high proportion of movie industry people, including a successful producer scouting the house as a possible location for a shoot and one of his biggest stars, who's come along to butter up the Burfords.

Before long someone shuffles from this mortal coil - with a little assistance, of course. Which is about all I have to say about the plot. If you've ever read one of Anderson's books you'll know why. They are brimming over with a ridiculous number of clues and red herrings and I hope it's not too much of a spoiler to say that in one of Anderson's novels almost nothing is what it seems.

Like Inspector Wilkins, for instance, who appears to be about the dimmest bulb in the lamp store. But is he really? Hmmm. This time around he has some assistance, after a fashion, from Scotland Yard, though things don't play out in quite the way you might expect.

You could call Anderson's books pastiches or knockoffs or who knows what else, but I'd venture to say that tribute is probably the best term to describe what he's done to the country house mystery sub-genre.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Last House-Party, by Peter Dickinson


The Last House-Party
by Peter Dickinson
1982


I finished The Last House-Party a few weeks ago and I'm still not sure what I think about it. I found it to be very well written but ultimately I don't think it was quite my type of book. The back cover of my paperback edition bills it as a whodunit, but even though it contains some elements of mystery I don't think that description quite hits the mark.

I'd venture to say that, at least in this book (the only Dickinson I've read) the writing is closer to what you might call literary - and yes, I realize that that can be something of a loaded word. Dickinson proceeds in rather a leisurely style and even though the elements of mystery are fairly intriguing, they seem at times to almost be beside the point.

The last house party of the title took place in the Thirties, some four decades prior to the present day setting of the novel. Both threads of the narrative take place at the Snailwood estate, which was renowned for gathering high-ranking politicians and other luminaries for a series of legendary soirees. Part of the mystery deals with who might have committed a rather repellent crime during this final gathering and how it ties in with the demise of a fabulous mechanical clock that hasn't worked since that weekend.

All of which is left somewhat up in the air and might not appeal to readers to like things tied up in a nice neat package. But if you'd like something that takes a somewhat different approach to the standard mystery this might be worth a look.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Movie: Murder on the Blackboard


Murder on the Blackboard
From a story by Stuart Palmer
1934


Amateur snoop Hildegarde Withers teams up with Inspector Oscar Piper in yet another adaption of a work by Stuart Palmer. This time around a music teacher is knocked off in the very same schoolhouse where Miss Withers teaches and where much of the action of the movie takes place. As always, things are played for laughs and the crime-solving duo waste no opportunity to take digs at each other as they navigate the many twists and turns that finally lead them to the solution of the case.

I've only caught one other of the half dozen or so Withers flicks but I've got a few more queued up, thanks to the good people at TCM. I'm looking forward to checking them out.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

And on the Eighth Day, by Ellery Queen


And on the Eighth Day
by Ellery Queen
1964


Wow.

I'm not sure where to start. I should point out that I've read and enjoyed a handful of Ellery Queen novels thus far. I recently reviewed The Perfect Crime and gave it high marks.

So it's not that I have anything against Ellery Queen. Which is perhaps a bit beside the point, since this book was apparently ghostwritten by Avram Davidson (who is better known for his SF and fantasy), under the direction of Dannay and Lee, the writing partners who were Ellery Queen.

It took me a long time to get through this one, since I had to set it aside several times. The first hiatus was for several weeks. The second one was not quite as long. At no time did I actually fling the book across the room - though I probably thought about it. Which is to say that I really didn't like this book - not at all. I'm not going to go too deeply into my reasons, as a brief summing up should do it.

To put it in a nutshell, the book is set in World War II (though it was published in 1964) and Ellery has just finished some scriptwriting work to support the war effort. While driving home, he's stranded in the California desert and comes across a religious cult who have had little contact with the outside world for over a century and who all speak as though they've just stepped from the pages of the King James Bible. They've experienced almost no crime over the course of the last few decades, but within days of Ellery arriving someone is bumped off.

Which sounds like it could make for a pretty decent whodunit and perhaps it might have, if whoever had final cut had insisted that the major characters be something more than the most rudimentary cardboard cutouts. And if the arcane dialogue had been dispensed with. And if the completely overblown melodrama had been dialed back about 12-15 notches. And if the crime and solution had been something more than a fairly by the numbers snoozer. And if there hadn't been two fairly significant twists at the end of the book that were so dorky that I actually groaned aloud. And if Chapter Seven hadn't consisted of the following words and nothing more, "Ellery wept."

Ouch.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Holmes Parodies & Locked Room Short



If you're not familiar with the Gaslight site, it's might be time to take a look at their collection of online fiction and nonfiction from days gone by. Take for instance, their Not the Sherlock Holmes page, which presents a selection of Holmes parodies and pastiches dating from 1893 to 1924. Many of the selections are archived for online reading. Check it out here.

If you missed the Jasper Fforde locked room mystery that appeared in the Guardian a few years back, check out it here. The parody elements are (arguably) better than the locked room element, but either way it's worth a look. You'll find it here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Perfect Crime, by Ellery Queen


The Perfect Crime
by Ellery Queen
1942


When I started reading this Ellery Queen book I had another Ellery Queen (And On The Eighth Day) on my To Be Read stack. I'd started it a while back, got fed up and put it aside. I found that book to be something of a slog, to say the least, but I whipped through The Perfect Crime in no time at all.

The only information I can find about this book is that it's supposedly a novelization of a 1941 movie called Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime. The Pyramid paperback I read is dated 1968 with a copyright of 1942 and mentions nothing about it being a novelization. I'm not really sure what the score is but in any event it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book.

To start with a very mild spoiler, it's pretty obvious to any reader that Ellery is going to hash things out before it's all over and thus the crime is not actually a perfect one. But I quibble. What actually happens concerns a tycoon who has ruined a number of his investors due to some shady business practices. One of those investors just happens to live next door, a fact that comes into play when the tycoon is found dead in his study, having apparently shot himself.

Which is exactly what happened, of course, and everyone accepts this as gospel truth and the book ends there.

But I jest. Of course, Ellery (or anyone else with a grain of sense) isn’t buying the suicide explanation and he springs into action, attempting to sort out exactly what happened. I won't go into much detail for fear of spoiling, except to note that there's a monkey on hand, that naturally the reader is provided with a map to help keep tabs on things, and that this compact novel zipped right along at a nice clip and is well worth a look.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Death on Allhallowe'en, by Leo Bruce


Death on Allhallowe'en
By Leo Bruce
1970


At some point before I started this site I tackled a book by Leo Bruce. Since I can't recall if I finished it I'm assuming it didn't leave much of an impact. Fortunately Death on Allhallowe'en was rather more memorable. It looks to be about number 20 of some 23 books in Bruce's Carolus Deene series.

There are certain books that I'd describe as workmanlike - and I don't mean that in a bad way. E.X. Giroux's A Death For Adonis fits the bill and so does Death on Allhallowe'en. I've read several books by Catherine Aird and I'd also put them in this category. Workmanlike, in this case, referring to detectives who are not particularly flashy or distinguished and who make their way to the solution of a crime in a methodical manner.

Which is exactly how Deene proceeds when he's summoned by a friend in the clergy to the small town of Clibburn, a place that's clannish and not very welcoming to outsiders. Strange things may be going on in and around Clibburn. A boy has died, possibly as a result of his involvement in unsavory Satanic rites. After Deene arrives there's a high-profile killing, and though he's not exactly welcome around these parts he still manages to get it all sorted out.

While reading this I couldn't help being reminded of The Wicker Man, particularly in matters of tone and atmosphere. Interesting, since the book said to be the inspiration for that movie - David Pinner's Ritual - was published three years before Bruce's book, with the movie following in 1973.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Magic Bullet, by Larry Millett


The Magic Bullet
by Larry Millett
2011


I've decided to add more locked room mysteries to my reading list in upcoming months. To kick things off I thought I'd start with one that's just been published and then move on to some of the classic works. I'm not sure how many writers are working in this particular sub-genre these days but Millett has come up with one that I'd rank right up there in terms of overall story. As for the locked room aspect, I'm not real well versed in that area, but I'd venture to say that this was a decent one.

Millett has written a number of books thus far in which Minneapolis saloonkeeper Shadwell Rafferty and Sherlock Holmes team up to solve crimes. I haven't read any of the others and it sounds like a weirdo premise, but in this particular case Holmes plays a relatively small role and he is offstage the entire time, communicating with Rafferty by mail.

The story takes place in 1917, in Minneapolis, at a time when the city is being disrupted by various anti-war and labor agitators. Against this backdrop we are presented with the locked room murder of one Artemus Dodge, a paranoid tycoon who has barricaded himself inside a penthouse suite consisting of office and apartment, a setup which would give most bank vaults a run for their money.

I'm normally a bit reluctant to take on any mystery that runs longer than 300 pages (or even 200, for that matter). As I've noted before, brevity is an excellent quality for most works in the genre, but Millett manages to confound my theory with a work that totals 347 pages and doesn't waste any of them. Yes, the solution to the crime is a bit convoluted and requires many pages to explain, but isn't that pretty much the point of these exercises?