Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Corpse Wore Tartan, by Kaitlyn Dunnett


The Corpse Wore Tartan
By Kaitlyn Dunnett
2010


It seems these days that most mysteries have to be about something. Which, at first glance, seems like kind of a boneheaded statement. What I mean to say is that it seems that we've been beset these days with a veritable epidemic of mysteries that fit into various narrowly defined specialty areas (White House gardener, flower shop owner and so on).

Kaitlyn Dunnett's books are about Scottish culture and heritage, which is a fine enough thing to be about, I suppose, and not nearly as flaky as some of the specialty mysteries currently making the rounds. The twist is that her amateur detective Liss MacCrimmon is the proprietor of Scottish-themed shop located in the small burg of Moosetookalook, Maine.

This looks to be the fifth volume in this series and I selected it from among the others because it uses a favorite premise of mine - the old tried and true device of gathering a bunch of characters in a remote location, stranding them (in this case because of a blizzard) and introducing foul and nefarious deeds into the proceedings.

As the Scottish Heritage Appreciation Society descends upon a nearby hotel for its annual meeting, one of a pair of twins gets himself knocked off and Liss and her cop friend Sherri Willett spring into action to try to figure out what happened. There's a key word in that last sentence that gives a pretty big clue as to how things are going to play out but that's as much as I'll say.

Not a bad one, all in all. I could have done with a little less of the romantic subplot, but that's just me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Movie: The Penguin Pool Murder

The Penguin Pool Murder
From a story by Stuart Palmer
1932




Funny how simple the answers are when you know them.
(Hildegarde Withers)

Movies starring Stuart Palmer's amateur detective Hildegarde Withers were all the rage during the Thirties and this is the one that kicked things off. Edna May Oliver stars here and in the next two episodes and Helen Broderick and ZaSu Pitts took over the role for the last three movies of the series. Though she is a schoolteacher and a civilian, Withers works in tandem with the gruff Inspector Oscar Piper to solve crimes and trade mildly disparaging wisecracks. Gleason starred as Piper in all six of the Withers movies.

These movies were not meant to be taken too seriously and The Penguin Pool Murder is no exception. Miss Withers just happens to be visiting the aquarium with her students when a gentleman of the lifeless persuasion is found in the penguin pool. We viewers have already seen some of the background leading up to this murder, but there are various twists and turns that keep things hopping until the no-nonsense schoolmarm finally figures it all out. Piper, as usual, is a few steps behind, but give him an A for effort anyway.

These are not movies that I really watch for the plotting and this one, which gets off to quite a slow start, was more of the same. When Withers and Piper get into crime-solving mode and start pecking at each other things perk up considerably. Recommended, as are the other three in the series that I've seen thus far, as long as you're not someone who takes your mystery movies too seriously.

Here's another perspective, from Walter Albert, at MysteryFile.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks, by James Anderson


The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks
By James Anderson
2003


A cuff can mean a sort of slap on the head. Links are seaside golf courses. So we could surmise that the deceased lady once hit somebody on a golf course, and this was an act of revenge. (Inspector Wilkins)

You can't help feeling sorry for the residents of Alderley. It's the estate of George Henry Aylwin Saunders, the twelfth Earl of Burford, who lives there with his wife, his daughter Gerry, the butler Merryweather, and the usual assortment of household staff. These are surprisingly likable people, particularly when you stack them up against those upper-class English types so often found in other mystery novels.

You have to feel sorry for the Earl and family because in the last year or so they've been plagued by two rather high profile outbreaks of crime, each taking place during country house weekends attended by a wide variety of guests. In The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks a similar scenario is about to play itself out again.

Cufflinks is the last of Anderson's three Alderley books and in the real world there was a 28 year span between the events of the first one - The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy (1975) and this. In between readers were treated to the events that made up The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981).

Cufflinks features another gathering of the usual diverse cast of characters, but this time around they're not at Alderley for a party. One of the Earl's elderly relatives has recently died and requested to be buried in the family plot. For reasons of convenience, the Burfords have cautiously agreed to host a post-funeral gathering, followed by a reading of the will.

Which sounds simple enough and in theory it should all go relatively smoothly, but this being a James Anderson novel it's not long before murder breaks out and the plot thickens, weaves, twists and turns to the point that the reader may need a pill to fend off motion sickness. Of course, Inspector Wilkins is on hand to do the thing that he does, but this time around he seems not to be relying quite so much on his stupid cop act.

Of course, for fans of the Alderley books this is where the road ends, since Anderson passed on a few years after the publication of Cufflinks. It's been mentioned (in these pages and presumably elsewhere) that there's a fourth, unfinished Alderley book lying about somewhere, but time will only tell what the future holds in this area.

In the meantime I highly recommend that anyone with a love for old-school country house murder mysteries check out Anderson's work immediately, if not sooner.

Note: I reviewed a hardcover copy of the book, but the image of the audiobook was too good not to include here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Movie: The Plot Thickens


The Plot Thickens
from a story
by Stuart Palmer
1936


Now don't be anymore stupid than usual, Oscar.
(Hildegarde Withers)

The tone is light as Miss Withers and Inspector Oscar Piper team up again to solve a series of crimes. It starts with the murder of a wealthy man whose body is found in his study and leads to the attempted theft of a certain rare item from days of yore. The inspector barks and grumbles throughout, of course, while Withers does much of the heavy lifting as far as the detection goes. I didn't think this particular flick was so great as far as plot goes and there were some coincidences that were a bit hard to swallow but I don't think plotting is the primary appeal of these movies anyway.

It looks like there were a total of six Stuart Palmer adaptations produced during the Thirties. I've seen three, each with a different Hildegarde Withers. James Gleason apparently starred as Piper in all of them. The consensus seems to be that Edna May Oliver was the best Miss Withers and I won't argue that point. I also liked Helen Broderick, who took over the role for Murder on a Bridle Path. As for ZaSu Pitts, I'm not sure what other kind of roles she starred in but I don't think her ditzy approach to Withers quite did the trick. But it's worth a look even so.

For another take on this one, check out this review at MysteryFile or a contemporary one from the New York Times.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy, by James Anderson


The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy
By James Anderson
1975


But don't expect me to solve anything. I'm not sanguine, not sanguine at all. (Inspector Wilkins)

I'm not generally keen on re-reading books. There are too many books I'd like to read once to allot time to ones I've already read. So it's a measure of my esteem for James Anderson's country house mysteries that I took The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy out for another spin recently.

This all came about because I found out that Anderson wrote three of these books, rather than two, as I'd previously thought. After I'd gotten my hands on The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981), I decided I might as well revisit the first and third volumes of the series - The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy and The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks (2003).

Though the books were not written in the Golden Age of Detection, they might as well have been. They are all set in the 1930s, at the estate of one George Henry Aylwin Saunders, the twelfth Earl of Burford. Other regular players in the cast are the Earl's wife, his daughter Geraldine, and a very proper butler known as Merryweather. And then there's Inspector Wilkins, but more about him in a moment.

This time around the estate is playing host to some delicate and very important political negotiations, in which Lord Burford's diplomat brother is taking part. At the same time Lord Burford, who is quite an avid gun collector, is playing host to a wealthy American who also has a penchant for weaponry. All of which will be quite relevant, of course, when the stiffs start piling up.

At which point Inspector Wilkins appears on the scene. There may be another detective in the annals of crime-solving who's as seemingly inept and lacking in confidence as Wilkins (Lt. Columbo, perhaps), but he's probably pretty near the top of the heap as this sort of thing goes.

If you've read any of Anderson's books then you'll understand the futility of recapping his rather intricate plots, something I'm not going to do. Suffice to say that if you're looking for a bang-up country house mystery you'd do well to start here and then move on to the other two volumes.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin


Murder on the Leviathan
by Boris Akunin
1998


Shall we ever learn the true story behind this nightmarish and unfathomable case?

Boris Akunin's Murder on the Leviathan is the 2001: A Space Odyssey of mystery. No, I'm not smoking anything. Bear with me. If you've never seen the Kubrick/Clarke masterpiece, then what you need to know, for purposes of this analogy, is that structurally it's set up with a fairly dynamic series of opening sequences, followed by a lengthy and somewhat slow-moving middle section (that tends to put off some viewers) and then the whole affair closes with a bang, so to speak.

Ditto for Akunin's book. It opens in Paris in the aftermath of a particularly grim crime. Nine members of the household staff (including two armed guards) of a wealthy Englishman have been found in the same room, dead from a morphine overdose, while upstairs the master of the house has had his brains bashed in. Among the items missing, an immensely valuable statue of the Hindu god, Shiva, which is found at the bottom of a river a few days later.

Cut to the Leviathan, an ocean liner of titanic proportions that's bound for Bombay. On board is a not so likable French police detective named Gauche, who's convinced that the murderer is aboard. He has the most likely suspects assigned to his salon on board the ship so that he can keep a closer eye on them and the story is told round robin style from the POV of these suspects. Most notable among the suspects, a Russian diplomat named Erast Fandorin, whose presence becomes increasingly critical as time goes on.

As with 2001, this middle section can seem a bit slow-moving, in spite of some fairly significant happenings. But Akunin winds things up in bang-up fashion, with an old-school type summing up with a few nifty twists thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Burglar in the Library, by Lawrence Block


The Burglar in the Library
By Lawrence Block
1997


This could turn out to be a cross between The Mousetrap and Ten Little Indians. All that's missing is a body in the library.

If you wondered if the resemblance between Block's The Burglar in the Library and Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library is more than coincidental Block clears that up at various points throughout his book, including the quotation referenced above. While his book could be viewed almost as a parody of this type of work, he actually manages to turn out a pretty decent old school whodunit by the time it's all said and done. "Think Agatha Christie at Fawlty Towers" is the comparison Block makes at his web site, though it's perhaps not quite so madcap as that suggests.

This is number eight of ten in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series and this time the bookstore owner/burglar is stranded at an English country house - in upstate New York. He's gone there to spirit away a very valuable book (one that would be quite appealing to hardboiled fans, if it actually existed) but of course there's no way it can possibly be that simple.

As the guests are cut off from the outside world by a blizzard and the bodies start to pile up Bernie finds himself in the unlikely position - given that he is a burglar - of heading the effort to solve the murders. Which he does, for the most part, with everything being wrapped up pretty much in a satisfying manner.

I liked this book quite a bit but I have to admit that I picked it up primarily because of the country house/traditional mystery angle. I'm not sure if I'll be revisiting the Rhodenbarr series at any time soon, but that's mainly because there are so many other books of a traditional bent that I'm more keen to read.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Body in the Library, by Agatha Christie



The Body in the Library
by Agatha Christie
1941


He's gone down to the farm. Looking at pigs and things always soothes him if he's been upset.

It seems that in many of the mysteries I read the author tends to take a leisurely approach, setting the stage, introducing the characters and Lord knows what else before any crimes are actually committed. So it's kind of a nice change of pace when a crime is flung at the reader with almost no preamble, as in Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library.

The library in question belongs to the well-heeled Bantry family. The body is that of a young and attractive young woman and no one in the household seems to know who she is - or so they say. A gang of police spend a great deal of time and energy trying to determine how and why she got there and who did the dirty deed and there are quite a few twists and turns on the way. But it's ultimately Miss Jane Marple - whose presence throughout is comparatively low-key - who puts all the pieces together.

A body in the library might just be the ultimate cliché of the whodunit, but in Christie's hands its rises above all that. This one is certainly worth a look.

Movie: Murder in the Pullman

Murder in the Pullman
From a story by S.S Van Dine
1932


There's no Philo Vance to be found in this short whodunit from 1932. Just a gold-digger and her new husband who are on their way to New York. Also on board, the woman's freshly jilted ex and her current boyfriend, who is something of a shady character. A certain Inspector Carr and Dr. Crabtree also happen to be on board, which comes in handy when the woman is found strangled.

Not a bad effort, but it's somewhat hampered by the short run time (24 minutes) and the fact that there are really only three suspects.