Heaven Knowns Who – Christianna Brand (1960)

HeavenKnowsWhoOk, well, I finally did it.  I hit a wall with my Christianna Brand reading.  It was inevitable I suppose, although I liked to think it wouldn’t happen.  You see, with only three of Brand’s widely recognized mysteries left, I’ve been all to happy to dabble with the more obscure titles.  Why deplete my remaining stock with a book like Death in High Heels when I could explore something lesser known such as Court of Foxes or The Brides of Aberdar?  It hasn’t been a fruitless quest – it bore treasures such as The Rose in Darkness and A Ring of Roses – and for that I’m happy I took the less traveled road.

Heaven Knows Who is deservedly a lesser known Brand.  It wasn’t always so obscure, winning an Edgar Award in 1960 for “best fact crime” (or “true crime” as we would know it today).  The book seems to have since faded from the collective memory, and I can’t say that’s for no good reason.

Continue reading “Heaven Knowns Who – Christianna Brand (1960)”

Verdict of 13 (1978)

VerdictOf13I’m a big fan of Christianna Brand, considering her not only one of the best puzzle plotters of the Golden Age, but also a top writer of dialogue.  Up to this point, I’ve focused on her novels with the exception of her excellent short story Twist for Twist (which I really should get around to reviewing at some point).  Her short story collections are incredibly difficult to come by in physical form for a reasonable price, but patience has led to me snatching up Brand X and Buffet for Unwelcome Guests rather cheap.  The latter is notable for containing a bibliography towards the rear which lists out all of her short stories (the contents of which seems to have lately made its way to wikipedia).  While skimming through the list of short stories, it caught my eye that a dozen or so weren’t included in any of the Brand short story collections.  It’s the uncollected story Cloud Nine that led me to Verdict of 13.

This anthology was assembled by Julian Symons, who at the time was the president of the famed Detection Club.  Each story within the anthology was written by a member of the club specifically for the anthology, as opposed to this being a collection of pre-existing works.  That makes this an interesting collection, as you’re getting original stories by names as notable of Symons, Brand, Michael Gilbert, Michael Innes, and Ngaio Marsh.  Most of these stories have been published in other collections since, although three seem to still be exclusively available here.

Continue reading “Verdict of 13 (1978)”

Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)

DerekSmithOmnibusIt feels like ages since I’ve mentioned the top locked room lists cited by John Pugmire in A Locked Room Library.  It’s an excellent reference, providing a top 15 locked room mystery list initiated by Ed Hoch with the help of other luminaries of detective fiction, along with a list of ninety nine novels for “any respectable” locked room library compiled by another set of genre experts.  I’ve by no means read through this list exhaustively (why would I rob myself of future enjoyment?), and yet I feel compelled to drop the following declaration: Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil is easily one of the top locked room mysteries ever published.

Bear in mind, Whistle Up the Devil didn’t even make the original Ed Hoch list – apparently Helen McCloy’s Through a Glass Darkly and Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead and The Chinese Orange Mystery were felt to be better entries, although I can’t imagine that many would agree.  Whistle Up the Devil did make the list of 99, but for that matter so did John Dickson Car’s The Dead Man’s Knock (crap), Night at the Mocking Widow (bad story but bizarre clever impossibility), and The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (decent enough story but tiptoeing the line on being impossible).

Continue reading “Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)”

John Smith Hears Death Walking – Wyatt Blassingame (1944)

JohnSmithHearsDeathWalkingI stumbled upon this book while keeping an eye out for Bart House mysteries.  I’ve enjoyed my Bart House copy of The Devil Drives so much that I figured I’d snatch up a few books by the publisher to see how they stacked up.  As a physical specimen, John Smith Hears Death Walking is a vintage paperback lovers dream – nice artwork, top notch war-time paper stock, and a cover that feels like a well worn baseball mitt.

My curiosity was piqued when I noticed that this wasn’t actually a novel, but a collection of short stories.  Wyatt Blassingame was a prolific writer of pulp stories and children’s novels, with a career spanning the 1940s-70s.  My Bart House edition (which is the only edition) states that a series of John Smith stories were published in the pulp magazine Detective Tales, but oddly doesn’t list individual copyright references for any of the stories (unusual for a collection).Thanks to this helpful source, I was able to track down the original dates of publication for each story, which I’ve noted in the entries below.

Continue reading “John Smith Hears Death Walking – Wyatt Blassingame (1944)”

Dead Mrs Stratton (Jumping Jenny) – Anthony Berkeley (1933)

DeadMrsStrattonHaving failed over the course of two years to acquire a copy of Jumping Jenny, I resorted to snagging an affordably priced copy under the alternate title, Dead Mrs Stratton.  Either title is suitable.  “Jumping Jenny” is the female equivalent of a Jumping Jack, and given the critical role of gallows in the story, serves as a fitting name.  “Dead Mrs Stratton” works as well, because, err… there’s a Mrs Stratton who dies.

Mrs Stratton isn’t a particularly likable person, which we quickly learn as the novel opens at a murder-themed party.  She hurls accusations and threats at several guests, and takes great pains to constantly be the center of attention.  Frustrated that the other revelers have tired of her antics, Mrs Stratton declares that she might commit suicide, and storms off into the night.  An hour later, her body is found swinging from the roof top gallows set up as a prop for the party.  You can probably guess that she didn’t die at her own hands.

Continue reading “Dead Mrs Stratton (Jumping Jenny) – Anthony Berkeley (1933)”

The Lord of Misrule – Paul Halter (1994)

LordOfMisruleThis turned out to be an accidental Christmas read.  It was the multiple “footprints in the snow” impossibilities that lured me to The Lord of Misrule, a natural attraction given two feet of fresh snow surrounding my home.  That the crimes in the story span the days surrounding Christmas was an unexpected bonus.  So here you go – a holiday Paul Halter!

If The Lord of Misrule feels ubiquitous, it’s probably because JJ, the author of The Invisible Event, adopted a fragment of the book’s cover as an avatar and thus forever associated it with quality comments on mystery fiction blogs.  As a Paul Halter novel though, it flies somewhat under the radar.  Not part of the much lauded titles (The Madman’s Room, The Demon of Dartmoor, etc, etc, etc, etc) nor the criticized (The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime), The Lord of Misrule occupies that no man’s land along with The Picture of the Past: the book’s that don’t really get discussed.

Continue reading “The Lord of Misrule – Paul Halter (1994)”

Evil Under the Sun – Agatha Christie (1941)

EvilUnderTheSunI had a distinct impression going in that Evil Under the Sun is widely regarded as one of Agatha Christie’s better books.  Upon finishing it, I have to question whether that is in fact true or whether I’ve just gotten mixed up with all of the reviews that I’ve read.  That’s not to say it’s in any way bad, it just lacks elements that typically suck me into a Christie novel.

We find Hercule Poirot vacationing on Smuggler’s Island, just off the Devon coast.  Among a small group of other occupants is Arlena Marshall, an enchanting siren who draws the attention of the men and the scorn of their wives.  It’s hardly surprising when Arlena winds up dead – strangled on the beach of a secluded cove.

Continue reading “Evil Under the Sun – Agatha Christie (1941)”