The Ellery Queen Casebook – Ellery Queen (1977)

CasebookTo be clear, this isn’t The Case Book of Ellery Queen, a short story collection published in 1945.  Rather, this is a strange bit of history that I stumbled upon as part of a bulk Queen purchase a while back – a Reader’s Digest booklet featuring a collection of Ellery Queen stories.  It clocks in at a mere 48 pages, and given that it contains five stories, you can take the “condensed by permission” note on the copyright leaf at more than face value.

Or can you?  The original stories, gathered in Queen’s Bureau of Investigations (QBI) and Queen’s Experiments in Detection (QED) are already brief affairs, most running in the range of six pages each.  Imagine that compressed down a bit, and The Ellery Queen Casebook is a breakneck tattoo of mysteries, with solutions being offered up while the paint is still wet on each premise.

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Four Corners (Volume One) – Theodore Roscoe (1937-1938)

FourCornersMurder on the Way opened a door for me to Theodore Roscoe, a gifted writer who can paint a scene as well as the best of them.  I come to these books for the mysteries, but really, there are authors like John Dickson Carr and Roscoe who can turn a story into a canvas, filling in the gaps between what is merely said and done, rendering scenes that your senses experience.  Roscoe’s one of those authors that you come away wanting to read more of, not so much because of the clever puzzle and twist, but because of the pure story.

Luckily I already had another of Roscoe’s titles on deck: Four Corners, a collection of short stories published in Argosy magazine during the late 30s and brought back to life by Altus Press.  The publisher has released a number of Roscoe’s works over the past few years, although most seem to concern adventures – tales of the foreign legion and far flung lands.  A review at Beneath the Stains of Time confirmed that Four Corners belongs to the mystery camp, and so it seemed like a natural candidate for the gift list.

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Death Like Thunder – Hugh Holman (1942)

DeathLikeThunderI became aware of Hugh Holman through a review of Up This Crooked Way over at Beneath the Stains of Time.  Holman produced six detective novels, and from the meager details I can find online, it appears that some of them may feature an impossible crime.  An affordably priced copy of the Hangman’s House edition of Death Like Thunder was too good to pass up, with a stellar cover and the feel of a well worn baseball mitt.

Death Like Thunder opens with New York City radio script writer Mike Leiter arriving in small town South Carolina in search of inspiration for his flagging mystery series.  He finds that inspiration within the first dozen pages, but not in the way that he might have liked.  A man is shot in a darkened room full of witnesses during a blackout, and when the lights come on, Leiter finds himself with the murder weapon in his hand.

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Murder at Hazelmoor (The Sittaford Mystery) – Agatha Christie (1931)

MurderAtHazelmoorI’ve been in desperate need of a British mystery.  There’s just something about a Golden Age story set in England that checks all of the boxes.  Yeah, you can have an exceptional mystery set elsewhere, but it’s that combination of British setting and the accompanying mid-century mannerisms that take me to a certain place.  I realize that this view may not resonate with my friends on the other side of the pond, but there’s something that a British mystery stirs in me that will never be captured by their American brethren, whether set on the streets of NYC, or in the bucolic hills of New England.

I’ve been reading some solid stories lately, but with all being set in the US, I’ve hungered for a British read.  I even have this whole stack of “I need to read this next!!!” books, that for some reason are all bound to The States.  I really want to read them, but first…

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The Darker the Night – Herbert Brean (1949)

TheDarkerTheNightHerbert Brean wrote a mere seven mystery novels, and these days he’s mostly remembered for his debut effort, Wilders Walk Away.  While Wilders is an excellent read – mixing New England charm with multiple characters disappearing under impossible circumstances – I found his third novel, Hardly a Man is Now Alive, to be just as good if not better.  Brean’s a unique story teller, peppering the books I’ve read with minor puzzles, quirky footnotes (including entire recipes), and plots that span centuries.  I’ve been meaning to dig further into his limited catalogue; on one hand because he’s so damn good, but also because it just doesn’t seem to get explored that much.

The Darker the Night is Brean’s second novel, picking up where Wilders Walk Away left off and leading to the circumstances of Hardly a Man is Now Alive.  Although there’s a bit of minor continuity, you could read these in any order that you want, although I’d recommend starting with Wilders since one potential suspect goes on to be a reoccurring character.

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Heads You Lose – Christianna Brand (1941)

HeadsYouLoseI must be a bit of an idiot.  How else could I explain walking into Heads You Lose thinking “this might be ok”?   I mean, come on – I’ve absolutely loved Christianna Brand’s mysteries up to now.  The set ups are great, yep.  The solutions are a seemingly contradictory blend of earth shattering and simply obvious.  And man, her writing…  If there’s another author with this sense of wit and the ability to craft a cast of characters, let me know.

I’ve read most of Brand’s nine mainstream mysteries (she published a handful more that for some reason fly under the radar), and aside from the elusive and enamored The Death of Jezebel, I’ve only had Heads You Lose and Death in High Heels left to go.  And so I’ve saved them; on one hand so I had some of Brand at her best left (which is somewhat of an errant thought – her lesser known books have been excellent), but also because I had the impression that some reviewers had lesser impressions of these early books.  Yeah, I realize there’s a bit of a contradiction there.

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Most Secret – John Dickson Carr (1964)

mostsecretThis is my final John Dickson Carr novel in what I consider his first period of historical mysteries.  It’s a fine run of books, started twenty years into Carr’s career, with most of his better known novels already behind him.  We kick off with The Bride of Newgate in 1950, and add an additional eight titles over a fourteen year period (Most Secret being the final one).  Carr would publish four additional historical mysteries before the end of his career, but that second run was an author in decline and is made up of books of less significance and a decidedly different feel.

Carr set these historical mysteries in the years from the seventeenth century all the way up to the time of his birth (The Witch of the Low Tide, taking place in 1906).  While these are all mysteries in some sense, they’re absolutely dredged in historical minutiae.  Periwigs, fencing, and all around swashbuckling don’t normally register as a thing for me, but Carr manages to craft stories from which you can’t look away.  There is a core mystery to each of these novels, yet it’s always on the periphery; these are much more about the adventure and history.  As a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, I’d read that last sentence and click away, but honestly, read Fire, Burn and tell me that you didn’t love it.

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Death Invites You – Paul Halter (1988)

DeathInvitesYouI had originally intended to read Death Invites You as my first Paul Halter novel, and with good reason.  It boasts the most intriguing set up of any of the French author’s English translations – quite the feat, given an impossible crime catalogue laden with rooms that kill, invisible assassins, bodies surrounded by untouched snow, and every manner of locked room puzzle – plus I’ve seen a number of reviewers list it as his best.  How then does this book end up being the tenth Halter I’ve read?  Honestly, I have no excuse other than a capricious hand when selecting my next reads.

As for that set up, it’s as impressive as it gets.  A dinner party arrives to find their eccentric host locked in his office.  Unable to summon him, they eventually break down the door and stumble upon a bewildering sight.  A full banquet has been spread out on a table, the food still steaming hot.  Something else is steaming – a dead man sits hunched over the table, his face in a bubbling pot of oil.  All doors and windows are thoroughly locked from the inside.  Witnesses in the house saw no one entering or exiting the room in the time leading up to the incident, and there’s no evidence of how such a feast could have been prepared from within.

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Murder on the Way! – Theodore Roscoe (1935)

MurderOnTheWayI’ve been reading a lot of really good books lately – it’s been an intentional indulgence in my “rainy day” collection – and I have to say, Murder on the Way is the most fun I’ve had in nearly as far back as I can remember.  That’s not to say that it features the most perplexing mystery, the most clever solution, or the most shocking twist.  No, not by a long shot.  That’s where I feel that I disclaimer is necessary: Murder on the Way isn’t really a mystery, it’s a balls to the wall action thriller.  No, scratch that – it’s actually is a mystery masquerading as a balls to the wall action thriller.

On the surface this is… I don’t even know.  It starts out with your classic mystery set up – a dozen characters called to Haiti for the reading of the will of a wealthy plantation owner.  The will stipulates that all of the money goes to a single individual within 24 hours of the funeral, but also provides a line of succession should the prior recipients be deceased.  Oh yeah – and no one’s allowed to leave the property before the 24 hours is up, or they forfeit their inheritance.

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Come to Paddington Fair – Derek Smith (1997)

DerekSmithOmnibusI’ll admit it – I’m not one for the theatre.  Don’t get me wrong, attending a play is just fine, I’m just not that mad about mysteries that revolve around one.  There’s this whole world of the stage that seems somewhat alien to me, and as varied as the writers and trappings may be, a theatrical murder plot always feels somewhat the same.  Panic in Box C, Puzzle for Players, Cue for Murder – they’re fine enough stories (although there isn’t anything verging on a classic in those ranks), but you kind of know what you’re going to get.  A cast of suspects made up by, er… the cast… of the play, plus a stage manager or two, a security guard, and maybe a stage hand.  We’ll be taken behind the curtain into a world of grease paint, and subjected to 150+ pages of interviews.  Someone will break into a dressing room at night, plus some antics are sure to occur outside of the bounds of the theatre.

I don’t know… it never really clicked for me.  It’s funny, because many similar tropes apply when it comes to country house murders, but for some reason I tend to enjoy them there.

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