The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke (The Singing Bone) – R Austin Freeman (1912)

I’ve been enjoying the enthusiasm displayed for the work of R Austin Freeman by JJ over at The Invisible Event, and when I stumbled upon a cheap set of Freeman paperbacks by Avon and Popular Library, I snatched them up immediately.  I was tempted still to seek out The Singing Bone (which seems to be Freeman’s most heralded story collection), nearly dropping $10 on a mediocre-covered edition.  Thank goodness I passed it up though: out of the five books I’d collected, I somewhat randomly decided to start my Freeman reading with The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke. Flipping open the cover of my Popular Library edition,I was astonished to learn that it was actually the US title for The Singing Bone.

The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke features five short stories, each divided into two halves.  In the first half of each, we get an inverted mystery set up, showing how some soul was led down a dark path to murder, and their subsequent steps to avoid detection.  In the second half, the story completely shifts perspective, and we watch as series detective Dr Thorndyke applies scientific principles to uncover the truth.  In a sense, we’re really treated to ten short stories – five tales of villainy and five tales of detection (ok, so the final story The Old Lag doesn’t quite fit the mold).

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Death of a Ghost – Margery Allingham (1934)

I can’t for the life of me remember where I got it into my mind that Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost is an impossible crime novel.  Well, I kind of remember; I stumbled upon some blog a few months ago which contained a list of maybe 50 top mysteries featuring an impossibility (a blog that I frustratingly can’t find anymore).  There were many of the titles that you expect to see, but also maybe 10 I had never heard of.  I started buying these books left and right, and in the middle of that buying binge, I guess I also read a compelling review of Death of a Ghost over at Dead Yesterday; compelling enough to order it.  By the time all of the books arrived in the post, my mind was kind of fixated on the impossible crime splurge, and I guess I forgot there was another title mixed in there…

So here’s my review of “a semi-obscure impossible crime”, although there is no impossibility, and I don’t know that Margery Allingham exactly qualifies as obscure.  I haven’t read Allingham before, yet her name is familiar enough that I think even non-mystery readers recognize it as being associated with the genre.  Knowing that she has a fairly large library, I was curious to see what I’d get.

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Dead Man’s Gift – Zelda Popkin (1941)

Six heirs to a massive fortune gather in a small Pennsylvania town for a reading of the will and to learn their stake.  The strange thing is, none of them know the benefactor, despite all sharing his last name.  And, as it turns out, this is one of those wills where the money gets evenly divided among the heirs who are still living…

Not that atypical of a set up for a Golden Age mystery, but Zelda Popkin throws in the curve ball of a town beset by a rising flood.  The heirs soon find themselves trapped in a mansion quickly filling up with water, without any power or a means to contact rescuers.  Oh yeah – an oil tank has released a spill, and a blazing slick is headed their way…

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The Red Right Hand – Joel Townsley Rogers (1945)

I can’t think of a book that would be more difficult to give my opinion on than this one.  Well, maybe one aspect is clear cut: The Red Right Hand is a smashing success and I can’t imagine a reader not gobbling up the final dozen or so pages.  Hands down, you should absolutely read this book.

But it gets muddy in discussing exactly why it’s a success, and it’s even trickier to discuss the shortcomings.  I’ve had enough books spoiled for me by ham handed reviews or the accompanying comments, and I’d hate to do that to you.  So, if you haven’t read this, here’s my attempt at a sensitive blurb.

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Cottage Sinister – Q Patrick (1931)

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Man, when I came across a Popular Library paperback edition of Cottage Sinister by Q Patrick for a mere eight bucks… straight to the top of the pile.  This is the first published novel by the writing collective known as Q Patrick, Patrick Quentin, and Jonathan Stagge (in this case, the early incarnation made up of Richard Webb and Martha Kelley).  I’ve read one book published under each name up to now, and it was only 1939’s Q Patrick offering of Death and the Maiden that actually left me spinning.  Now I rewind eight years to the first Q Patrick title – Cottage Sinister.

I’ll admit it, I was a bit thrown at first.  All of the Patrick Quentin (as the collective is most commonly known) novels I’ve read up to this point have been set in the US and are thoroughly what I’d consider US Golden Age mysteries.  The UK cottage setting of Cottage Sinister caught me off guard, and there was a clumsiness to the presentation of English village mystery tropes.  Had these people ever actually even been to England?

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Slay the Murderer – Hugh Holman (1946)

A man wakes up from a drugged stupor to the sound of incessant pounding at the door.  He finds himself inside a room thoroughly locked from the inside, accompanied by a deceased occupant stabbed through the heart.  No, this isn’t a review of John Dickson Carr’s The Judas Window, but like me, you may find yourself curious to see what another author could do with the same premise.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been intrigued by a Carr copy cat.  The Five Matchboxes by John Russell Fearn duplicates the setup of Carr’s classic The Ten Teacups, although aside from the significance of the matchboxes, I can’t remember much of that one.  It’s a tall order to attempt to play off of one of the best in the business – I mean, is Hugh Holman actually going to provide a solution to the problem that’s better than The Judas Window?

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About the Murder of a Startled Lady – Anthony Abbot (1935)

AboutTheMurderOfAStartledLadyI really didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to read this one.  It first came to my attention on the fantastic page A Locked Room Library, a goto source for must read locked room titles.  Scroll past the 1981 ranking of top 15 locked room mystery novels, and About the Murder of a Startled Lady is the alphabetical first on a list of 99 other titles to read.  It’s a gorgeous vintage cover, and it caught my eye immediately.  The problem is, it’s damn expensive.  After several years of hunting, I’d given up ever getting my hands on the elusive title.  And then, in an odd turn of luck, I stumbled upon the exact Avon Books edition that I had so desperately sought, a steal for a mere eight dollars (which is about the max that I’d pay for a paperback of this era anyway).

It’s a bit strange that About the Murder of a Startled Lady made an impossible crime list, as I don’t know that I’d quite classify it as such.  We’re given an enticing premise: during a seance, Aa psychic projects the spectral voice of a young woman, relaying how she was killed, chopped up, and placed into box that was then thrown into a harbor.  A body is indeed found at the location, and the details are accurate down to the bullet still lodged in the skull.  And yet, if you pause and think about it, there are two plausible scenarios that immediately come to mind.  The fact that the psychic isn’t immediately charged with murder may be the real mystery here, but hey, this is Golden Age, so we’ll have some fun the set up.

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Heir Presumptive – Henry Wade (1935)

HeirPresumptiveWell, I guess I’ll be reading everything Henry Wade ever wrote.  I mean, I’ve heard that some of his work isn’t all that great, but man, Heir Presumptive is the type of novel that’ll leave you forever searching for another taste.  And I’ve had it for years, just wasting away at the bottom of some neglected pile of books that I excitedly bought, but then didn’t excitedly read.  Thankfully a glowing review over at The Invisible Event led to me rescuing the book and placing it in the main To Be Read stack… where it sat for another eight months.

But, it has now been read, and I am a full Henry Wade convert.  This is the book that you just never want to end.  There isn’t much of a hook for me to dangle for you – Heir Presumptive is a fairly straight forward inverted mystery – which is why it’s all the more amazing that I lapped up every page.

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Home Sweet Homicide – Craig Rice (1944)

HomeSweetHomicideI know I’ve read several reviews of Home Sweet Homicide, but it was a post over at The Invisible Event that made me decide to try out Craig Rice.  Once I laid my eyes on this 1946 Pocket Books edition with a gorgeous cover (which is completely unrepresentative of anything that actually happens in the story, mind you), I knew I had to have it.

This is a bit of a strange one for me to describe.  I suppose a conventional description would focus on the murder of Flora Sanford, found dead in her home shortly after neighbors heard two shots.  And yet that murder – which certainly forms the backbone of the story – never really comes to life.  Rather, it’s the amateur investigation led by three children who decide to play detective that I find myself wanting to focus on.  Because really, that’s what this book is about; the antics of three rascals going through unbelievable lengths to solve a crime and match their mother up with a bachelor detective assigned to the case.

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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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