The Lady’s in Danger – Norman Berrow (1955)

I’d never heard of this book until I bought it.  I’m at that stage where I’ve come to the conclusion that I will read everything Norman Berrow wrote, but I haven’t quite memorized the full catalogue to be purchased.  I’m familiar enough with the names and covers of most of the books that I haven’t bought yet, but I don’t ever recall seeing The Lady’s in Danger.

Berrow isn’t one of those authors that you can find for cheap.  Although you might get lucky on a 1970’s edition of Ghost House, the rest of his catalogue is only accessible via the Ramble House reprints, and you can either pay $20 for those brand spank’n new, or you could for some reason pay $40 for them used on eBay (I’ll never understand how that’s a workable model).  Anyway, I was building up a holiday gift list for myself (and you should do the same – a friend would much prefer buying you a novel you want than gambling on that novel wine opener), and I stumbled upon The Lady’s in Danger for $6 new on Amazon.  Fast forward through me falling out of my chair and breaking my mouse while pounding the Buy button.  This must have been some chance bargain, because when I checked minutes after my purchase, the only price I could find for the book was back to $20.

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The Hangman’s Handyman – Hake Talbot (1942)

It’s as if Hake Talbot wrote this story just for me.  From the very first page this was a dark brooding read, and as the chapters unfolded, there were all of the other tropes that I love the most.  It’s rare that I find a story that truly fires on all cylinders, and The Hangman’s Handyman is one of them.

To begin with, we have a jam thick atmosphere, as we find ourselves stranded on a small coastal Carolina island during a raging storm.  The inhabitants of the lone house are gathered by the fire discussing an old family legend.  Their host inexplicably drops dead before their eyes, struck down at the moment that his brother utters a fabled curse.  Poison seems like the only possible explanation, but how was it timed so perfectly?  And how has the body decayed so drastically just a few hours after death?

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Death for Dear Clara – Q Patrick (1937)

I’ve been wanting to get back to Q Patrick ever since reading Cottage Sinister earlier this year.  The author collective known as Patrick Quentin, Jonathan Stagge, and Q Patrick has been a bit of a mixed bag for me, but Cottage Sinister provided a marvelous British village mystery that felt like it could have come from the pen of Agatha Christie during her better years.  The problem is that these Q Patrick books are very hard to find, much less for the price range that I’m willing to pay.  When I spotted a Popular Library edition of Death for Dear Clara for cheap, I snatched it up.

The story concerns Clara Van Heuten, a respected fixture of New York high society.  She runs a literary advice agency, reviewing manuscripts on the behalf of fledgling authors.  The story kicks off with a day in the office, and throughout the day, Clara receives seven visitors.  Her “gargoyle faced” secretary (who will later turn out to be pretty once some rouge is applied) provides witness to the comings and goings, which is a fortunate piece of evidence, since Clara ends the day slumped over her desk with a knife buried in her back.  The obvious solution is that the final visitor committed the crime, but it turns out that there’s a little known rear entrance to Clara’s office.  Anyone could have snuck in and committed the murder.

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A Holiday for Murder – Agatha Christie (1938)

There’s something about reading a seasonal mystery during the actual season, and I do such a poor job of this.  Every winter I find myself binging on a wide spread of stories (due to extra spare time), but rarely an actual winter mystery.  And then, inevitably come some time around April, I find myself hitting a snowbound story and wondering why I didn’t read it back when my house was surrounded by two feet of white.  And so this year, I decided that I’ll actually pack my winter with winter-appropriate reads… although I’ll tell you now that I’m probably going to fail at that resolution.  It’s just that I have all of these other recent acquisitions that I’m dying to get to, and I don’t know that I’ll make time for Mystery in White, Portrait of a Murderer, or Envious Casca… this year.  And inevitably, come the spring, I’ll find myself regretting…

It’s been half a year since I read a Christie, and she just seemed like the natural fit for my mission for a solid holiday read.  The problem though is that A Holiday for Murder (more famously published as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Murder for Christmas) has zero feeling of the holidays.  Other than the premise of the characters gathering together for the holidays (and the question of whether to feed the servants beef instead of chicken), there’s really nothing wintery about the story, much less Christmasy.  It might as well have taken place in July.

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The Three Tiers of Fantasy – Norman Berrow (1949)

I’ve been wanting to get back to Norman Berrow ever since I read The Footprints of Satan last year; an astounding impossible crime with one of the most satisfying solutions that I had read in a long time.  It’s unfathomable that I’ve let a year go by, but the Berrow books always ended up getting passed up for my most recent acquisition of the moment.  Of course, it didn’t help that I only have a few of them in my library, but rest assured, that number will be doubling come Christmas.

The Three Tiers of Fantasy is escapism at its finest.  Berrow delivers what are essentially three impossible crime novelettes stitched together, although that’s a disservice to the fact that this is very much a story as a whole.  This feels like a longish book (always hard to tell with these modern reprints, with the different form factor and all), and yet with three very unique set ups and investigations, there’s never even a hint of the story dragging.

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Antidote to Venom – Freeman Wills Crofts (1938)

I realize that “cozy” is a somewhat derogatory label applied to a particular style of mystery, but I’m going to have to hijack it and repurpose it for Freeman Wills Crofts.  Because really, “cozy” is the most apt term for how I can describe my time with his Inspector French.  There’s really nothing astonishing or outright brilliant in what I’ve read so far, but damned if I didn’t enjoy ever minute.  The typical mystery that I seek out has my mind racing for a solution and that ferocious urge to get to the end.  With Freeman Wills Crofts, it’s like settling back into a comfortably worn well-stuffed leather chair by the fire and feeling at home.

And in that sense, I don’t know that there’s anything outwardly interesting to say about Antidote to Venom, other than I enjoyed the hell out of it.  It’s an inverted mystery, with a bit of a clever take I suppose.  You’re well aware of an accomplice to a murder – the various foibles that led them to be involved in the crime – but even said accomplice isn’t aware of how the murder was actually committed.  As the reader, you know the “who” as well as the motive, but there’s an interesting mystery in the unknown “how”.

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Death of Jezebel – Christianna Brand (1948)

I remember someone posting a comment that they’d picked up a copy of Death of Jezebel “the other day” for a mere $6, and in hindsight that was a definite hilarious troll.  But that comment fueled me for the better part of four years, lighting the fire that I would obtain this book for $10… or $20… or at least an outrageous to me $25, for which I would gladly pay.  Alas, a year after passing up a $70 copy, and with eyes glazed over and mind jaded by one too many a $395 copy, I sucked it up and put down eighty-some – approximately seven-times what I’ve ever paid for any mystery novel – and here we are.

That Death of Jezebel isn’t widely available for an affordable price is simply mind boggling.  Yes, someone should get a $17 reprint out there immediately, but why aren’t there a dozen editions readily available on the second hand market to select from spanning the fifties through at least the nineties?  Christianna Brand is one of the true masters of the Golden Age, and in a sense, she’s the one that got away – publishing less than a dozen mysteries, yet with each rivaling the best by any other author.  That her library isn’t more widely accessible is beyond reason, but what’s even more bewildering is how Death of Jezebel – acknowledged by many to be one of the best impossible crime novels of all time – is next to impossible to find for less than three figures.  You’d think that some enterprising publisher would say “hmm, you know that book that everyone desperately wants to read, but costs an arm on a leg on the second hand market?  I wonder if there’s money to be made there instead of republishing Lee Thayer’s catalog?”

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Behind the Crimson Blind – John Dickson Carr (1952)

Whenever anyone makes a comment about the worst of John Dickson Carr’s books featuring detective Henry Merrivale, you’re pretty much guaranteed that Behind the Crimson Blind is going to get a mention.  At this stage in Carr’s career, he was just breaking ground on an excellent run of historical mysteries, but he’d already abandoned series detective Dr Fell, and his novels featuring Merrivale were in a nose dive.  Bookended by Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), I had a good idea of what to expect: a severe drop in the quality of the mystery, with the stories instead focusing on slapstick antics of a once great detective.

While my suspicions were semi-correct, Behind the Crimson Blind is a much better book than I anticipated it would be – although I’m going to have to qualify that statement.  Lop off a 60 page section roughly midway through the book, and this would be a good read by most authors standards.  It still would only be a shadow of Carr’s best – my closest comparison being maybe The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – but he’s also doing something significantly different.

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The Seven Wonders of Crime – Paul Halter (1997)

I’ve hit a point with a well known mystery where I just don’t have any enthusiasm to go on.  I might get back to it in a few weeks, but in the mean time, where to go?  Why, Paul Halter of course.  Even when they don’t completely pan out, Halter’s stories are a mad flurry of impossible crimes and brave ideas; just the kind of jolt that I need.  In fact, I’ve been dabbling a bit with his short stories in between bouts of my more tepid read, and tales like Jacob’s Ladder and The Cleaver have been that perfect mix of creativity and shock that I’ve been lacking.

My next Halter was meant to be The Phantom Passage, but I decided to go all in with The Seven Wonders of Crime.  Based on the reviews that I’ve read, this isn’t his best book – far from it, it would seem – but the whole set up is so out of this world that I just had to go for it: a serial killer creating a criminal masterpiece with seven impossible murders.  Just do that math on that.  We’ll get seven impossible setups, along with seven solutions.  For a book running 180 pages, that lets us average about 12 pages between either a crime or a solution.  Of course, we have to assume those solutions might get packed together into a 30 page denouement, which leaves us with 150 pages for seven crimes, which is still a pretty good run rate of 20 pages between crimes.

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The Owner Lies Dead – Tyline Perry (1930)

When Coachwhip Publications reprinted The Owner Lies Dead in 2017, it was definitely one of the Golden Age reprints receiving a lot of buzz at the time.  The reviews full on caught my attention, promising a rare mine-set mystery combined with a vexing impossible crime.  It made my Christmas wish list that year, and has inexplicably sat unread ever since.

Well, not that I haven’t tried to read it.  I’ve taken several trips through the southwest United States since obtaining this book, and each time, The Owner Lies Dead has traveled with me.  Through legendary old mining towns like Silverton, Ouray, Durango, Telluride, and Idaho Springs, the book has jostled along.  Of course I have this bad habit of always packing two books too many when I travel (wouldn’t want to get stuck dry), and somehow I never got around to reading it.  I’ve even driven past Genesee, Colorado (where the Coachwhip publication states the book is set) multiple times with the book tagging along with me (Genesee is located just outside of Denver near Red Rocks amphitheater – you’ll inevitably unknowingly drive past it if you’re ever in Colorado to ski).  While the book does take place in a mining town named Genesee, I’m not convinced that the town is supposed to be set in Colorado (although author Tyline Perry was a resident of the mountain state), because at several points in the story, it seems to be implied that New York City is relatively close by.

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