Review 1533: The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye

A mysterious man dances with Sheila Delancy at the Hunt Ball, the same night the Crown Prince of Clorania is rumored to be there. Some months later, a young woman is murdered in a dentist’s chair in Seabourne, and Detective Bannister is called away from his vacation to take charge.

A few weeks before, Anthony Bathurst is requested by the Crown Prince of Clorania to look into a case. Someone is attempting to blackmail him over an affair with a young woman. Soon, Bathurst begins to suspect that the two cases are related.

While I enjoyed the first book in this series, I thought this one was a bit of a cheat. That’s because only one piece of information links the killer to the case, and we don’t get to hear that conversation. The plot has a clever concept, but there’s no way a reader could guess the solution.

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Review 1467: The Billiard-Room Mystery

The Considines are holding a cricket week at their manor in Sussex in Brian Flynn’s first Anthony Bathurst mystery, published in 1927. Several young men are staying there, including old family friend William Cunningham, who is the narrator. Anthony Bathurst, his friend from Oxford, turns up unexpectedly, replacing another player.

In the most recent match, Gerry Prescott has played well, and later that night, he wins a great deal of money at cards from Lieutenant Barker. He has also been pursing Mary Considine, the pretty and athletic daughter of the house. The next morning, he is found dead in the billiard room, having been stabbed in the back with a dagger and strangled with a shoelace. There are lots of clues, but some of them seem to contradict each other. Then, after Inspector Baddely and his nearly mute subordinate, Roper, begin to investigate, it is discovered that Lady Considine’s pearls are missing.

Like many early mysteries, this one focuses on the puzzle rather than characterization. For some reason, though, despite the plethora of confusing clues, I zoomed right in on the murderer and knew the motive even though Flynn used a clever ruse to hide the perpetrator’s identity. This might have made me enjoy the novel less, but I liked its jaunty style and was eager to see if I was right.

This novel was sent to me by the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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Review 1450: The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories

For a Christmas season treat, I read this latest British Library Crime Classic short story collection, published in October. Most of its stories are set in winter and several around Christmas. This collection includes crime stories published between 1909 and 1965.

I was surprised to find the first story was written by Baroness Orczy, whom I associate with the Scarlet Pimpernel. It turns out that she started by writing crime fiction. In “A Christmas Tragedy,” her detective is Lady Molly, who is convinced that the accused Mr. Smethick did not murder Major Ceely. The police theorize that the motive was the major’s refusal to allow his daughter’s engagement to Mr. Smethick. Lady Molly discovers a more obscure motive for the crime.

In “By the Sword” by Selwyn Jepson, Alfred Caithness plots and kills his cousin Herbert after Herbert refuses to lend him more money. Alfred’s guilt is explored in an unusual way.

“The Christmas Card Crime” by Donald Stuart is more of a crime adventure, as a criminal tries to steal an heiress’s proof of her identity.

Although some of the stories were more clever than others, the only story I couldn’t finish was “Twixt the Cup and the Lip” by Julian Symons, a caper story that seemed to go on and on.

I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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Review 1421: Death Has Deep Roots

I usually give older crime novels more leeway than modern ones, because the genre has evolved. Some of the older novels concentrate on the puzzle to the detriment of character, for example, or even plausibility. Not so with Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert, published in 1951.

Gilbert, rather than having an all-knowing detective, has recurring characters in his novels, apparently. Although Goodreads lists this novel as Inspector Hazlerigg #5, he is only a minor character. Instead, the novel rests on the combined efforts of the Rumbolds, father and son solicitors; Macrae, the barrister; and Major McCann, a former soldier and pub owner.

Victoria Lamertine is charged with murdering Major Eric Thoseby, once her British contact when she was in the French Resistance, in his hotel room. The police case is built around the fact that she had been trying to contact him and that no one else could have committed the crime based on who was in the reception area of the hotel. The police think that Thoseby was the father of her child, who died just after the war, that being deserted by her lover was her motive.

Victoria claims that in fact Lieutenant Wells was the father and that Thoseby had been helping her search for him, as he was last seen when the Gestapo raided the farm near Angers where he was hiding. Victoria herself was taken in that raid.

Nap Rumbold thinks the links to the crime lie in France and the war, so he goes off to investigate. McCann investigates Lieutenant Wells in England, hoping to verify Vicky’s story about the parentage of her child. They only have a few days to find the facts while Macrae mounts his defense.

This novel is an unusual combination of legal and action thriller, Rumbold’s part providing the action. It has compelling characters, an interesting plot, and zips along nicely. I think it’s the best of the British Library Crime Classics I’ve read so far. I’ll be looking for more Michael Gilbert, whom I wasn’t familiar with before.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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Review 1410: The Catherine Wheel

Jacob Taverner, a rich eccentric, invites some of the cousins of his extensive family to the family inn, The Catherine Wheel, for a reunion. He seems to have an ulterior motive, though, because he questions several about the stories of a hidden tunnel.

The inn has a past as a smugglers’ nest, and Detective Abbott thinks it is still so used, for drugs and stolen jewelry He asks Miss Silver to take a room at the inn to observe activities.

Jane Heron and Jeremy Taverner are among the cousins invited to the inn. It is cheaply furnished, ill kept, and creepy, and Jane’s misgivings are furthered when she recognizes Miss Silver as a detective she met before. She makes sure Miss Silver gets a room. That night, Luke White is found dead. Luke is a cousin on the wrong side of the blanket who worked as a waiter at the inn. Earlier, he was overheard telling Eily, the maid, that he was going to have her whether she wanted him or not, and if she tried to marry her sweetheart, John Higgins, one of the cousins who chose not to attend the reunion, he would murder him. Eily was discovered near the body, but so was another cousin, Florence Duke.

The dull-witted Inspector Crisp is ready to arrest John Higgins, but Miss Silver is quite certain something else is going on.

Wentworth is good at creating eccentric or likable characters, but she also telegraphs the bad guys fairly obviously, so that you know who was likely to be involved, just not why. The problem of repetition that irritated me in The Arlington Inheritance isn’t quite so pronounced in this one. Overall, the book is entertaining enough but not a great mystery.

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Review 1407: Murder at the Vicarage – #1930Club

I decided to reread Murder at the Vicarage for the 1930 Club, but it also applies to Readers Imbibing Peril. It is the first Miss Marple book, and for much of it she seems like a minor character.

The novel is narrated by Len Clement, the vicar of St. Mary Meade. He is called away one evening by what proves to be a false call for help. He arrives home late for a meeting with Mr. Protheroe, a wealthy man who is disliked by many. In his study he finds Protheroe dead, shot in the head.

Of course, there are lots of suspects and red herrings. Mr. Hawes, the curate, is behaving oddly. Mrs. Protheroe had just decided to part from Lawrence Redding, who is in love with her. Lettice Protheroe has inconsistencies in her alibi. Rumor reports that a local poacher has a grudge. A team exploring the local barrow seems to be up to something besides archaeology.

No sooner does Inspector Slack appear on the scene when first Lawrence Redding then Anne Protheroe make confessions of guilt. Miss Marple lives next to the vicarage so has some testimony to offer about its comings and goings. And she also has some interesting ideas about who may be guilty.

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Review 1406: Strong Poison – #1930Club

There are those who feel that Dorothy L. Sayers ruined her Lord Peter Wimsey series with the introduction of the character Harriet Vane. I am on the fence about this. On the one hand, I don’t really enjoy Peter’s sappiness as he courts and marries Harriet. On the other hand, I like Gaudy Night, the mystery that Harriet solves herself.

I also enjoyed Strong Poison, the novel in which Harriet is introduced. Harriet, a mystery writer, is accused of poisoning her ex-lover, Philip Boyes, with arsenic. In 1930, when the book was published, no one quite understands why Harriet broke off with Philip. Philip convinced her, against her principles, to live with him without marriage, stating that he did not believe in it. Then he turned around and asked her to marry him, which Harriet views as his having tried her out. Her resulting anger seems to be the police’s motive. Lord Peter doesn’t believe it for a moment. He thinks Harriet is innocent and wants to marry her himself. Luckily, there’s a hung jury, so Peter has a month to investigate.

At first, Peter can’t get anywhere, because he can find no motive. Yet he is struck by the precautions Philip’s host at dinner took when Philip was taken ill to preserve the food. Peter is even more struck by the precautions he took not to be left alone with Philip or give him medicine when he was ill. But this host, Mr. Urquhart, Boyes’s cousin, had no opportunity to administer the poison, and Harriet did. Moreover, Harriet purchased arsenic as research for her book.

About halfway through, this mystery becomes more a puzzle about motive and opportunity than the identity of the killer. It skillfully unwinds, however, and does not cheat by hiding information from the reader.

I reread this novel for the 1930 Club and Readers Imbibing Peril, and was glad I did. I had forgotten the witty dialogue and the deft characterization.

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Review 1397: Deep Waters

I have read several of British Library Crime Classics’ mystery story collections, usually themed around a locale. In Deep Waters, most of the stories are set at sea, although some involve rivers and one each a pond and a swimming pool. The stories are in chronological order by when they were published, from 1893 to 1975.

The first story, “The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott'” by Arthur Conan Doyle, is a Sherlock Holmes I have never encountered before, supposedly his first case. Like several of the first few stories, it presents and solves a puzzle so quickly that I was barely aware there was a puzzle. In fact, as I read these stories, I felt as if I was watching the evolution of the mystery story.

“The Eight-Mile Lock” by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace, only the second story, was one of three written by women. It details the theft of a diamond bracelet from a party staying on a houseboat. The mystery is not so much about who stole the bracelet or how but where he put it to evade the police.

“The Gift of the Emperor” is a Raffles story written by E. W. Hornung, who was Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law. I don’t know if it was the last of Raffles’s career, but it seemed to be.

One of the stories I liked best was “A Question of Timing” by Phyllis Bentley. The main character, Robert Beringer, uses his observation skills as a writer to foil a criminal, save a detective’s life, and get the girl, all during a walk. This story takes place on an embankment of the Thames.

I have a frustration in general with mystery short stories as they really only have space to pose and solve a puzzle. So much that I enjoy about mystery novels is not possible at this length. Some of these stories, though, had beautiful descriptions of their settings. In any case, this is a good collection for those interested in the evolution of the mystery story.

I received a copy of this book free from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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Review 1389: Murder in the Mill-Race

Murder in the Mill-Race is apparently E. C. R. Lorac’s 36th Chief Inspector Macdonald mystery, which means I have pleasure in store if only I can find others. I reported recently that I’d gotten up the nerve to request books from several publishing companies, and Poisoned Pen Press immediately sent me four books from their British Library Crime Classics. This was one of them.

When Anne Ferens, the new doctor’s wife, first meets “Sister” Monica, the warden of the children’s home in Milham in the Moor, she is taken aback by the dichotomy between the Sister’s reputation as a saint and her freakish appearance. What’s worse, Anne fears that the children are being terrorized by her. She soon learns the woman has a poison tongue, starting rumors by denying her belief in the scandal she’s trying to suggest.

Then Sister Monica’s body is found in the mill-race. The village is quick to assume the death was an accident. But Sergeant Peel is still bothered by the death a year before of Nancy Bilton, a resident of the home who was found dead in the same place. Peel finds the village just as closed as it was before. No one knows or saw anything. So, the authorities call in Chief Inspector Macdonald and Inspector Reeves. They soon ascertain that the death was no accident.

I enjoyed this mystery very much. It pays more attention to character than many of the books in this series, and the characters are believable. The mystery is not one of the over-complicated ones of the period. I guessed the identity of the killer but did not guess the motive except in general. The Ferens are a charming couple, and I liked the two detectives. This novel is a good choice for this series.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Review 1354: Weekend at Thrackley

Cover for Weekend at ThrackleyOccasionally, I have been reading the British Library Crime Classics published by Poison Pen Press, so I was delighted to find one on the shelves of my local library. I had not heard of the author, Alan Melville, but I was pleased to find the novel one of the most enjoyable of this series that I have read so far.

Jim Henderson isn’t getting ahead in life, but he’s doing it cheerfully. He has a room in a rather seedy rooming house, but he likes his landlady. He hasn’t been able to find a job in years, but he has managed to keep his membership to his club.

One morning, he gets an unexpected invitation from an Edwin Carson, who claims to have known him as a child, for a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim knows nothing about Carson, but when he visits his friend Freddie Upton to borrow evening clothes, he finds that Freddie is invited, too. Freddie tells him that Carson is a jewel collector with an amazing collection, and he has asked him to bring the Upton diamonds so that he can look at them. That doesn’t explain why Jim has been invited, however.

Before the two men arrive at the house, Freddie knocks over a charming girl on a bicycle. That girl, Mary, turns out to be Carson’s ward. Jim thinks things are looking up.

When the men arrive at the house, Jim is even more perplexed about why he is invited. The four other guests have only one thing in common: they all own famous jewels. Jim does not.

The house itself, although luxuriously and tastefully finished, is gloomy and built like a fortress. Jim soon finds that both his room and Freddie’s have been bugged. Just what is Carson up to?

This novel has an engaging hero and is written in a pleasantly jaunty style. It also has some witty dialogue. As is common in the genre, Carson’s plots are ridiculously complicated, and the chapter at the end where the police inspector explains everything seems unnecessary. All in all, though, I enjoyed this light novel.

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