Review 2097: Death in the Tunnel

I have enjoyed reading the Golden Age crime novels published by British Library and Dean Street Press, but many of them put a complicated plot ahead of the development of character and motive. At some point, I think many of these puzzle-driven novels get too tangled in their clues to be enjoyable. One of these is Death in the Tunnel, which actually faces us with two puzzles—how the crime was committed and how another crime got it started.

Sir Wilfred Saxonby gets on the train home from London one evening and asks for a private compartment. When the train is midway through a tunnel, the driver sees a signal to stop and slows almost to a halt before getting the green light to speed up again. When the train gets to its destination, Sir Wilfred is found dead, shot by a small-caliber pistol. Everything Inspector Arnold can discover seems to point to suicide. But there is that strange halt and other anomalies. Arnold’s friend Desmond Merrion is inclined to suspect murder. But the locked train compartment amounts to a locked room mystery.

First of all, let me just say that it’s a good thing Desmond Merrion is around, because Inspector Arnold has got to be one of the dumbest cops in history. For example, as soon as the tunnel’s ventilation shaft was mentioned, I knew it was important, but it takes another day and Merrion’s suggestion for them to look at it and still Arnold has to have the car tracks that lead to it pointed out to him. Later again he fixates on a poor old man when it is obvious he has been framed.

The murder itself isn’t hard to understand, but a crime that kicked it off had my head reeling with details about when checks were signed. And that leads me to the things I didn’t buy at all: (1) that a man could tell immediately the brand of typewriter used to type something (with comparisons to samples, yes, but not at one glance) and (2) that “experts” could tell by looking at a check whether it had been endorsed when it was written or later.

So, all in all, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as some others. By the way, there was no discussion of motive at all.

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Review 2091: Final Acts: Theatrical Mysteries

British Library Crime Classics’ latest collection of mystery short stories has some connection to the theater. Some stories are only peripherally connected—feature an opera singer, perhaps—while others are set there and show a deep knowledge of that environment. As usual, the stories are ordered chronologically, beginning with a 1905 story by Baroness Orczy and ending with one from 1958 by Christianna Brand.

Baroness Orzcy’s “The Affair at the Novelty Theater” is a complicated story about the disappearance of some priceless pearls.

“The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel” by A. E. W. Mason is one of the super-complicated crime stories common in the earlier years involving people in costumes, a robbery, and a burglary.

“In View of the Audience” by Margarite Steen is a creepy one about a young man who gets on the wrong train and ends up accompanying a strange man to a derelict theater, where he hears about an old unsolved murder.

“Blood Sacrifice” by Dorothy Sayers leaves the reader to decide if there is a crime or not. Young playwright John Scales is furious with Mr. Drury, who has bastardized Scales’s play to make it a success. Then an accident places Drury in Scales’s power. This is the first story in the book in which characterization plays much of a role.

“The Blind Spot” by Barry Perowne is about a playwright who had a brilliant idea for a locked room mystery when he was drunk but can’t remember it sober.

“I Can Find My Way Out” by Ngaio Marsh probably shows the most knowledge of the theater, as a leading man is murdered in his dressing room.

“The Lady Who Laughed” by Roy Vickers is a strange story about a clown who murders his wife for finding him funny.

I enjoyed the satisfying surprise ending of “The Thirteenth Knife” by Bernard J. Farmer.

In “Credit to William Shakespeare” a poisoning onstage is solved through a man’s knowledge of Hamlet.

I think my favorite story was “After the Event” by Christianna Brand, where her detective, Inspector Cockrill, ruins the Great Detective’s favorite story by explaining how he got it wrong.

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

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Review 2089: The White Priory Murders: A Mystery for Christmas

Although The White Priory Murders is not explicitly set at Christmas, it has a nice, snowy setting. I received this novel just recently and thought I’d post my review in time for Christmas.

Carter Dickson is a pseudonym for John Dickson Carr, who was known for locked door mysteries. I confess to not being big on them, but this one is a different sort from the usual very cerebral locked door mystery and has some moments of true suspense.

James Bennett is the American nephew of Sir Henry Merrivale, an amateur sleuth. He has traveled to England with a group of people in the movies and is concerned about an attempted poisoning, so he consults Merrivale. The people concerned are centered around Marcia Tait, a glamorous actress who was ignored by the British acting establishment but has since made it big in America, so she is determined to star in a historical play in England. With her are Rainger, a director; John Bohun, a theatrical presenter; Jervis Willard, an actor who will play opposite Marcia; Emery, her publicist; and Louise Carewe, the daughter of a potential investor, Lord Canifest, who wants to marry Marcia. Someone has sent Marcia a box of chocolates, and Emery was slightly poisoned after eating one. Merrivale says the attempt was not serious.

Later, though, the entire group goes to stay at the White Priory, a centuries old house owned by John Bohun’s brother Maurice and also occupied by his niece, Katherine. Bennett arrives very early in the morning to find that John Bohun has just discovered Marcia’s body in the pavilion where she insisted on spending the night. She has been beaten around the head, but the biggest mystery is the fresh snow around the pavilion, unbroken by any footprints except John’s, going in. According to the events established during the night, she must have been murdered after the snow began falling.

Everyone has secrets, and soon there is a series of attempted murders, attempted suicides, and successful murders, as Inspector Masters summons Merrivale to help him figure it all out.

I received this novel from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2080: Death on the Down Beat

Conductor Sir Noel Grampion is shot in the heart during a concert. Because of the angle of the shot, most of the orchestra members are suspects. Since Sir Noel was disliked by most of them and known as a womanizer, the list of suspects is a long one.

D. I. Alan Hope is assigned the case. Possibly wanting to try something new, Sebastian Farr tells the story in letters from Hope to his wife. Aside from the ethical and legal considerations of a husband telling everything about the ongoing case to his wife, let alone in writing, the device is an unfortunate one, for in trying to make the letters seem real, Farr expands the novel to include all kinds of unnecessary information, even things that don’t make sense. For example, he includes a long description of the house he was staying in before the murder. Since he writes to his wife at least once a day, surely he would have done that at the beginning of his visit, especially as the place has nothing to do with the murder.

Next, we’re subjected to maps of the orchestra and a complete list of players. No doubt about it, this is a puzzle mystery, in which readers are swamped with information, even some pages of the score.

Unbelievably, not a single member of the orchestra is interviewed by the police. Instead, Hope asks them to write about themselves. So we have to read page after page of mostly colorless letters that all say, “I don’t know nuttin’,” which in itself is hard to believe. Farr seems to think that musicians are either looking at the score or the conductor. The reality is that they are usually looking at both at the same time, so it’s hard to believe that no one could have seen who shot him. These letters start around page 90 and before that, we have no details about any of the suspects, although we have read several concert reviews to little purpose. After the letters, Hope goes back through one by one and makes comments on the individuals, forcing us to flip back and forth if we care to pair up the letters with Hope’s remarks. I didn’t.

When the second set of letters began, because Hope/Farr hasn’t eliminated more than a few of the many (about 60) suspects, nor do most of them have anything about them that distinguishes them from anyone else, I threw up my hands and skipped 50 pages to the last letter. There I read the identity of the killer and the name meant nothing to me. I started to read the explanation, and I got so bored I just quit reading.

I understand Sebastian Farr is a pen name for a renowned music critic of the time. I commend the novel in a small way for originality but believe he should have stuck to reviews.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2079: Partners in Crime

I decided to read all of the Tommy and Tuppence novels in order when I read that they were Christie’s favorite sleuths. Partners in Crime is the second book in the series, set six years after the first.

Tuppence is beginning to be bored when Mr. Carter, Tommy’s boss, asks him to take six months off his work in the Secret Service to reopen the Blunt Detective Agency, which the department believes is connected with espionage. They are to look for a Russian blue stamp on a letter and further contacts.

Partners in Crime is not exactly a collection of short stories, but it is about a series of crimes Tommy and Tuppence solve in between tussles with the bad guys. Each case takes up one or two chapters. The book also has a running theme of either Tommy or Tuppence taking on the persona of a different detective from literature in each case. Unfortunately, I didn’t know who most of the detectives were, so I missed some jokes.

Some of the mysteries are laughably obvious, but others are more difficult. The novel suffers slightly from the problem I find with short detective fiction—not a lot of time to develop plots, red herrings, and characters. However, Tommy and Tuppence are funny and charming, so I enjoyed the book.

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Review 2071: Death of Jezebel

Seven years before the action of the novel, Isabel Drew essentially pimped out innocent Perpetua Kirk to Earl Anderson by helping him get her drunk. Perpetua’s fiancé, Johnny Wise, broke in upon them and then drove his car into a tree.

Now the three people involved are working on a pageant. Inspector Cockrill is in town for a conference when Perpetua tells him she has received a threat to her life, blaming her for Johnny’s death. Later they learn that Isabel and Earl have also been threatened. It’s odd that so many of the people involved in the pageant knew and loved Johnny.

The pageant calls for 11 knights to ride out in front of a tower, from which Isabel, as the queen, comes and gives a speech. But Isabel falls from the tower and is found to be strangled.

Death of Jezebel is an example of the Golden Age puzzle novel, where the detectives concentrate on how the murder was done instead of who did it. My problem with this type of mystery is that the murders are usually ridiculously complicated and we have endless discussions involving the action of the knights and the backstage participants.

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

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Review 2068: The Secret Adversary

I decided to read all of Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels after learning that they were her favorites of all her sleuths. There are unfortunately only a few of these novels, and The Secret Adversary is the first.

Tommy and Tuppence are old friends who haven’t seen each other for a while when they meet again after World War I. They are both broke and have been looking for work, so they decide to band together to look for jobs, calling themselves Young Adventurers, Inc. On leaving the café where they have been lunching and discussing this plan, Tuppence is approached by a man who overheard them and says he thinks he has a job for them, but when he asks her name, she says, “Jane Finn,” a name she heard mentioned in the café. He reacts indignantly and leaves.

After placing an ad, Tommy and Tuppence are contacted for work and find that the job oddly involves Jane Finn, who was a passenger on the Lusitania when it was sunk five years before and is believed to have been the recipient of a package important to the government. Tommy and Tuppence are hired to find Jane Finn.

The search brings with it many adventures, during which their steps are dogged by a mysterious Mr. Brown, apparently a criminal mastermind. This novel has a silly Cold War plot before the Cold War, and the slang spoken by an American millionaire seems completely unlikely. I think Christie must have watched too many gangster movies. However, Tommy and Tuppence are delightful and resourceful, so this was a fun reading experience.

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Review 2061: The Seat of the Scornful

In the first scene of The Seat of the Scornful, we meet Justice Ireton, who really believes that an innocent man cannot be found guilty in his court. He lets a convicted man leave the court thinking he is going to be hanged when the justice intends to sentence him to life, as if that’s not punishment enough.

Later, his daughter Connie comes to see him at his seaside retreat, bringing along her fiancé, Anthony Morrell, a flashy dresser of Italian extraction whom Ireton immediately distrusts. Morrell, once alone with the justice, accepts an offer of £3000 to leave Connie alone.

The next night, the girl at the telephone exchange receives a call asking for help at the justice’s cottage followed by a gunshot. The justice is discovered seated at his desk holding a gun with Morrell’s body on the floor, shot in the head. Ireton claims to have been cooking in the kitchen when he heard a shot and came in to find the body and the gun.

Carr’s ungainly amateur detective, Gideon Fell, works with Inspector Graham to figure out what happened. Early the next morning Morrell’s lawyer explains that Morrell is actually a wealthy man with his own candy company who intended to give Ireton the £3000 as a gift for Connie to teach him a lesson.

Although the actual solution to this murder is very simple, it is followed by a series of fairly unbelievable events. However, I have a much bigger problem, without saying too much, with how Fell wraps up the case. Let’s just say that the victim, who was obviously not a nice guy but wasn’t the creep Ireton thought him, is not regarded at all. The introduction to the British Library edition says that other readers have questioned the book’s ethics. Let me say that I think the ending is extremely classist, that if Morrell had been a different type of person, the ending would have been different. Edwards states that Carr, Agatha Christie, and Anthony Berkeley were all pondering whether any murder is justified. Well, this one isn’t.

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

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Review 2057: The Man in the Brown Suit

The Man in the Brown Suit is one of Agatha Christie’s early novels, and it isn’t quite like any of her others. Although it has a mystery of sorts, it’s not really one readers can figure out. Instead, it’s more of a romance/adventure story. The only thing that links it to some of her other novels is the presence of Colonel Race.

Anne Beddingfield has led a boring life, so when her father dies, the first things she wants is adventure. It seems obvious to her that she should go to London. While she is standing at the end of the train platform with another man, he looks up behind her and sees something that makes him back up quickly and fall off the platform in front of the train. When a man claiming to be a doctor checks him, Anne notices that he doesn’t check him correctly and in fact takes something from his pocket. She follows him out of the station and picks up a paper that he drops.

The man had been wearing a brown suit, and when Anne hears that a man in a brown suit is suspected of murdering a woman in a vacant house belonging to Eustace Pedler, she connects the two. She also figures out that the paper indicates an assignation to take place on a ship bound for South Africa, so she buys a passage on the ship.

The novel is written in such a jaunty style that it’s hard to take its dangerous situations seriously, and Anne has a rather primitive idea of a romantic partner (as are the ideas she expresses about men and women), but the novel is entertaining, as Anne falls into one predicament after another. She ends up with proposals from three different men, and although I think she picks the wrong one, Christie has had an exercise in fun.

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Review 2052: #1929 Club! The Seven Dials Mystery

It seems like whatever year is chosen for this club, this time 1929, there is an Agatha Christie book to be read. This time, it’s one of her earlier books that does not feature any of her well-known sleuths and is more of a satire on thrillers than a real mystery. This book also qualifies for R. I. P. XVII.

The young people staying at the home of Lord Coote decide to play a joke on Gerry Wade, who is known for sleeping late. They go to town and buy a bunch of alarm clocks to sneak into his room overnight and set to go off in the morning. However, in the morning Gerry is found dead of an apparent overdose, and seven of the eight clocks are arranged on the mantelpiece instead of on the floor, where they had been left.

Even though Gerry is known as a deep sleeper, the inquest brings in a verdict of accidental death, but Jimmy Thesiger thinks otherwise and gets “Bundle” Brent, Lord Caterham’s daughter, to help investigate. Their friend Ronny Devereux, who works in the foreign office, seems to have some idea of why Gerry might have been killed, but then he is shot to death.

Jimmy and Bundle get on the trail of a secret society known as the Seven Dials that is based in a hidden room in a nightclub. The crimes may revolve around plans to be leaked to the Germans.

The Seven Dials Mystery is Christie’s tongue-in-cheek answer to the thrillers that were popular in its time. Think The Thirty-Nine Steps. It is not entirely effective, but it has some witty dialogue and a few twists.

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