Review 1875: Death of a Bookseller

Published in 1956, Death of a Bookseller has long been unavailable except for costly used editions. I was surprised by the publication date, because in many ways the book reads like a much older novel. It employs a rather formal, factual narrative style, and although it is more of a police procedural, it espouses notions about policing that seem naïve and decidedly rosy compared to the probable reality. Also, it refers to phrenology as if it were a considered a science when it was largely debunked by the 1840’s.

Sergeant Wigan decides to take up a hobby, and the one that appeals to him is collecting books. In learning about them, he develops a friendship with Michael Fisk, a buyer and seller of rare books. He has a collection of very rare ones at home, quite a few about the occult.

When Fisk is found murdered in his home, Wigan is assigned to help the Detective Inspector because of his interest in books. He notices that someone has stolen a rare edition of Keats from his collection, but later learns that someone may have also stolen one of Fisk’s books on the occult, substituting in its place a book of little value.

Very quickly, a runner named Fred Hampton is arrested for the crime with serious evidence against him. Hampton claims he is being framed, and Sergeant Wigan tends to believe him, but the D. I. thinks he has his man. However, he gives Wigan permission to continue investigating on his own time. Wigan does so with the help of Charlie North, another runner.

This novel is interesting in its information about the bookselling trade and has a complex plot, although the clues didn’t seem to me more likely to point at one one suspect over another until the very end. One extremely unlikely plot point was the seriousness with which some characters treated the supernatural angle, as Fisk was apparently trying to raise the devil when he was killed. This feature was another thing that made the book seem more like a 19th century mystery.

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

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Review 1873: Juggernaut

Esther Rowe is a Canadian nurse who has just finished delivering a patient in Cannes and finds herself having to make a decision. Will she return to snowy New York or try to find a job in beautiful, warm Cannes? She decides on Cannes and soon accepts a post with Dr. Sartorius even though he seems intimidating.

Celebrating her new job by getting a drink at an expensive café, she overhears a conversation between a young man and a beautiful woman. He is telling her he has a job in Argentina, and she doesn’t want him to go. Later, the woman comes to Dr. Sartorius’s office for an injection. She is Lady Clifford, the much younger wife of Sir Charles Clifford, a wealthy manufacturer.

Not long after Esther starts working for Dr. Sartorius, he informs her that he is closing his practice to care for Sir Clifford, who is suffering from typhoid along with other ailments. However, he invites her to come along as the day nurse.

She hasn’t worked there long when she beings noticing odd things. Lady Clifford doesn’t pay much attention to her husband but insists on giving him his milk every day. The house is frequented by Arthur Holliday, the young man Esther saw with Lady Clifford at the café. Roger Clifford, Lord Clifford’s son, arrives unexpectedly after Lord Clifford suffers a downturn. He never received the cable sent to summon him home.

Although it isn’t very hard to figure out what’s going on in the Clifford house, Esther is a strong, feisty heroine and the novel depends more on psychology than the complex plots more usual in 1928, when Juggernaut was written. Also, there is an understated romance, and the last 50 or so pages are extremely suspenseful. Juggernaut is Campbell’s first book, and I am looking forward to more.

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

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Review 1857: Murder Out of Turn

Murder Out of Turn is the second of the Mr. and Mrs. North mysteries, which were extremely popular in the 40s and 50s.

Pam and Jerry North have invited their friend Lieutenant Bill Wiegand to their cabin on a lake in northeastern New York State. When he arrives, he finds quite a social group of vacationers finishing up a tennis tournament and then having a party. Wiegand walks one of the women home from the party at night and gets lost on the way back. When he is near the cabin with the partiers, he comes across the body of Helen Wilson, whose throat has been cut. Early the next morning, there is a fire in the cabin of Jean Corbin, killing her.

Having called in the state troopers and the Bureau of Criminal Identification, Wiegand finds Lieutenant Heimrich asking for his help. One of the difficulties for the police is not knowing which murder was intended. Everyone is surprised that anyone would want to murder Helen, although Jean is another story. So, did Jean witness something about Helen’s murder or did Helen about Jean’s? When he investigates further, Wiegand can only find one person who might want to hurt Helen, Dorian Hunt, whose father was tried for fraud. Helen, Hunt’s secretary, reluctantly testified against him. On the other hand, there are several people who may have wanted to kill Jean, jealous wives and coworkers and men she had dumped.

I’m not sure I enjoyed this novel as much as the first one, although it was okay. For me, there were too many details and not enough characterization. The Norths frankly don’t do much to solve the mystery, just get involved in some chases. Having Wiegand fall for a woman who hates cops was a little interesting.

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Review 1848: The Mayor’s Wife

A friend told me about Anna Katharine Green, who is supposed to be one of the first women mystery writers, and since then I’ve seen several reviews of her books. So, I found a copy of The Mayor’s Wife, written in 1907.

Miss Saunders is hired as a companion for his wife by Mayor Packard, who is also running for governor. He is to be away a lot on the campaign trail, and he has become concerned for his wife, Olympia, because lately she has been behaving oddly. He wants Miss Saunders to try to ascertain what is wrong with Mrs. Packard.

It’s not too long before Miss Saunders discovers that the house has had several tenants because it is supposedly haunted. The neighbors, two old ladies who used to own the house, also spend their time staring into the room given to Miss Saunders.

Although the household staff is generally friendly, Mrs. Packard’s moods vary wildly, and two of the household are unfriendly. The butler is hostile and suspicious, while Mr. Steele, Mr. Packard’s secretary, is cold.

It turns out there is a lot to discover in the house, and Miss Saunders finds hidden treasures, deciphers codes, busts the ghost, and finds out what is wrong with Mrs. Packard. Most of these secrets are easy to guess, including one involving a secret identity. Like many older mysteries, this one is more concerned with puzzles than characters, including spending several pages on cyphers.

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Review 1807: Murder by Matchlight

It’s 1945, and London is in blackout during the period of the Blitz. Nevertheless, Bruce Malling is out for a stroll in Regent’s Park. He is sitting quietly on a bench near a footbridge when he sees a man pop over the railing and hide under the bridge. A few minutes later, another man strolls onto the bridge, calling out to ask if anyone is there. By the brief flicker of matchlight as the man lights his cigarette, Bruce sees another face above his. Then he hears a thud. Bruce runs up to find the man dead and then catches the other man as he comes up from under the bridge and tries to run away.

A police constable arrives on the scene as does a doctor, who pronounces the man dead. His ID identifies him as John Ward, but when Inspector MacDonald inquires about him, he can find no one who knows anything about him except that he was Irish, was charming, and had no visible means of support. Inquiries at his previous residence then reveal that he was not John Ward at all.

This novel is full of colorful characters that MacDonald meets at the victim’s boarding house. It is an interesting puzzle with lots of secrets. Being part Irish myself, I didn’t appreciate the aspersions cast on them in one passage, but otherwise I enjoyed this mystery.

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

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Review 1794: Fell Murder

The Garths have been at Garthmere, a farm on the fells of the Lake District, from before Flodden Field. The patriarch, Robert Garth, is a hard man of 83, stubborn and hot-tempered, who will not agree to the modernizations proposed by his daughter, Marion. He has long been estranged from his heir, oldest son Richard, who moved away to Canada. His middle son, Charles, lost every penny out in Asia to the Japanese invasion and loafs around unless put to work. His youngest son, Malcolm, is frail and spends his time keeping bees and writing poetry.

It is 1944, and Richard returns to the area, on leave from the Navy. He meets his father’s bailiff, John Staple, on the fell. He doesn’t want to see his family—he just wanted to look at the land—so he asks Staple not to tell them he is there. But he is overheard by Malcolm. A few days later, Robert is found dead, shot and left inside an old outbuilding.

Chief Inspector Macdonald is called on the scene after initial interviews by Superintendent Layng, who is not good at handling the reticent farmers. Although Macdonald gets along better, he finds himself with either too many or too few suspects and no proof against anyone.

If Fell Murder has a fault, it is that the murderer is too easy to guess, being the only unlikable main character. This was often a fault of Georgette Heyer’s mysteries, too, but I still enjoyed reading them. Oh, there’s one other problem, the handling of a boy of limited intellect, but that’s due to the change in times. Just a warning.

Of these British Library Crime Classic reprints, I’ve discovered E. C. R. Lorac to be one of my favorites, because of her attention to setting and character. This is a good one.

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Review 1735: #1976 Club! Sleeping Murder

With the 1976 Club looming, I picked out some books to read for October that were published in 1976. Sleeping Murder also qualifies for RIP XVI! As usual, on this first post I’m also listing anything else I’ve reviewed published in 1976. As far as I know, there are only two:

Newlywed Gwenda Reed is house hunting along the south coast of England for herself and her husband Giles, both newly arrived from New Zealand. When she comes across a house in Dillmouth, she immediately feels at home there, although she experiences a fleeting panic on the stairs. Nevertheless, she buys the home.

Gwenda is residing in it to oversee updates to the house when she begins to experience something odd. She expects the stairs down from the terrace to be in one place but they are in another. When workmen remove some bushes where she thinks the steps should be, they find the stairs used to be there. Similarly, she keeps trying to walk through the wall in the dining room where she thinks there should be a doorway. When the workmen examine the wall, they say it had a door there. She imagines a particular wallpaper in what used to be the nursery, and when a blocked cupboard in that room is opened, she sees that wallpaper inside.

Gwenda is most upset because she’s had a vision of a woman dead at the bottom of the stairs and realized it was Helen. But she has no idea who Helen is. Feeling confused, she decides to consult friends in London. Accompanying the group out for the evening is her friends’ aunt, Miss Jane Marple. After she explains what’s been happening, Miss Marple says she should find out if she ever lived in England as a child.

Inquiries find that Gwenda lived in the house when she was three. At the time, her father had a second wife named Helen. But Helen supposedly ran off with another man. Gwenda and Giles find that Helen’s half brother, Dr. Kennedy, still lives in the area. He has some letters that she sent right after she left but hasn’t heard from her since.

Gwenda and Giles begin to believe that Helen was murdered. Did Gwenda’s father kill his wife, or did someone else?

It was hard for me to judge whether this was a difficult mystery, because I vividly remembered a TV production of it. However, knowing the identity of the killer made me appreciate how skillfully Christie salts in the clues without giving too much away. The characters are clearly defined, and Miss Marple is at her cleverest.

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Review 1699: Two-Way Murder

The night of the Hunt Ball is a foggy one indeed. Nick Brent gives visitor Ian Macbane a lift to the dance. On the way home, though, he has a far different companion, Dilys Maine, a beautiful young woman whose strict father did not give her permission to go to the ball. In the fog, the car nearly runs over something huddled in the road. When Nick finds it is a body, he urges Dilys to run home by herself so she won’t have to give evidence.

Nick can’t turn around or back all the way down the narrow lane, so he goes to the nearest farmhouse to call the police, that of Michael Reeve. Finding no one home, he breaks in through a pantry window to make the call. However, someone comes in and attacks him.

Things don’t look good for Reeve. An older constable identifies the body as his brother Norman, who left ten years ago, but Reeve denies it is him. The body was almost certainly driven over by Reeve’s car, but Reeve says he often parks it on the verge with the keys in. His family having past run-ins with the police, he’s not inclined to cooperate.

But Inspector Waring of the C. I. D. thinks things are more complex than they look. He believes they center around Dilys Maine and the rivals for her affection.

The Introduction to this novel informs us that this is the first time it has been in print, the unpublished manuscript having been part of the author’s estate. That makes it a real prize for the British Library Crime Classics series. The Introduction further comments that for many years E. C. R. Lorac’s novels were only available to collectors. I’m enjoying them very much and am glad they are being republished.

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

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Review 1691: The Norths Meet Murder

Mysterious Press has recently started bringing back the Mr. and Mrs. North series, which was extremely popular in the 1940’s and 50’s. Other bloggers’ reviews finally convinced me to try the first in this entertaining series.

Pam North has decided to have a party, and she thinks the empty apartment upstairs in their building would be a perfect place to have it. So, one afternoon Jerry and Pam North go up to look at it. There they find a man’s naked dead body in the bathtub.

Lieutenant Wiegand has some difficulty identifying the body, but it turns out to be that of Stanley Brent, a lawyer. Brent was a man disliked by many, part of a social set that intersects with that of the Norths. Pam North soon finds a clue, a paper with the name “Edwards” inserted into the mailbox to make it look as if the upstairs apartment is occupied. Wiegand is also able to find Clinton Edwards, a businessman and part of the same social set as Brent. Edwards claims to know Brent but to have few dealings with him.

But there are other suspects—Brent’s wife Claire; the Fullers, as Brent has been behaving as if he’s having an affair with Jane Fuller when he is not; maybe Mr. Berex or even Kumi, Edwards’ houseboy.

Mrs. North is an interesting character whose mind seems to always be ahead of her tongue. Mr. North is adept at interpreting what she means. There’s an awful lot of drinking going on in this novel, but it is humorous and engaging. It had fun reading it.

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Review 1688: The Chianti Flask

Did she or didn’t she is only part of the concern of this psychological drama that is more of an apres-crime novel. Or was it a crime?

The novel begins with Laura Dousland on trial for the murder of her much older husband. But whether he was murdered or committed suicide is really the question. It all seems to hinge on a missing Chianti flask that the police think may have been used to deliver the poison. Laura says they were out of Chianti, but their Italian servant says a Chianti flask was on the table during dinner. A search for the flask finds nothing.

Laura is found not guilty but is overwhelmed by the attention she continues to get. She has been left nearly penniless with only a gloomy and poorly maintained house to sell, as Fordish Dousland notoriously only spent money on his own interests and his income was only for his life. All the money Laura saved during her years as a governess was spent trying to maintain the household and feed them.

Laura just wants to be left alone after the trial, but her well-meaning but insistent ex-employer, Mrs. Hayward, thinks Laura would be better off engaged in society. Left ill from imprisonment, Laura begins to get worse.

Dr. Mark Scrutton, whom Laura knew slightly before the trial, makes it his business to get her out of the Hayward’s home and into an isolated seaside cottage owned by his family. But soon there is another conflict when Scrutton tells her he is in love with her.

The Chianti Flask is an effective psychological novel that really gripped me. I got so caught up in the couple’s difficulties because of Laura’s notoriety that I almost forgot I was reading a mystery.

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

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