Review 2180: They Do It With Mirrors

I am fairly sure I have never read They Do It With Mirrors before, but as I recently watched a TV adaptation, it was difficult for me to judge how easy it would have been to predict the outcome. I suspect it wouldn’t be.

Jane Marple has not seen her old school friend Carrie Louise for many years, but their mutual friend Ruth thinks something is not right, so she asks Jane to visit if invited. Carrie Louise is a frail woman whom others yearn to protect. She was left with a fortune after the death of her first husband. Her second husband left her for a dancer. Her third husband, Lewis Serrocold, is using wings of her massive home as a rehabilitation center for young criminals.

When Jane arrives, she finds quite a few people residing in or visiting the main house. Carrie Louise’s granddaughter Gina is there with her American husband Walter. Carrie Louise’s daughter Mildred is widowed and living there. Alex and Stephen, the two sons of Carrie Louise’s second husband, are there (well, Alex soon arrives on a visit), and they all get a surprise visit from Christian Gulbrandsen, an executor of the estate trust and Carrie Louise’s stepson. He is there to talk to Lewis, who is momentarily away, but Miss Marple sees them conferring outside when Lewis returns home.

After dinner, Christian has gone to his room to write letters when one of the inmates, Edgar Lawson, strikes up an argument with Lewis Serrocold and starts flashing a gun around. Edgar sometimes says different important men are his father and has moments of confusion and paranoia. This time he says Serrocold is his father and has been spying on him. The two go into his office, from which the others can hear the argument. They hear a gun fired outside, and then the gun in the office is fired, but when they get into the office, both men are fine. Later, though, Christian Gulbrandsen is found shot to death.

When questioned by the police, Lewis tells them Christian suspected Carrie Louise was being poisoned, her arthritis symptoms being similar to slow arsenic poisoning. And sure enough, when the police check a bottle of tonic that Serrocold told her not to take, it’s poisoned.

Soon there are two more deaths, and insights are needed from Miss Marple.

There are a lot of characters in this story and perhaps they’re not as vivid as Christie’s usually are, but she has set us an entertaining puzzle to solve.

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Review 2174: The Black Spectacles

Detective Inspector Andrew Elliot is vacationing in Italy when he overhears an English party discussing some poisonings in a town back home. He is struck at first sight by Marjorie Wills. This proves to be unfortunate, because when he returns home, he is assigned the poisoning case and Marjorie is a suspect.

The poisoning case involves someone substituting poisoned chocolates for harmless ones in a local shop. One boy has died. However, this case is soon overshadowed by the murder of Marcus Chesney, Marjorie’s uncle, under bizarre circumstances. Chesney has a hobby horse that people aren’t observant, so he designs a demonstration of his point. During the demonstration, a bizarrely dressed man comes in to the room where Chesney is manipulating objects at a desk and forces a capsule down his throat. Although this is part of the demonstration, it is not part of it for the capsule to be poisoned. Chesney dies and his assistant is found outside bashed over the head. Later, the unconscious assistant is also poisoned.

Present are Chesney’s friend Dr. Ingram, the assistant, Marjorie, and Marjorie’s fianceé, George Harding, whom she met on the trip. Not present is Dr. Joe Chesney, Marcus’s brother, out on a house call.

As Elliot investigates, things keep pointing to Marjorie, but he can’t prove anything. Finally, he asks Gideon Fell for help.

The Black Spectacles is supposedly Carr’s most popular book, even though it doesn’t feature a locked door mystery, his specialty. I enjoyed it a lot, more than the other books I’ve read by Carr, although I immediately picked out the killer and never wavered. Still, I never figured out exactly what was going on during the demonstration.

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

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Review 2154: #1940 Club! Sad Cypress

Elinor Carlisle is on trial for murdering Mary Gerrard at the beginning of this Christie novel. A doctor who knows her hires Hercule Poirot to find some evidence that will save her.

It all begins when Elinor receives an anonymous letter telling her that her inheritance from her Aunt Laura may be in jeopardy. Elinor isn’t really worried about that, since she and her cousin Roddy have long understood from her aunt that they will inherit. However, she realizes she should go down for a visit because her aunt is not well, and Roddy goes with her. They have always planned to marry, no matter who gets the money, and they decide to become formally engaged.

The note warned against Mary Gerrard, a lodge keeper’s daughter, whom Aunt Laura has had educated. Mary has been visiting Aunt Laura frequently since she returned from school. No sooner does Roddy see Mary than he falls in love with her. Elinor, who has always hidden how much she loves Roddy, sees this and breaks the engagement.

When Elinor is there on another visit, summoned because her aunt has had another stroke, the county nurse misses a vial of morphine. Aunt Laura asks Elinor to summon her lawyer, but she dies that night.

Elinor is surprised to learn that Aunt Laura died intestate and that as her closest relative, she gets everything. However, she gives £2000 to Mary and tries to give money to Roddy, but he won’t take it. When she is there to go through her aunt’s things, Mary is poisoned while eating sandwiches with Elinor and the county nurse, and dies.

Things look bad for Elinor, and at first everything Poirot can discover seems to point to her guilt. But the answer may lie in the past.

I began to have an inkling of the truth but not until the very end of the novel. However, I was sympathetic to Elinor and wanted her to be innocent. This was a Christie I hadn’t come across before and may not have read had it not been for the 1940 Club.

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Review 2148: The Wintringham Mystery

Stephen Munro has been living on a small legacy since he left the army, but the money has run out. Stephen has been looking for a job, but all he can find is a position as a footman in Wintringham. He finds he has nothing to offer the girl he’s in love with, Pauline Mainwaring.

When Stephen begins his position working for Lady Susan Carey, he finds his work is made more difficult because he knows some of the guests at a house party. They keep treating him as a guest rather than a servant. He is especially discomposed when Pauline appears, accompanied by Sir Julius Hammerstein, a financier who turns out to be Pauline’s fiancé.

Lady Susan lives with her niece, Millicent, and is often visited by Cicely Vernon, a favored daughter of a friend. Other guests include Freddie Venables, Lady Susan’s nephew and Stephen’s friend; Colonel Uffculme, a friend of Lady Susan’s; and other friends of Millicent. Later that evening, Cicely vanishes from the drawing room after playing a game where the lights are put out.

At first, it seems that Cicely is playing a prank, but when time passes and she doesn’t reappear, Stephen decides to figure out what happened. Odd events are going on in the house.

I found this novel to be clever and amusing. Lots of things are going on, and the mystery of what happened to Cicely is just one of them. Pauline makes an able fellow detective, and the characters are interesting and believable. This book was one of my favorites of the Golden Age novels I’ve been reading.

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Review 2143: Death of an Author

Death of an Author wasn’t my favorite book by E. C. R. Lorac, but it certainly is a clever one. And Lorac airs that recurring question, Can a women’s writing be differentiated from a man’s? in her book set in the publishing world.

Andrew Marriott, the managing editor of a publishing company, is asked by one of his best-selling authors, Michael Ashe, to invite another of his authors, Vivian Lestrange, to dinner along with himself. Since Lestrange is a recluse, this subterfuge is necessary if Ashe is to meet him. Lestrange accepts, and Ashe is astonished to meet a self-possessed young woman.

A few months later, the same young woman goes to a police station. There she explains that she is Eleanor Clarke, the secretary for the author Vivian Lestrange, and she fears something has happened to her employer, as when she tried to go to work, no one answered her knock.

The police find the house impossible to enter except through a walled door and have to climb a ladder to get in. They find a perfectly cleaned house with no one inside but open French doors with a bullet hole through one. Miss Clarke says that not only is her employer missing but his housekeeper, Mrs. Fife, is not even known at the address she gave Clarke.

Inspector Bond is suspicious of Miss Clarke, and after some investigation shows no proof that Lestrange even existed, he theorizes that she was the author of the Lestrange books and is for some reason spoofing the police. However, Chief Inspector Warner is inclined to believe her, and his belief seems justified when a body with Lestrange’s notebook in his pocket is found burned up in a remote cottage.

After learning about Michael Ashe’s interest in Lestrange, the police look for him, but he appears to be out of the country. However, the timing of his departure makes it feasible for him to be the killer.

The detectives find a possible connection to two brothers, one of whom embezzled funds from a trust both were responsible for and escaped, while the other served in prison for it claiming he was innocent. Could one of the authors be one of these brothers? or both?

Although I had a feeling that the police made a mistake about the brothers, I did not figure out exactly what happened. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t enjoy this one as much as some others by Lorac, though.

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

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Review 2140: Postern of Fate

Postern of Fate is the last of Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels. In reading them in order, I chose not to revisit By the Pricking of My Thumbs because I had posted its review several years ago. Since Christie aged these characters along with the years, in 1973, when this book was written, we find Tommy and Tuppence in their 70’s.

The Beresfords have sold their London apartment and bought a house in a small village. This activity has resulted in renovations and clearings out, as apparently the previous occupants made no effort to remove everything. Tuppence finds a lot of old children’s books, and as she’s sorting them, she naturally begins dipping into them. In Stevenson’s The Black Arrow she finds a basic code made from reading only the first letters of some underlined words. It says, “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us.” By asking around the village about the history of the house, she finds that Mary Jordan worked for the Parkinsons before World War I. She was thought to be a German spy. Tuppence also finds the gravestone of Alexander Parkinson, the boy who owned the book, who died at fourteen.

Tommy in the meantime has met with some old contacts and found that Mary Jordan was indeed a spy but for the British side, sent to infiltrate a nest of Nazis. It’s believed that papers are still hidden in the house that would affect some people now high in the government.

Although this book has an intriguing premise, I don’t think it was one of Christie’s best. For one thing, early on Tuppence finds an object that is later referenced several times before she figures out the connection. To me, it was all too obvious just from the first reference, but it takes Tuppence another 100 pages or so.

However, Tommy and Tuppence are still a pleasing pair, and there is even some danger. Tommy and Tuppence save the day with the help of their dog, Hannibal, who was himself an entertaining character.

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Review 2132: Death of Mr. Dodsley

On his rounds, a young police constable encounters a drunken young man late one night. The man tells him he saw a door opened and closed by a cat, so after the man leaves, the constable goes ahead checking doors and finds the door to a bookstore open. When he looks into the store, he finds a man shot to death in the office. It’s Richard Dodsley, the owner.

Inspector Mallet’s team finds that someone, possibly two people, waited in the store while Dodsley was out and shot him when he returned late to work on a sale catalog. They also learn that a mystery was recently published by Margery Grafton, the daughter of a prominent politician, the circumstances of which closely match those of the murder. It seems more than a coincidence that Margery Grafton is keeping company with Dick Dodsley, the dead man’s nephew, who worked in the shop.

The police find that Dodsley hired a private investigator, MacNab, to find out who has been stealing rare books from his store. MacNab has not been successful, but he gets more closely involved when Margery Grafton hires him to find the murderer because she thinks the police suspect Dick.

Death of Mr. Dodsley does not present us with a super-complicated puzzle , which is a point in its favor. On the other hand, characterization isn’t super important and there are a few important characters that we see almost nothing of, such as Dick Dodsley, the prime suspect. MacNab himself is a fairly laid-back character, and at times the plot seems to be moving very slowly.

Although it’s possible to guess the murderer, there is a surprise at the end that I didn’t see coming. It’s also fun that British Library has been lately publishing these “bibliomysteries.”

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

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Review 2127: The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop is the second Mrs. Bradley mystery, published in 1930. It is written in a flippant, comic style and depicts Mrs. Bradley, a psychoanalyst (very 30s), as all-knowing.

When Rupert Sethleigh’s solicitor appears at his house about a will, his cousin, Jim Redsey, says he left unexpectedly for America. No one else in the household seems to be aware of Sethleigh’s departure, and Jim Redsey behaves in a suspicious manner. Then human remains are discovered, dismembered in the local butcher’s shop but lacking a head. Inspector Grindy soon assumes that the body belongs to Sethleigh, but they have no way of proving it.

So much confusing activity goes on in this novel that, after a while, I stopped paying attention. The head appears and disappears, someone in a Robin Hood outfit almost kills Mrs. Bradley with an arrow. A suitcase disappears and reappears. Clothing of the dead man is worn by several people. Some curtains are burned.

One of the events is impossible. The skull is found and taken to an artist, Cleaver Wright, for reconstruction. It returns looking like Sethleigh but constructed on a coconut. The skull is lost again. But you can’t do facial construction on a coconut. Nor, if you’ve finished it on a skull, could you remove it and put it on a coconut. It’s just silly.

The next-to-last chapter is Mrs. Bradley’s notebook, with which we are expected to correlate her comments with the appropriate chapter of the book. I didn’t bother.

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Review 2125: N or M?

Agatha Christie said she liked Tommy and Tuppence best of her protagonists, so I decided to read them all in order. N or M? is the third. Unfortunately, they tend to be espionage novels, which are not her best even though Tommy and Tuppence are fun.

It’s 1940, and both Tommy and Tuppence are frustrated because no one wants them to help in the war effort. Tommy at 49 is considered too old for intelligence work. However, shortly after he makes another attempt, he’s called on by a Mr. Grant who has an independent operation for Tommy only.

England has become infiltrated by Nazi sympathizers in all levels of government, which is why Mr. Grant wants someone from the outside. He has information that either N or M—both German spies, one male and one female—is at the San Souci rooming house in Leamington. Tommy is to pretend to have got a boring job in Scotland then go to Leamington and check into the San Souci. He does so, only to find one of the guests is Tuppence, who has eavesdropped on his meeting with Mr. Grant. So, pretending they don’t know each other, the two begin investigating the household.

I thought that Tommy and Tuppence were a little dense about the identities of the spies. I knew who one was almost immediately. However, this was the usual romp with some adventure and risk to our hero.

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Review 2122: The Mysterious Mr. Badman

The Mysterious Mr. Badman starts out with an intriguing premise. Athelstan Digby is on holiday in Keldstone waiting for his nephew, Jim Pickering, to be free for a walking trip through Yorkshire. His landlords have to attend a funeral, so Digby offers to watch their bookstore. During the afternoon, three men come in at separate times looking for John Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr. Badman—the rather shifty looking Reverend Percival Offord, a foxy looking man, and a genial chauffeur. Shortly after Digby has disappointed them, a boy comes in with books to sell, including Life and Death of Mr. Badman.

Naturally, Digby takes the book home. Later that night, someone breaks into the bookstore. Digby confides in his landlord, Mr. Lavender, who suggests they put a note in the bookstore window asking the person who accidentally took the book to return it. That will prevent further break-ins.

The boy who brought the books in says they were given to him by Miss Diane Conyers. Before Digby and Jim have a chance to talk to her, Digby finds a letter in the book that brings to mind a recent crime. A man named Neville Monkbarns was to be hung for murder but he was reprieved and sent to a mental hospital. However, the letter shows that Neville Monkbarns is actually the estranged son of the Home Secretary, Sir Richard Mottram. Sir Richard is Diane’s father, and it’s clear that the letter was going to be used to blackmail him.

Then, the body of the foxy looking man is found on the moor.

If you ignore the unlikelihood that any of the unsavory characters would know about the letter, this situation kicks off a lively and adventurous investigation, with Digby and Jim trying to help Diane protect her father. The main characters are likable and interesting, the dialogue is often amusing, and the book is light and fast-moving. I would like to read more of Digby’s adventures.

The cover explains that the original novel has been exceedingly rare, so I’m glad British Library Crime Classics chose to reprint it.

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

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