Day 1230: The Horizontal Man

Cover for The Horizontal ManThe Horizontal Man is the second novel included in my Women Crime Writers set of crime novels from the 1940’s and 50’s. I have only read one of them before, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes.

The Horizontal Man begins with a murder. Kevin Boyle, a popular professor at a women’s college, turns away from a woman who is furiously protesting her love, only to be hit fatally over the head with a poker. Who is this woman?

Kevin’s student, Molly Morrison, becomes hysterical when she hears of his death and seems to be taking responsibility for it. College President Bainbridge asks a psychiatrist, Dr. Forstmann, to evaluate Molly. Also investigating are college senior Kate Innes and reporter Jack Donelly.

The college seems to be a haven for neurotics. Leonard Marks, the professor who lives across the hall from Kevin, has been squeamishly privy to Kevin’s bragging about romantic conquests and is achingly aware of how poorly he fits into academic life himself. George Hungerford is an eminent professor who recently had a nervous breakdown. And there’s something odd about Freda Cramm.

Although we get to the answer before the characters do, this novel is truly chilling. I am really enjoying the novels in this series.

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Day 1227: Miss Seeton Flies High

Cover for Miss Seton Flies HighAgain, I requested Miss Seeton Flies High from Netgalley without realizing it is part of a series. In fact, “Hamilton Crane” is the pseudonym for the second writer of the series, the first being Heron Carvic. Miss Seeton Flies High is the 23rd book in the series.

If you are expecting a traditional mystery from this series, you’ll be surprised. Miss Seeton is a sort of cross between Miss Marple and a medium. Her forte is drawing surrealistic pictures that give the police clues about the crime in question, if they can figure them out.

Miss Seeton is asked about the kidnapping of a rich playboy and draws a picture of crazed sheep that leads the police instead to a pot-growing enterprise. Later, the retired art teacher receives a much-appreciated windfall. She uses it to take a short vacation in Glasonbury to research King Arthur for a local play. In Glastonbury, she meets a man who later becomes a victim.

This novel is set in the 1970’s and has a little bit of the 70’s atmosphere, especially with hippies and other New Agers in Glastonbury.

link to NetgalleyOf course, even the notion that the police would take Miss Seeton’s drawings seriously is ridiculous, let alone treat them as evidence. The reader has no hope of interpreting the drawings and guessing the perpetrator of the crime, since they are full of puns and not enough information about them is provided. Essentially, these novels are meant as spoofs of whodunnits. I’m sure they’re fun to write. I didn’t find the novel as much fun to read.

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Day 1221: Portrait of a Murderer

Cover for Portrait of a MurdererSet during Christmas of 1931, Portrait of a Murderer is an unusual novel. We know from the beginning who the murderer is, and at first it looks like he is going to get away with his crime. For its time, the psychological portrait of the murderer is surprisingly deep.

Gathered together for Christmas are Adrian Gray and his family. Adrian is in financial straits because of reckless investments he made through his son-in-law, Eustace Moore. Adrian’s oldest son, Richard, is a member of parliament who has been spending heavily on a blackmailing mistress and his bid for a title. Eustace’s investments are all about to fail, with many investors bankrupted. Youngest son Brand’s need to pursue his painting full time has overcome his duty to his family.

All three men plan to ask Adrian for money that he doesn’t have. Richard needs it to pay his blackmailer. Eustace needs £10,000 to keep his investors happy. Brand wants to offload his wife and children onto his father and sister so that he can return to Paris to paint. Failing that, he’d like a loan to support them.

Brand goes to speak to his father around midnight on Christmas Eve. He gets so angry because of Adrian’s attitude toward his career and life that he lashes out. Meaning to slam a heavy paperweight onto the desk, he hits his father in the head instead. Soon he is standing there stunned by what he has done. But it’s not long before he begins trying to find a way out of it. His solution? Frame Eustace.

This novel isn’t so much about the investigation as about Brand’s mental outlook. Dashing off a portrait of himself as he stands in the murder room, Brand recognizes his own genius and decides that nothing should get in the way of his art. Meredith seems, on the whole, sympathetic with him, even as he treats his own wife and children as discardable, simply because he is not sure of the children’s parentage.

Brand’s brother-in-law, Miles Avery, is not satisfied when Eustace is charged with the crime. Despite his wife Ruth’s apprehension, he manages to work out what really happened.

link to NetgalleyThere are some things that are now considered politically incorrect in this novel, originally published in 1933. In particular, anti-Semitic remarks may bother readers. Then there is Brand’s Nietschean sense of superiority, reminding me a bit of Raskolnikov without the feverishness. However, it’s a fascinating character study.

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Day 1209: The Red House Mystery

Cover for The Red House MysteryWho knew that A. A. Milne wrote novels for adults, let alone mysteries? I didn’t, until Simon of Stuck in a Book reviewed The Red House Mystery. Then I saw it advertised in Folio Society, of which I am a member.

Our detective is an amateur, Antony Gillingham, who comes on the scene accidentally. He is visiting in the area when he remembers his friend, Bill Beverley, is staying at the Red House, a guest of Mark Ablett, so he decides to drop by. He finds a man hammering on the library door. This man is Mr. Cayley, Mr. Ablett’s secretary, who reports he has heard a gunshot from within the locked office.

Cayley and Antony break in and find the body of a man who has been shot in the face. Cayley identifies him as Robert Ablett, the ne’er-do-well brother of Mark, just arrived from Australia. Mark Ablett, who had been in the room with his brother, is nowhere to be found. The police decide Robert has been murdered and begin looking for Mark.

Antony begins noticing clues about the crime. Enlisting his friend Bill as his Watson, he decides to solve the mystery.

With typical Golden Age verve, Milne makes this puzzle just about as complicated as possible. I usually don’t hope to solve these mysteries because of that. However, I did guess at part of the solution and then decided it wasn’t possible. Apparently, it was.

What I enjoyed about the book was the congenial duo solving the crime. Antony is bright and witty, and Bill is jovial and loyal. The Red House Mystery makes a fun light read.

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Day 1200: Magpie Murders

Cover for Magpie MurdersMy husband and I love Midsomer Murders. The program has not been broadcast in Austin for years, so we began collecting the DVDs. After our move, we were happy to find that the Portland PBS station periodically airs the older series, which we’ve been watching. So, I was delighted to learn that Anthony Horowitz, the author of Magpie Murders, had written some of the screenplays. How could I go wrong?

Alan Conway, the author of the successful Atticus Pünd mystery series, has sent his latest manuscript, Magpie Murders, to his publisher. After a brief introduction by his editor, Susan Ryland, we’re plunged directly into his Christie-esque whodunnit.

But the novel comes to an abrupt end before it is finished. The last few chapters are missing. Before Susan can contact Conway, she learns he is dead from an accidental fall off the tower in his home.

The publishing house hasn’t been doing that well recently, so Susan begins looking for the final chapters. They have been erased from Conway’s computer, and the manuscript is not with his others. Susan’s boss’s copy is missing the same pages.

Susan begins to suspect that Conway’s death was not an accident. As she investigates, she finds that Conway borrowed characters, settings, and ideas from his real life and liked puzzles and anagrams. Susan thinks that the key to Conway’s death may lie in his manuscript.

I enjoyed Magpie Murders and thought that its novel within a novel structure was clever, but I also didn’t think that the Pünd novel was all that important to the plot. That is, it was important, but it wasn’t necessary to include the entire novel. Of course, this structure gives you two entertaining mysteries for the price of one, but I thought that there were too many characters in the Pünd novel, and it was confusing. Also, too much was told in narrative rather than in action and dialogue.

I did not solve the Pünd mystery, but I did somehow sense who the murderer was in the “actual” mystery despite not knowing the motive. When the motive was revealed, it seemed weak to me.

This seems like a severe review, but I actually enjoyed the novel very much. So, I guess I am carping at small things. The action moves forward nicely, the interior mystery has a pleasant old-fashioned feel, and the “real” mystery has an engaging heroine.

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Day 1191: Coffin, Scarcely Used

Cover for Coffin Scarcely UsedAlthough I am not familiar with Colin Watson’s work, when I read the title of Coffin, Scarcely Used, I just had to request the novel from Netgalley. Watson began writing in the late 1950’s and published more than a dozen books by the early 1980’s. This novel is his first.

No one thinks anything of the death of businessman Mr. Carobleat until the more unusual death of Mr. Gwill, the proprietor of the local paper and Carobleat’s next-door neighbor. Mr. Gwill was found in a field near an electric plant, apparently electrocuted. Inspector Purbright of the Flaxborough police wonders if the death could be suicide, but this seems an unusually cruel way to go. Purbright is also interested in the comments of Mrs. Poole, Mr. Gwill’s housekeeper, hinting at some kind of supernatural events from next door.

link to NetgalleyWhen Inspector Purbright begins looking into Mr. Gwill’s affairs, he is struck by some advertisements Gwill has clipped from his own paper that seem to be coded in a particular way. Whatever Gwill was involved with, it seemed to also involve several other local businessmen—Dr. Hillyard, the undertaker Mr. Bradlaw, and the lawyer Mr. Gloss.

This mystery is fairly complicated, but aspects of it are relatively easy to figure out. I was well ahead of the inspector in regard to what was going on with the ads but did not guess what else was going on. The novel is characterized by a wry sense of humor, particularly in discussions among the various police. I found it mildly entertaining.

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Day 1167: My Darling Detective

Cover for My Darling DetectiveBest of Five!
My Darling Detective is an absolutely charming book. It is not a conventional mystery novel, despite its title. Instead, it focuses more on the characters’ everyday lives.

In 1970’s Halifax, Jacob Rigolet is attending an auction, bidding for his employer on a photograph from World War II, when a woman runs in and splashes the photo with a bottle of ink. To Jake’s horror, the woman is his mother, who is supposed to be safely tucked up at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital.

Jake’s fianceé, Martha Crauchet, is a detective who has caught a cold case that she thinks may be related to this incident. Back in 1945, the year Jake was born, Detective Robert Emil was suspected of murdering and assaulting some Jewish citizens of Halifax. A woman who identified him as being near the victim at the time of the murder disappeared. The connection Martha sees is that Emil also attacked Jake’s mother during the same time period, the same day Jake was born, in fact. Alert Martha also realizes that Bernard Rigolet could not possibly be Jake’s father, as he had been deployed to Europe for a year when Jake was born and in fact died in Germany two days after his birth.

Nora Rigolet’s breakdown is also a mystery. Long a respected librarian at the Halifax Free Library, she was committed after an incident in which she appeared to believe the war had just ended. In the midst of this breakdown, she set up a display in the library of photos by the same photographer whose work she tried to deface three years later at the auction. This photo, called “Death on a Leipzig Balcony,” actually shows Bernard Rigolet in battle one day before he was killed.

As Martha and her two partners, Hodgson and Tides, gather evidence against ex-Detective Emil, Martha tries to get to know Nora, to uncover the events surrounding Jake’s birth. This novel is said to be an homage to film noir, but it’s not really noirish. The charm of this novel lies in the relationship between Martha and Jake, with their honest and funny discussions, their love of the radio program Detective Levy Detects, and the details of their everyday lives.

This is a charming and likable novel, with amusing dialogue. I understand that Norman is known for his novels set in the Maritimes, and I will be seeking out more.

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