Review 2103: Kill Me Tender

When I asked Dean Street Press to send me books for Dean Street Press in December, I felt that a mystery starring Elvis Presley might be clever and amusing. This was despite my usual dislike for mysteries using an actual person or someone else’s character as the detective. So, I asked for the first book in the series. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to post my review until now, so I missed the event.

Elvis is feeling strange and unfocused since he returned from his army service. He keeps an eye on his correspondence and is distressed to learn that the president of one of his fan clubs, a young girl, died of a heart attack. Also, someone has sent him a record of an Elvis impersonator singing one of his songs, only with the lyrics horribly changed. Then, he learns that another fan club president has died unexpectedly—and both girls had a red spot on their tongues. After a third death, Elvis begins to suspect that someone is killing off his fans. Elvis feels he must get to the bottom of this.

His investigation leads him to meet colorful characters—an uncredentialed doctor serving the Black community and his beautiful nurse, a whole room of Elvis impersonators, an expert on criminology, and a hippy-like jail resident who seems to be psychic.

The humor of this novel seems to be based in strange encounters and outrageous behavior, and it didn’t really work for me. Far from the witty maybe sharp novel I expected, it comes off as a fanboy tribute.

What bothered me more, though, was that while Klein obviously researched Elvis, he didn’t spend the same amount of time checking the accuracy of his memory of 1965. For example, a 14-year-old Southern girl of the time would be very unlikely to even know the language that one character uses. Elvis’s affair with a black nurse is also unlikely. But there is at least one downright anacronism—the use of the term “serial killer” ten years before it was coined.

Characterization is mostly one-dimensional in this novel except for Elvis himself. The rest of the characters are just being put through their paces.

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

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Review 2102: My Soul To Take

A quote on the cover of My Soul To Take says that it is chilling, but apart from its grim subject matter, it is actually surprisingly light. Conversations and the tone of the second Thóra Gudmundsdóttir novel are often quite jokey.

In 1945, a man drops a small child into a freezing coal bunker to die. From a nearby farmhouse, someone sees him.

In the present time, lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is contacted by her client Jónas Júlíusson, who has just built a New Age hotel from a remodeled farmhouse on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. He wants her to look into whether he can claim damages from the previous owners because of ghosts on the property. Thóra reluctantly agrees to come to the hotel to investigate.

Shortly after Thóra arrives there, Birna, the project’s architect, is found brutally beaten and raped on the beach. Thóra thinks that Birna was investigating something about the property. In any case, Thóra finds herself looking into her case because Jónas is a suspect. Thóra’s German friend Matthew, with whom she began a romance in the previous novel, joins her there. Just when it’s possible that the police might have believed the murder is unconnected with the hotel, another body turns up, that of the hotel aura reader.

As I said, this novel is surprisingly light in tone. Even more surprisingly is how it deals with Thóra’s children, who seem to be there only for light comic relief. Thóra’s 16-year-old son has made his girlfriend pregnant, and Thóra has left them and her younger daughter with her ex-husband. But she learns mid-case that her son, who doesn’t have a driver’s license, has left with his sister and pregnant girlfriend to drive to Thóra. On learning this, Thóra does nothing for several hours and then tells her ex where to pick them up. When, surprise, surprise, the children arrive the next day, Thóra basically ignores them. They have no apparent personalities except silliness and disobedience. It’s hard to understand why Sigurdardóttir even decided to make Thóra a mother.

One more very picky thing. At the opening of the novel, Thóra is dealing with a client who is having a dispute with the post office because the mail slot in his door is at the wrong height. The story is he bought a kit house from the States. But I’ve never seen a door for sale here with a mail slot already in it., and most people in the U. S. have mail boxes, either attached to the house or at the street. You seem to only see slots in old city neighborhoods on old doors. This just seems like an oddly wrong detail for her to have come up with.

I enjoyed the first book in this series but don’t think I’ll bother with the third.

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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 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 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 2076: The Twyford Code

I know she is very popular, but I’m proving not to be a Janice Hallett fan. I almost finished her first book despite having serious problems with it, but unfortunately I had already purchased this one, because it was so popular, before I read that one. I quit reading The Twyford Code at about the 200-page point because it seemed rambling and pointless.

Steve Smith is a middle-aged ex-con who is determined to go straight. One day something reminds him of a day in school when his teacher took his class on a field trip because of an old children’s adventure story he found on a bus. Steve can’t remember that day very well, but he knows they went to Bournemouth to visit the home of the author, Edith Twyford, and he thinks that their teacher, Miss Isles, never returned from the trip. He decides to find out what happened to Miss Isles.

Steve doesn’t know that there is a whole internet culture around Twyford’s works, and people using them to search for treasure. He tries to get his old schoolmates to help, but they are not reliable for one reason or another. However, a librarian named Lucy is ready to help.

The entire novel is supposedly transcriptions of audio files Steve made on his phone, because the mission stated at the beginning of the novel is to figure out who he is (which would seem simple, but like the mission in the other Hallett novel, unlikely). I got a little tired of the misspellings this approach leads to as well as the rambling narration. The mystery seems to consist of word puzzles, and I wasn’t interested in solving them. I’m sure the book also includes a long and laborious explanation of the clues, which I’m not interested in reading. Finally, there is so much extra information thrown in that no one would be able to guess what is a clue and what isn’t. Hallett’s books seem to me to just throw in the kitchen sink in a very disorganized fashion and let the reader deal with it.

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Review 2073: Blood Floe

Blood Floe is the second book in Christoffer Petersen’s Greenland Crime Series featuring David Maratse, a former police constable who was invalided out of service. Although Maratse keeps telling people he’s retired, he seems to attract trouble.

Maratse has taken his sledge out to train a new sled dog when he comes across the Ophelia, an ice-strengthened yacht that was carrying an expedition team. He sees blood at the gangplank, so he goes on board and finds five people, all either dead or wounded. He also sees signs that they have been drugged.

When the police begin investigating, they find that a sixth expedition member, Dieter Müller, is missing. Dieter is an expert on a 1930’s explorer, Alfred Wegener, and he is searching for a journal believed to be left in a remote cabin. Dieter has found the cabin and the journal.

Soon Maratse is contacted by a wealthy businessman, Mr. Berndt. The expedition was his, but he is more interested in finding the journal than in what befell his team and wants to hire Maratse to find it. Maratse says he’s retired but soon finds Berndt’s stepdaughter in his home assuming he will help.

Meanwhile Maratse’s friend Petra, a police sergeant, has been taken aside and told why finding the journal is so important.

Blood Floe is another interesting mystery with a fair amount of action. I like it best for the glimpses of Greenland life, in this case, sledding and narwhal hunting.

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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 2067: Christine Falls

Benjamin Black is a pen name for Irish writer John Banville. Christine Falls is the first of his Quirke mystery series, set in the 1950’s.

Quirke is returning to his office in the pathology department of a Dublin hospital when he finds Malachy Griffin working on a report at Quirke’s desk. Mal, his brother-in-law, has no business being there, and Quirke notices he is working with a file for Christine Falls, a new arrival in the morgue whose death is listed as “pulmonary embolism.” Quirke thinks about this and after he finds out that Christine was a maid in Mal’s house, he does an autopsy, finding that she died in childbirth from a hemorrhage.

So, what happened to Christine’s child? Quirke’s inquiries lead him to a laundry run by the Catholic church, where he is told the child died. But information from an inhabitant tells him that isn’t true, and in fact, in the opening of the novel, a nurse is taking a baby on a ship to Boston.

The more Quirke looks into the whereabouts of the child, the more pushback he gets, and the secret seems to involve his wife’s family, with whom he already has difficult relationships. But more is going on, he learns, when a witness is tortured to death.

Christine Falls is a dark novel that comments on the relationship between the powerful and the weak. It is eloquently written and definitely a page-turner.

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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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