Friday’s Forgotten Book: Odds-On Murder by Jack Dolph

Jack Dolph is the pseudonym of John Mather Dolph (1895-1962). He was a race horse trainer, an American writer of pulp crime novels, radio producer, television scriptwriter, and actor. He published five mysteries between 1948 and 1953, mostly about horseracing, then turned his attention to radio and television.

His first book, Odds-On Murder (William Morrow, 1948), introduces James Connor, MD, a recent veteran still recovering from the trauma of the war and lacking motivation to do much of anything. He has taken up a lackadaisical medical practice in New York City, seeing patients in his apartment/office in a questionable part of town. Doc is known to be willing to treat anyone, regardless of their status with the police, making him one of the few people the less law-abiding denizens of the neighborhood feel safe with, which is how he is pulled into the aftermath of the murder of a smalltime grifter. In practically no time, he is in trouble with his good friend, Eddie Marsh, a homicide lieutenant; frightening his girlfriend Katie Storm, a popular radio host; and swept off at gun point to perform surgery on a grievously wounded young man in an isolated country house with only a few medical instruments and pans of boiling water. Somewhere in there he figures out who actually committed the murder.

The snapshot of daily New York City life in the 1940s was as absorbing as the story. Much of the detail surrounding horse racing was familiar, so that does not seem to have changed much. On the other hand, I was aghast when Doc said he had taken two adjacent apartments and inserted a door in the wall between them, so that he could use one as an office. I envisioned hair-raising conversations with the landlord. Either he actually bought the two apartments rather than renting them, or land owners and neighbors were considerably more relaxed about property damage then. Let’s not even think about building codes.

These period pieces always make me do a little research. Taxi dancers and dance halls were still around, although on their way out to disappear completely by 1960; the dancer mentioned here earned $16 a night, which is about $175 in 2021 US dollars. The ten thousand-dollar bills found on the victim would be worth about $110,000 now. (What does a thousand-dollar bill look like? I didn’t know one existed. It had Grover Cleveland on it and was discontinued in 1969.)

This initial title in the series was released a few times and then fell out of print for over 50 years. The first US edition came from William Morrow in 1948, then the 1949 UK edition from Boardman, who reprinted it in two more editions, 1950 and 1953. The Unicorn Mystery Book Club printed it in one volume in 1948 with Blood on the Bosom Devine by Thomas Kyd, I Am the Cat by Rosemary Kutak, and The Trial of Alvin Boaker by John Reywall. (I have never heard of any of these authors, more research ahead.) That was it until Coachwhip released it again in 2021.

I found this foray into pulp fiction well worth my time. Recommended for readers of the genre or those interested in mid-20th century mysteries.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Deductions of Colonel Gore by Lynn Brock

Lynn Brock (1877-1943) was the pseudonym of Alister McAllister, an Irish writer. He first wrote plays as Anthony Wharton and then turned to crime fiction using the name Lynn Brock. He created the character of Colonel Gore who starred in five books and a recently reprinted novella and wrote an early psychological crime story. T.S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers were among his fans. He wrote 13 books in all.

The Deductions of Colonel Gore, published by Collins in 1924 and again in 1932 as The Barrington Mystery, introduces the eponymous detective. Colonel Wickham Gore returns to his home town of Linwood after a successful military career and producing a film of Africa that was popular in England, which made him something of a celebrity. Many of the friends of his youth are still there, including the woman he loved unrequitedly. Now married to an established physician, she is one of the first people he notifies of his return. She promptly invites him to a small dinner party, where he meets more of his former friends and learns that his hostess is being blackmailed.

She enlists his aid in retrieving embarrassing letters and Gore is trying to do so when her blackmailer conveniently dies, apparently of a heart attack but maybe of something else. Gore is relieved for a short time, thinking the threat had evaporated, until he learns that the blackmailer’s colleague has stepped in to take over and expects to continue draining a number of residents of their cash.

A surprising 274 pages, long for a Golden Age mystery, the intricate plot needs a good bit of space to unfold all of its layers. What takes up most of the room though is Gore’s careful processing of the information he has at various times, which points first at this character and then another as the culprit. Readers looking for action will be disappointed, as most of the action is in Gore’s methodical and logical brain.

I really liked this book. I felt it needed editing and then upon a quick review decided I could not see what could have been eliminated without damaging the plot. It is very much of its time and place: Gore persists in referring to grown women by their childhood diminutives (Pickles! Roly-Poly!) while addressing the men of the same generation by their surname, acknowledging their adult status. I know I am viewing this dissonance through the distant lens of 100 years but I still find the contrast jarring. Another sign of the times is the reference to his camera, which was large enough to cause comment and required a stand and plates. Mine of course is in my telephone. And then there are the pejorative references to minorities that are unacceptable these days. However, these are minor considerations. The mystery plot is impeccable and the writing polished and amusing. I understand why T.S. Eliot, that consummate stylist, was enamored. Essential reading for any student of Golden Age mysteries.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Hopjoy Was Here by Colin Watson

I finally got around to picking up another title in the Flaxborough Chronicles by Colin Watson. Why I waited so long I do not understand. I loved the first one I read and I loved Hopjoy Was Here (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1962), the third in the series of 12 gently sardonic and clever police procedurals featuring Detective Inspector Walter Purbright and Detective Sergeant Sidney Love in the prosperous market and port town of Flaxborough in East Anglia. Flaxborough is supposedly a fictionalized version of a town in Lincolnshire where Watson was a journalist.

In the time-honored manner and very much in Flaxborough style, an anonymous letter writer advised the Flaxborough police that something was amiss in the house owned by Gordon Periam, who rented a room to a commercial traveller named Brian Hopjoy. When Detective Inspector Purbright learned about the letter, he decided it deserved more than the casual glance such missives generally get, as he and Chief Constable Chubb were aware that Hopjoy was in fact part of Britain’s intelligence service, agency unnamed, working undercover in the region. Since no one seemed to be home either time the police visited, they felt justified in entering the house to ensure all was well. They found indisputable evidence that a substantial amount of organic material had been dissolved with acid in the bathtub, leaving insufficient amounts to determine who or what had been destroyed. That neither man had been seen for a week supported the suspicion that one of them was now in the many test tubes collected by the police from the bathtub drain and the other was on the lam.

To complicate matters, two representatives of Hopjoy’s agency appear to relay that their now-missing colleague had reported dubious activities in the region, leading them to believe he was a victim of counterintelligence forces. They could not provide more details because the information was classified but they wanted to know everything that Purbright and his colleagues learned. This lopsided arrangement did not endear them to the Flaxborough team.

This book is a delight. Watson pokes fun at just about everything and everyone while laying out a solid police procedural with some nice red herrings. His skewering of the British spy of film and fiction is particularly juicy. Written about the time the first James Bond movie was released, Watson spoofs the stereotyped secret agent who is irresistible to every woman he meets and points out not at all subtly that when an undercover scout is sent out on his own, his supervisors really have no idea how he spends his time. Highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Sunken Sailor by Patricia Moyes

Patricia Moyes (1923-2000) published 19 traditional British detective stories featuring Henry Tibbett, a Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard, and his wife Emmy between 1958 and 1993. While they were popular during the last half of the 20th century, they were not reprinted with the same fervor as other authors enjoyed. Anyone who wanted to read this excellent series from the late 1990s on had to rely on the second-hand book market. Fortunately for all of us Felony & Mayhem picked up the rights to publish and re-issued all of the books in paperback and electronic forms in 2018.

The books are distinguished by careful plots and a lack of graphic violence; their focus is on the process of solving the murder rather than the psychology of committing it. Tibbett himself is quite ordinary and does not stand out in any particular way except for his “nose”, his intuitive sense about the cases he works. His wife Emmy, quite likable on her own account, often supports his investigations. Unlike other British detectives who tend to stay at home on their own patch, Henry and Emmy Tibbett are globe-trotters, undertaking murder cases all over the world, capitalizing on Moyes’ own travelling experiences.

The F&M reprints have been out long enough to start appearing on the occasional discounted ebook lists. I was delighted to see The Sunken Sailor on a recent email offer. I didn’t recognize the title and felt certain this was a Henry Tibbett that I missed. I had only to read a few pages in the first chapter to remember the book but not the details. I have since learned one reason I didn’t recognize it was the variation in the British title from the U.S. title of Down Among the Dead Men.

The Sunken Sailor (Collins Crime, 1961) begins with Henry and Emmy setting off to learn sailing with some new friends in a quiet coastal town. The village is gearing up to elect its next mayor in a great subplot that features questionable election results, a subject some of us are all too familiar with just now. Stories about a local sailor who was killed in an accident a month earlier sets off Henry’s famous nose. He tries to ignore it without success. When another sailor is killed in another apparent accident, he sheds all pretense and goes full throttle into police mode.

There’s as much about sailing as there is police investigation in this story. It might be enthralling to a boating enthusiast but it was a little tedious to me. The characters as always are a highlight, and the ending resolves more than one crime, one more predictably than the other. Not Golden Age chronologically but quite Golden Age in style. Recommended, as is the entire series.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Game Without Rules by Michael Gilbert

Michael Francis Gilbert (1912 – 2006) was an English solicitor and well-known author of crime fiction. His work includes 30 novels and approximately 185 stories in 13 collections, as well as stage, radio, and television plays. He was made a Commander in the Order of the British Empire, won the Lifetime Achievement Anthony Award, and named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He was a founding member of the Crime Writers Association, which later awarded him a Diamond Dagger.

Gilbert created a few series characters but was just as likely to produce a brand-new set for the work in progress. He wasn’t above having the various characters pop up in unexpected places; for instance, Patrick Petrella, a lead in one Gilbert series, appears in The Spoilers, a Behrens and Calder story. My favorite among his repeating characters are Mr. Behrens and Mr. Caldwell, who appear in 24 short stories that were mostly published first in the British magazine Argosy or the American Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and then collected in two anthologies, Game Without Rules (Harper & Row, 1967) and Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982).

Samuel Behrens lives with his aunt in Lamperdown, Kent, with his aunt and keeps bees. His good friend Daniel Calder lives in a house outside Lamperdown with a Persian deerhound named Rasselas. Both of them appear to be inoffensive retired men with quiet lives. They occasionally visit Mr. Fortescue, ostensibly their bank manager, in London. Mr. Fortescue is actually the “controller and paymaster of a bunch of middle-aged cutthroats known as the ‘E’ branch.” A Prime Minister explained to his successor that “if there’s a job which is so disreputable that none of the departments will handle it, we give it to the ‘E’ Branch.” (Quotes from The Spoilers.)

In Game Without Rules are a dozen short stories describing the post-war and Cold War exploits of this pair of unassuming but effective spies. Reminders of the geographical division between East and West are prominent, when travel between countries was restricted, as in one story Behrens and Calder are tasked to determine the path foreign agents are using to spirit defectors through Europe and out of the British government’s control. In another they are assigned to help see that a young prince of an unnamed Middle Eastern country avoids assassins to get home safely after his father has died so that he can assume the throne. In a third Behrens tries to convince a promising young engineer that his life will not be improved by defecting to the Communists, no matter what they are telling him. In a lively tale of crossed wires, an informer uses the cover of office Christmas parties to abstract an important piece of decoding equipment and take it to the British Embassy where a senior official had promised him asylum, only to be turned away by someone else absorbed by the holidays.

These stories are a reminder of a time when espionage and counterespionage were largely carried out by fallible people. Technology had not taken over the world, and the only way to obtain information and to act on it was through individual ingenuity and effort. Now, computers take care of it and the process is far more impersonal. The human element is front and center in these stories, and that is one reason I like them so much. Of course they are brilliantly written, nothing else could be expected of Michael Gilbert. Highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: When I Grow Rich by Joan Fleming

Joan Margaret Fleming (1908–1980) was a British writer, turning out children’s stories first and then moving on to crime fiction, publishing about 30 books in that field. Her novel The Deeds of Dr Deadcert (Hutchinson, 1955) was made into the film Rx Murder (1958), and she won the Crime Writers’ Association Red Herring award for When I Grow Rich (Collins, 1962) and the Gold Dagger award for Young Man I Think You’re Dying (Collins, 1970). She seems to have rarely used the same characters from book to book, and they vary from thrillers to mysteries to gothics.

In When I Grow Rich, Fleming introduces a character that many of us would like to know. Nuri Bey lives alone in a ramshackle house and studies philosophy of all kinds. He loves his books so much that he sleeps with some of his favorites. His house is rundown and in need of considerable repair but he prefers to spend his small income on his books, many of which are quite rare. He has a large bag with the most valuable of his books that he keeps near his front door. In case of fire, which is all too likely in such an old house, he can grab it on his way out to safety.

As is often the case with individuals who spend more time with books than with people, Nuri Bey is naïve. He doesn’t realize that Madame Miasma, an elderly relic from the last Sultan’s harem, is using him as a drug courier when she asks him to take a package to the airport to hand off to a young man waiting for it there. Jenny Bolton, a young English woman, ends up with the package that Nuri Bey delivered, and he wants to know why she has it.

The two become caught in Madame Miasma’s desperate moves to retrieve the package, which Jenny threw into the Bosporus to avoid further trouble. Their movements to evade Madame Miasma, who is well named, take them around Istanbul, allowing Fleming to serve as tourist guide to the historic city. There is an intricate plot thread involving the substitution of bodies and woven throughout is a good deal about the people and culture.

Anthony Boucher, critic for the New York Times Book Review, loved Fleming’s books and called this one “My one single favorite book of the year.” I love it for the characters, who are so complete it is hard to think they are not real people. While Jenny and Nuri are an unlikely duo, they work well together in the end. The description of Istanbul is fascinating, although I could have done without the frequent references to starving kittens and the account of the public hanging. The dust jackets for various editions of this title are especially good. An unusual piece of crime fiction and one well worth reading.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) is called one of the Queens of Crime, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham. She published 32 books featuring Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard. Marsh started out as an actor and was deeply involved in drama productions in her New Zealand home. Her interest in theatre had a way of slipping into her mysteries; her experience gives the parts of the stories set in playhouses unmistakable authenticity.

Much has been written about her work; for instance, see Mike Grost’s insightful essay here: And Neil Nyren’s essay written for CrimeReads here:

I discovered Marsh years ago after galloping through most of Christie. I read all of them, sometimes discovering I’d obtained the same book under two different titles in my attempt to read every single one. A few of them remain among my all-time favorites and are subject to periodic re-visiting. One of them is Night at the Vulcan, published in the U.S. by Little, Brown in 1951. It was published in the UK as Opening Night by Collins earlier in the same year. Not mentioned when her best mysteries are debated, it is nonetheless one of my suggestions when someone asks where to start reading Marsh.

Martyn Tarne, a budding actress newly arrived in London from New Zealand, stops at the recently renovated Vulcan Theatre in her quest for work. Two days before opening night, the leading lady’s dresser has been taken to hospital that afternoon and Martyn offers to take her place. She finds she’s wandered into a bit of a war zone. The leading lady’s husband, who also appears in the play, insisted on casting his niece in a key part, even though she is not at all suited to it. Everyone has taken sides and the wrangling never stops. Shortly before the play opens, the niece dissolves into hysterics and refuses to go on. A scene from every actor’s dream plays out: Martyn is pushed on stage in her place and performs brilliantly.

When the curtain falls, all the actors gather to take their final bow, except for the husband who has locked himself in his dressing room. After the door is broken down, he’s found dead next to a gushing gas tap. Enter Alleyn and his team. What appeared to be suicide is soon shown to be murder.

I really like this book but it isn’t for the mystery: The motive is unclear until the very end, although there are hints that perhaps all is not as it should be, and most of the potential suspects were in clear view of the audience at the time the murder was committed. It isn’t for the detailed police investigation; Alleyn appears for the first time more than halfway through the book. In a story that encompasses about three days, he is present only a short time. In contrast to the leisurely unfolding of the lead to the crime, Alleyn’s investigation is wrapped up in a few hours.

The characters, though, are wonderfully engaging. It’s impossible not to root for Martyn, who is something of a Cinderella in search of fame. The detail and the backstage action are portrayed so sharply and clearly that they pull the reader into another world. In addition to the theatre setting, there is also a minor plot thread dealing with genealogy and I love genealogy. In fact, it’s a good story well told. Recommended!

Friday’s Forgotten Book: There’s a Reason for Everything by E. R. Punshon

Ernest Robertson Punshon (1872-1956) was a prolific Golden Age author. Writing as E. R. Punshon, he released 35 books between 1933 and 1956 featuring Bobby Owen, an Oxford-educated policeman. Dorothy L. Sayers regarded Punshon’s work highly, saying that “all his books have that elusive something which makes them count as literature, so that we do not gulp them furiously down to get to the murderer lurking at the bottom, but roll them slowly and deliciously upon the tongue like old wine.” I think Sayers was unduly enthusiastic about Punshon, although I am happy that Dean Street Press saw fit to reprint his books, making them accessible to a new generation of readers.

There’s a Reason for Everything (Gollancz, 1945) is the twenty-first book in the saga of police detective Bobby Owen. Owen started out as a police constable in London and made his way up the ladder of Scotland Yard and then left London for the Wychshire county police force. In this story he has been promoted to Deputy Chief Constable. He’s finding it difficult to sit behind his desk the way someone of his rank should but the shortage of personnel due to the war gives him an excuse to get back out on the street.

Initially the fact that members of a paranormal research group were investigating a haunted old mansion in his territory did not interest him. When one of the researchers, a Mr. Parkinson, reported finding a pool of fresh blood in the house, consistent with one of the family legends, Bobby was intrigued and accompanied Parkinson to the abandoned property. The pool of blood that was so vivid in Parkinson’s telling was nowhere to be seen; what they did find was the body of the leader of the research mission, Dr. Clem Jones, hidden behind statuary.

Beginning his investigation, Bobby began hearing about other visitors to the mansion and rumors of a lost Vermeer masterpiece somewhere on the property. Another body, a caretaker with a secret, art experts that want to claim the Vermeer that no one has seen, and a young man that keeps disappearing when Bobby wants to talk to him complicate the job.

Punshon’s ability to create atmosphere shines in this book. His description of each visit to the estate conveys clearly the unsettling nature of the place, with dark halls and empty rooms. The culprit is cleverly concealed among a cast of eccentric suspects, all of whom behave questionably in the opinion of a hard-working police officer. There’s an amusing scene that displays a couple of the characters’ ability to think on their feet and improvise convincing lies on the spot. Subplots involve the caretaker and a young woman living in the neighborhood near the mansion.

The Kindle version (Dean Street Press, 2016) has an introduction from Curtis Evans that describes an art scandal that broke around the time the book was written and which might have provided the background for the well-developed plot. I consider this book to be one of the best in the Bobby Owen series.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Left-Handed Death by Richard Hull

Richard Hull was the pseudonym of Richard Henry Sampson (1896-1973), a British accountant who became a crime novelist, publishing 16 books beginning in 1934. During World War II he revived his accounting skills and became an auditor for the Admiralty. It is hard not to think his experiences there informed the plot of his 10th book, Left-Handed Death (Collins Crime Club, 1946).

Written as World War II was ending, the story opens with the two directors of Shergold Engineering Company, Arthur Shergold and Guy Reeves, discussing the outcome of an ongoing examination of the firm’s books by a government auditor named Barry Foster. Foster found deficiencies in the accounting practices used and was insisting on a refund of payments made to the firm under multiple government contracts. Under Shergold’s questioning Reeves lays out the process by which he says he killed Foster that afternoon. Reeves is not especially convincing in his statements. Oddly enough, Shergold is not upset or taken aback by the news. Shergold and Reeves show themselves to be unlikeable during this lengthy and rambling dialogue, and I could well believe their accounting practices were dubious. Foster didn’t sound like much of a prize, either. The three deserved each other, as far as I can tell.

Reeves decides to go to Scotland Yard to report his crime. Why is not clear. Understandably enough the police are not accustomed to individuals who visit their offices to confess to murder, so Reeves is held there while someone checks on Foster, who is indeed found dead in his flat. Reeves is so obnoxious to Detective Inspector Hardwick that Hardwick is determined to find evidence to show Reeves is innocent, despite what seems to be Reeves’ best efforts to prove himself guilty. A full-on police investigation follows.

I am not sure what to think of this book. It has an interesting structure but it isn’t particularly cohesive and the ending is anti-climactic. What seems to be an inverted mystery at first turns out not to be that at all. I began to suspect what actually happened about halfway through. My overall impression is that this was an experiment by Hull in organization or characterization or both that didn’t quite succeed. Worth reading for the references to daily life during the end of the war, if nothing else.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Skeleton Key by Lenore Glen Offord

Skeleton Key by Lenore Glen Offord (1905-1991) was first published in 1943 by Duell, Sloan & Pearce. Felony & Mayhem re-issued the book in print and digital editions in 2015. The latter has an informative introduction by journalist and crime historian Sarah Weinman, who outlines Offord’s life and career. She wrote nine crime novels and other books, short stories, and poems. She was also the full-time mystery critic for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1950 to 1982, a job she shared for a time during World War II with Anthony Boucher until he moved east to the New York Times. She won an Edgar in 1952 for her work as a critic. Most notably, Offord was the first woman to be inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars. Her activity in the group was limited, as she lived on the West Coast, but she was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan.

Skeleton Key introduced Georgine Wyeth and Todd MacKinnon, who became partners in sleuthing in three more books. Georgine is a widow with a child to support and she needs any respectable job that will pay her. She stumbles into a job typing a manuscript for a retired scientist, who insists that she work in his home to protect the confidentiality of the material. His house is in a small neighborhood peopled with clearly sketched characters, including MacKinnon and the air raid warden, whose bossiness has made him roundly despised. The blackout requirements along the West Coast were stricter than in other parts of the country, and the descriptions help set the time and the place of the story.

The warden ends up dead in what appears at first to be an accident during a blackout. Since Georgine was the first on the scene, the police had a lot of questions for her and she continued to offer them information as she undertook her own unofficial investigation, trying to understand what she heard that night. Multiple mysteries unfold, the death of the warden, the identity of neighborhood residents, and the contents of what appears to be a grave near the scientist’s house, among them.

This is another piece of crime fiction that does not fall into a clear category. It is not a police procedural, although a lot of the police investigation is described, and not really an amateur sleuth mystery, as the police arrive at the identity of the culprit. Weinman calls it domestic suspense but I think the police are too deeply involved to meet that admittedly amorphous category.

Whatever it is, this is a smoothly paced story with original characters and an unusual setting. The mystery itself is not the strongest I’ve ever seen but that should not deter students of mid-20th century crime fiction from looking into this author.