Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Gourmet Detective by Peter King

Peter King wrote eight books about the English chef turned food consultant Goodwin Harper between 1994 and 2003. According to Amazon, King was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and a retired metallurgist who worked on the Apollo project for NASA. I haven’t been able to find much more about him.

Goodwin Harper emerged on the crime fiction scene just when the culinary mystery began to take hold. Goldy Bear, Diane Mott Davidson’s invention, appeared in 1990. Angie Amalfi, a restaurant reviewer in San Francisco, created by Joanne Pence, had her first adventure in 1993. Claudia Bishop released her first Hemlock Falls Inn culinary mystery in 1994. Ellen Hart published the initial mystery about Sophie Greenway, a Minneapolis food critic, in 1994. The earliest culinaries that I know of are the four books (1982-1993) by Virginia Rich featuring chef Eugenia Potter.

Unlike most mysteries about food these days, there are no recipes in the books and Harper focuses on the business aspects of the restaurant and catering industry as well as the cookery itself. When someone expresses surprise in one book at the frequency and extent of criminal activity Harper finds, Harper points out that food is big business that generates billions of dollars in revenue one way or another and wherever that amount of money is found, lawlessness is sure to be there too.

Harper markets himself as The Gourmet Detective, who specializes in locating hard-to-find ingredients, identifying substitutes for ingredients no longer available, finding markets for new products, and menu planning for special events such as Renaissance banquets. One day the owner of one of the most exclusive restaurants in London asks him to find out who is sabotaging his establishment. Deliveries are being diverted, mice show up the day an inspector is due, tax records disappear. Harper is given a generous retainer to get to the bottom of the problem. To his delight, he is invited to attend the banquet of an exclusive gourmet organization later in the week.

The night of the banquet Harper is in ecstasy at being in the same room with so many food experts and listening to them talk. Restaurant owners, journalists, celebrity chefs, they are all there. The food is outstanding and everything is going well, until one journalist falls over dead. The police arrive, examine the body, question everyone present, until the journalist sits up, clearly quite alive. The medical examiner comes in at that point and is irate at being called out erroneously. A few minutes later the journalist stands up and collapses again, definitely dead this time. The police press Harper into helping them understand the food world while the owner closes the restaurant because of the adverse publicity.

This book is fun to read, partly because of all the food descriptions but also because Harper’s hobby is crime fiction. The book is full of references to detective fiction icons, both direct and indirect. One oddity: the voice changes from first person to third person and back, something an editor should have caught. It’s still a series worth finding on the Internet or via interlibrary loan and reading from beginning to end.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Straw Man by Doris Miles Disney

Doris Miles Disney (1907-1976) published nearly 50 mystery novels, most of which were stand-alone stories. She had three series characters: Jeff DiMarco, an insurance investigator; David Madden, a postal inspector; and Jim O’Neill, a Connecticut police detective.

Strawman (Doubleday, 1951) is the third outing for Jeff DiMarco. Called in to the office with several days still to run on his camping and fishing vacation, he’s assigned the task of investigating what seems to be an open-and-shut case against Lincoln Hunter. Hunter has been convicted of murder. When he’s executed, the $100,000 life insurance policy DiMarco’s company Commonwealth Assurance issued becomes payable to Hunter’s estate. (That’s $986,761.54 in 2019 dollars.) Commonwealth Assurance does not want to pay this princely sum to anyone and tells DiMarco to find a loophole somewhere.

Hunter had been seeing Celia Worthen, a stenographer, even after he met Ruth Copper, whom he decided to marry. When he told Celia he was marrying someone else, she insisted that he had to marry her because she was pregnant. He proceeded with his marriage plans and had to cut his honeymoon short because the police wanted to question him about Celia, who was strangled the night before Hunter and Ruth’s wedding. Hunter cannot account for his time during the crucial window that the murder took place and is indicted for murder.  

This is a classic case of investigation by conversation. DiMarco interviewed everyone who was remotely involved and began identifying discrepancies and inconsistencies, In the end he’s nearly killed by the murderer as he wraps up his inquiry.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Black Beadle by E.C.R. Lorac

Edith Caroline Rivett (1894–1958) published more than 70 mysteries under the names E. C. R. Lorac and Carol Carnac between 1931 and 1959. Nearly all of the E.C.R. Lorac titles are about Chief Inspector Robert MacDonald, a Scot on the London police force. Some of her books have been released as part of the British Library Crime Classics series.

Black Beadle (Collins, 1939) is as much a study of the political environment in England during the years leading up to World War II as it is a mystery. England was not immune to the turmoil taking place in Europe. Fascism and Communism had strong proponents, pushing the Liberal party to one side. One of the main characters in the book, Gilbert Mantland, might have been modeled on Oswald Mosley, who founded the British Union of Fascists. Both made their political reputations on working with labor issues, both changed party affiliations more than once, and both married much younger socialite wives. This book reminds me of the first Rowland Sinclair mystery by Sulari Gentill; set in the late 1930s in Sydney, Australia, Rowland is pressured by his older brother to join a far-right political faction.

Chief Inspector MacDonald comes into the story when Joseph Suttler, general manager of the Harringstone Building Society, is deliberately run down by a large powerful vehicle which turns out to belong to Mantland’s political rival, Barry Revian. Revian cannot prove where he was during the critical time, and neither can three others who, because of their motives to kill Suttler, become the focus of the investigation. One of the three is Mantland; another is a prominent Jewish financier, a staunch Liberal; and the third is an employee of the building society whom Suttler was blackmailing. MacDonald is determined that the blackmailed employee will not be charged with the murder simply because he lacks money to hire a skilled lawyer and the others have significant political clout.

Investigation into Suttler’s associations and activities reveal theft and blackmailing propensities and a prison sentence under another name. All of the suspects were his victims in one way or another. The actual motive for the murder came as a surprise to me, I don’t think the clues provided were adequate for the reader to guess it, but it was still a satisfying wrap-up to a multidimensional story.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Fourteenth Trump by Judson Philips

Judson Phillips, also known as Hugh Pentecost, wrote a dizzying number of mysteries under both names, earning him the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1973. His first mysteries were about a gambler in New York City named Danny Coyle and his assistant Claude Donovan, nicknamed Harvard. The Fourteenth Trump (Dodd, Mead, 1942) is the second one.

Danny Coyle used to be a bookmaker but now he specializes in betting on anything at all that interests him. Currently his favorite bet involves the local district attorney, whom he loathes. The DA’s office is being investigated by a special committee headed up by Congressman Terry Reardon. Danny has bet a quarter of a million dollars (nearly $4 million in 2019 dollars) that when the investigation is complete, the DA will be out of office.

Reardon’s fiancé is found standing over the body of a man in his hotel room, holding a gun that has been recently fired. She denies involvement, saying she just arrived and found the victim, but she’s arrested for murder in what appears to be an open-and-shut case. She refuses to talk to anyone, including Reardon, but she does ask Harvard to pay her gambling debt of forty-seven hundred dollars (worth just under $74 thousand in 2019) at a questionable bridge club.

Danny assumes the arrest is a frame set up to embarrass Reardon and by extension, himself. He throws himself into the investigation to salvage his bet and his reputation, looking at the bridge club and its gun-toting staff closely, especially after he determines that the play in the club is rigged in favor of the house. Harvard’s girlfriend decides to help things along and engages in a flirtation with the worst of the thugs at the bridge club, putting herself and Harvard in danger.

Danny is a likeable character who inspires loyalty among his legion of informants. My favorite is Mickey, who runs a dice game in the subway station late every night to take advantage of men waiting for their trains. An involved plot includes an intricate examination of timing and of clocks that may or may not have been changed in order to provide an alibi. A plot twist from out in left field in the last chapter or two reminds the reader that the book was written during wartime.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Most Cunning Workmen by Roy Lewis

John Royston Lewis (1933- ) published some 70 volumes of crime fiction (https://www.bookseriesinorder.com/roy-lewis/) under the name Roy Lewis, including 22 stand-alone novels and three series. (Stop, You’re Killing Me!, http://www.stopyourekillingme.com, lists about 55. It’s possible this Roy Lewis has been confused with Roy H. Lewis, another mystery writer.) John Crow, his first protagonist, is a police inspector; the second is Eric Ward, a former policeman who became a solicitor. Arnold Landon, a city planner and a medieval historian, especially knowledgeable of old buildings, features in his longest running series.  

Most Cunning Workmen (William Collins Sons, 1984) is the second book about Arnold Landon. His manager is still fulminating over the publicity that Landon’s first case generated but can’t stop him from spending his vacation time cataloging the records and personal papers in Oakham Manor at the request of the local heritage society. Oakham Manor dates back several centuries, beautifully situated in Northumberland. Unfortunately the building’s future is in question, as its ownership is being challenged by a cousin to the current owner Tina Vallance who is in no financial position to buy the cousin out. In addition, her father, who died a few months previously, accepted an option from an American computer company to buy the mansion. The owner of the company and his staff are on site, deciding how to use the building and meeting potential European partners in an expansion of the business.

While the atmosphere is uncomfortable, and Landon feels deeply sorry for Tina, there’s not much he can do but complete his assigned work as quickly as possible. The discovery of a body brings the local police around. The homicide victim is a stranger to the area residents and everyone assumes he was connected to the Americans staying at Oakham Manor. The Americans deny knowledge of him or his reason for being in the vicinity but the inspector does not believe them. Then the owner of the computer company discovers unusual sales of the company’s shares and accuses his staff of insider trading, creating even more tension. Matters culminate in a meeting of the prospective European partners and the computer firm representatives, which Landon attends on a fairly thin pretext.

The mystery and the characters, while credible and competently executed, are overshadowed by the lyrical descriptions of the manor and its surroundings. The author knew his ancient structures and it shows. Fans of medieval English history should especially enjoy the bits of 1600s text quoted from old legal documents.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck

Winifred Peck (1882-1962) was born Winifred Francis Knox; Golden Age mystery writer Ronald Knox was her brother. She wrote over two dozen works of fiction and non-fiction, including two mysteries, The Warrielaw Jewel, 1933, and Arrest the Bishop?, 1949.

While Arrest the Bishop? was published well outside the Golden Age timeframe, it employs the Golden Age setting of a large country manor, actually a bishop’s palace, in the winter days leading up to Christmas. It also takes place in 1920, making it an early historical mystery, as Martin Edwards points out in his thoughtful introduction to the 2016 Dean Street Press edition.

The Bishop of Evelake is preparing for the visit of the Chancellor and the Canon of the Diocese a few days before Christmas to participate in the ordination of a half dozen new deacons and two new priests. His elder daughter decides to visit that weekend without notice, which worries him and his wife, as she is more than a little impulsive and her presence tends to be disruptive, something he does not need while his superiors in the church are present. In addition, she left her husband and found a replacement before actually divorcing the husband, which is certain to shock everyone, if they find out.

Even worse, a cleric who has been a thorn in the Church’s side for years is demanding attention again and shows up without notice. Reverend Ulder pilfered from the various charity funds he was responsible for in his parish and Church officials moved him to a country church with little activity to prevent further depredations. They decided against legal action because of the consequences of negative publicity to the Church. He is well aware of the reason for his demotion and decides to emigrate to America. He has collected unsavory information about nearly everyone and plans to blackmail the Bishop, the Chancellor, and the Canon, as well as a few others, to pay his way. Reverend Ulder dies soon after he arrives at the Bishop’s residence of a morphine overdose which he could not have administered to himself.

Chief Constable Mack, a staunch Presbyterian with a deep dread of the Church of England, assigns himself to the homicide investigation. He is sure that the Church is behind the sudden death and that he is justified in cutting a few corners, such as conducting searches without warrants, which earned him an irate interview with the Chief Magistrate. Of course the Church has nothing to do with the murder but it is a close call for the Bishop.

The story is set firmly in the aftermath of World War I, with a running commentary on the servant shortage and multiple references to wounded soldiers. However, a sly reference to one of Margery Allingham’s books published in 1949 reminded me that the book was really written much later.

A fine Golden Age read with some memorable characters.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: A Perfect Match by Jill McGown

Jill McGown was born 9 August 1947 in Campbeltown, Scotland, and died 6 April 2007 in Kettering, about 70 miles north of London.  She wrote 18 novels, 13 of which featured the adventures of Detective Inspector David Lloyd and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill of the Stansfield police force. A Perfect Match (St. Martin’s Press, 1983) introduced the pair and their on-and-off romantic relationship.

An ongoing subplot in the series is Lloyd’s name. No one refers to him as anything but Lloyd, otherwise they risk physical harm, he says. In this introductory book we learn his legal given name is David and that he changed the name on his birth certificate to David at his earliest opportunity, keeping the first initial D. Hill of course is determined to learn what horrific appellation his parents dreamed up. The television production of a later story in the series, A Shred of Evidence, gave Lloyd’s first name as Danny.

A Perfect Match is a first-rate example of a brilliantly plotted British police procedural. Recent widow Julia Mitchell is found strangled in a boat house. Chris Wade, the man who had offered her a ride home less than an hour before she died, is incoherent and cannot offer his friends a clear explanation of what happened. When he hears the police at the front door, he panics and disappears for several days while the homicide investigation proceeds apace. By the time he gives himself up, the evidence against him is overwhelming.

In the meantime, Julia Mitchell’s brother-in-law realizes that he is now in line to inherit the fortune that his recently deceased brother left, and he begins to make plans to spend it. His long-suffering wife, who is an interesting secondary character, stands by and waits for him to pack up and leave.

The investigation, including forensics and interviews, is methodically performed, and in a nice piece of misdirection it indeed appears that there is no way that Wade can be anything but guilty. It’s that careful research and attention to detail, however, that turns up a discrepancy that leads to another inconsistency that reveals another contradiction, and in no time at all, the case against Wade unravels. A really fine story with some intriguing characters.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Safe Secret by Harry Carmichael

Leopold Horace Ognall (1908 – 1979) wrote nearly 100 novels under the names Hartley Howard and Harry Carmichael. He was born in Montreal and worked as a journalist before starting a career in fiction. He published a lengthy series featuring Glenn Bowman, a New York private detective, under the name Hartley Howard, and another one with John Piper, an insurance investigator, and Quinn, a crime journalist, under the name Harry Carmichael.

In Safe Secret (Macmillan, 1964) dull quiet Richard Thornton’s wife reported him missing early one morning. Supposedly he was working late but at 2:00 A.M. she certainly expected him to be home. Everyone was convinced that he had met with an accident until his employer checked the office safe at the urging of the police and found 35,000 pounds also missing (2019 equivalent 703,400 pounds or about 879,500 USD). Further investigation revealed an attractive woman in the office who later resigned had displayed considerable interest in Thornton. The local pub reported seeing them together, and the police were confident the two had run off to the continent. The company’s insurance firm had no intention of paying out that sum of money without a thorough investigation, however, and sent John Piper to look into matters. His sometime journalist partner Quinn sees a story and starts delving into Thornton’s activities. Since both of them find information about Thornton but don’t see fit to share it promptly with Detective-Superintendent Hoyle, who is in charge of the case, Hoyle is pardonably annoyed with them both. Some of their exchanges are among the best bits of the book.

Anonymous letters and an unexpected corpse throw spanners into the investigation, which becomes a homicide instead of a disappearance. The plot is complicated and full of misdirection on almost every page, especially the elaborate set-up at a hotel to throw the police off Thornton’s trail, which is ingeniously done. An interesting read, I will watch for more books by Carmichael to come my way.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Out of the Past by Patricia Wentworth

Out of the Past by Patricia Wentworth (Lippincott, 1953) is the 23rd Miss Silver mystery and a surprisingly dark one it is. I didn’t know it was possible. Nearly every single character has something to hide, which is certainly unusual for this series. And the victim is utterly without redeeming value.

Three years before the story opens Carmona Leigh is engaged to marry Alan Field, the stepson of Carmona’s aunt Esther Field. Alan is a good-looking charmer who only wants what’s best for Alan but Carmona is smitten with him anyway. He leaves her waiting at the altar of the church without a word. The next day she receives a letter from him saying he is going to South America, and no one has heard from him since. In short order Carmona marries James Hardwick, who is good friends with the Trevors, one of Carmona’s trustees.

When the story opens, Carmona and James are entertaining friends and family at a large house he inherited. Out of the blue Alan Field walks into the gathering as if he has the right to be there and stuns everyone. He says he is responding to an advertisement for information about his father’s papers, which are being sought to help with a biography of the famous painter. In reality he is looking for money to fund the purchase of a horse farm in South America. To extort money from his stepmother, he threatens to publish private letters from his father that would prove embarrassing and damaging to the artist’s reputation. He points out to another guest that some of the letters are from her younger sister, who drowned years ago, implying the young girl had an improper relationship with the much older and married man. He threatens Carmona’s school friend with an expose of a relationship she had outside her marriage. He told Carmona the real reason he left her at the altar is that James Hardwick paid him to leave her alone and to leave the country. He has the nerve to drop in on a village girl he’d knowingly left pregnant. No one is exempt from his calculating contrivances.

In short, Field is a loathsome little tick, so when his murdered body turns up on a beach near the house, the question is not so much “Who did it?” as “What took so long?” Fortunately, Miss Silver is staying at a nearby boarding house with her niece, and Scotland Yard loses no time in consulting her. There is an abundance of suspects to choose from, perhaps more than normal in a Miss Silver story, but Inspector Frank Abbott and Miss Silver form an unstoppable crime-solving duo, as usual. I was sorry they identified the culprit; Field definitely fell into the “needed killing” category.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Shape of Fear by Hugh Pentecost

Currently investigating the Pierre Chambrun series by Hugh Pentecost. How have I missed these books? I vaguely recall reading some of the Julian Quist stories by Pentecost but have no memory of this series set in the luxury Hotel Beaumont in New York City. Pentecost is the pseudonym of Judson Pentecost Phillips, who has some 12 mystery series to his credit under one or the other name. He received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1973, which was certainly warranted for output alone, if nothing else.

The Chambrun books mirror the John Putnam Thatcher books by Emma Lathen in many ways. They span the same time period and they both offer ensemble casts of characters in large public-facing commercial organizations. Pentecost released 21 books and one collection of short stories in the series between 1962 and 1988. Thatcher and the staff of the Sloan Guaranty Trust first appeared in 1961 for a total of 24 books. I did not notice the scathing Lathen wit in the Chambrun books I’ve read so far but the plotting, dialog, and characterization are excellent.

The Shape of Fear (Dodd Mead, 1964) is the second book. The story is told from the perspective of the hotel’s new public relations director. Questions from a recent addition to the staff is a great way to justify detailed descriptions of setting and personnel roles and personalities, clever device.

As the book opens, Mark Haskell, the new PR director, has a potential bombshell tossed into his lap, how to seat three individuals at war with each other at an important international political dinner. Two of the three automatically warrant places at the head table because of their position; the international guest of honor has requested the third also sit there as his guest. The three cannot be expected to get through the event without some sort of eruption. Mr. Murray Cardew, the hotel’s long-term resident and expert on social behavior and protocol, was called in to consult on the conundrum. Later in the evening Cardew calls Haskell and asks him urgently to come to his room. Haskell is delayed a few minutes and when he arrives, find Cardew dead of an obvious head injury. Hotel manager Chambrun and the staff are shattered, as the victim was genuinely loved and admired.

Some probing police interviews reveal the suspicion that the hotel is unwittingly being used in the movement of heroin into the country; everyone supposes Cardew saw or heard something about it, which led to his death. Between the political conspiracies that surround the international guest of honor and the suggestion of drugs in his hotel, Chambrun is furious. Add the local police and representatives of the federal narcotics force who are in and out and a movie star who demands constant attention, and the hotel is seething with tension and worry. A completely unexpected development at the very end wraps it all up smoothly and surprisingly.