Friday’s Forgotten Book: Hunt with the Hounds by Mignon G. Eberhart

Mignon G. Eberhart, 1899-1996, was a prolific author of mysteries and romantic suspense. Her long career began in 1929 with a mystery featuring Sara/Sally Keate, a nurse in New York, who was Eberhart’s only series character. Keate featured in seven books. The rest of Eberhart’s prodigious output consisted of 53 stand-alone novels and several collections of short stories. She received the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1971.

Hunt with the Hounds (Random House, 1950) was released about midway in Eberhart’s publishing career. This nice locked-room mystery is set in the small town of Bedford in central Virginia, in fox hunting country. It opens with the acquittal of Jed Bailey, who has been on trial for the murder of his wife Ernestine. The eyewitness testimony of Sue Poore, who said she saw Jed sitting in his car while she was at the front door of the house ringing the doorbell when the fatal shots were fired inside, was key to his exoneration. Jed had been openly pursuing Sue despite his married state, to the dismay of everyone around him including Sue. Since Sue and Jed were the only people known to be in the vicinity at the time Ernestine was killed, after the trial the police focus their attention on proving her to be the killer. Sue is utterly taken aback and her family and friends, including the local police chief who has known Sue all her life, do their best to show the state police captain he is mistaken.

The action unfolds against the backdrop of fox hunting, which is taken very seriously by the area residents, who ride to hounds nearly every day during the season. A fair amount of detail about fox hunting is included but not as much as is found in the Sister Jane Arnold mysteries by Rita Mae Brown. Mostly what becomes apparent is the long-buried resentments and rivalries of people who grew up together in an area where social status is a major consideration, so people hold on to it by any means at all. Eberhart cleverly diverts suspicion in first one direction, then another, until the final revelation in the last chapter. Of interest to mystery readers who value careful plots and characterization and small town settings.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth

The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth (Viking, 1974) is the third of 18 thrillers from this reliable author of political intrigue and quite possibly my favorite. It is easy to forget about Forsyth’s earlier books because his stories are always set in the present or the immediate future. Re-visiting them after several years forces the reader to recall long-gone political crises, which have generally faded in the light of new calamities.

“Cat” Shannon was a mercenary fresh out of the Angolan war of independence. He was at loose ends in London when mining magnate Sir James Manson approached him and wanted to hire him to overthrow the government of a small African country. The task intrigued him, as well as the open-ended budget; just what Manson intended to do with the little third-world backwater also interested Shannon greatly, and Manson wasn’t saying.

While Shannon sent word to his friends that he had work for them and developed a comprehensive plan for a coup, he also did a little research on Sir James. He learned that Manson had a mining report from the small country of interest, showing significant deposits of valuable minerals. He also learned that the final report to the current ruler of the country had been altered to reduce the size of the deposits and increase the estimated difficulty of extraction. It was obvious Sir James intended to exploit the backwards nation for his own benefit. This plan didn’t sit right with Shannon, who, despite being a mercenary, had his own set of personal ethics. Thus one of the most satisfying stories of double-dealing I have ever seen begins.

While there are shootouts and bloodbaths aplenty, what entertained me the most in later re-readings of this book is the detailed planning of the takeover. I doubt that Cat Shannon or Frederick Forsyth are aware of the Project Management Institute or its purpose, but their plan could have come from a senior fellow of PMI. Cat identified the goal, the actions necessary to reach the goal, a timeline to complete them, the critical path, dependencies, risks with mitigations, and personnel assignments, in short, a classic project plan. It isn’t often that my world of mystery reading intersects with my world of program management, hence my fascination.

Forsyth, who received CWA’s Diamond Dagger Award in 2012, announced his retirement in 2016 and then released another thriller in 2018. It is not clear if another is in the works or if he really will stop writing fiction. In either case, his earlier books are imminently re-readable almost indefinitely.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Music Tells All by E. R. Punshon

One of my great finds last year was the prolific Golden Age author Ernest Robertson Punshon (1872-1956). Writing as E. R. Punshon, he released 35 books featuring Bobby Owen, an Oxford-educated policeman who worked his way up through the Scotland Yard ranks. He wrote another five featuring Sergeant Bell, a plodding, lugubrious London detective who nevertheless always managed to resolve his cases. Still another 20 books were stand-alone mysteries.  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.” While I don’t like them quite that much, I enjoy reading Punshon, sometimes more for his portrayal of England during the first half of the 20th century than for his plots, which are not always as solid as one could hope, although some reviewers compare him to John Dickson Carr.

In Music Tells All, published by Victor Gollancz in 1948, Bobby Owen in his 24th outing and Sergeant Bell, promoted now to Inspector, team up on a case that moves back and forth between a rural village and London. The story starts with Bobby and his wife Olive searching for a place to live. She responds to an advertisement for a home at a comfortable distance from his job at Scotland Yard. Expecting a crowd of competing seekers, they rush out only to find a quiet village with a house that seems perfect. The landlord names a rental fee far less than they expected in this time of extreme scarcity and they jump to sign the lease. They soon learn that an odd neighbor is given to playing her piano tempestuously at all hours. Everyone in the village gives Miss Bellamy a wide berth, except for their landlord who seems to be simultaneously fascinated and repulsed.

Bobby is distracted by a jewelry heist in London which involves a wild car chase through the city streets. One of the rings from the robbery is found in the village where Bobby just moved and the body of a stranger shows up in a nearby dismantled bomb shelter, bringing in Inspector Bell. The obvious suspect is a chauffeur who disappeared about the same time but several of the neighbors warrant closer inspection. Bobby doesn’t understand how his new village is tied to the robbery but can see that it is. Poor Olive is constantly searching for food for the two of them.

There aren’t enough clues to suggest the actual culprit and the motivation behind the crimes so the ending requires too much explanation, but all in all this is a good story, describing as it does life in post-war England and the citizenry determined to make do and get by.

An earlier version of this review appeared on Kevin’s Corner, https://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/2017/08/aubrey-hamilton-reviews-music-tells-all.html, on 21 August 2017.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Suddenly While Gardening by Elizabeth Lemarchand

Suddenly While Gardening (Walker, 1978) by Elizabeth Lemarchand (1906-2000) is the 10th mystery featuring  Detective-Chief Superintendent Tom Pollard of New Scotland Yard and his partner Detective Inspector Toye. On a well-deserved vacation to a rural village where his aunt lives, Pollard is happily soaking in local color in the form of a restored path used for religious pilgrimages centuries ago. He happens upon a walking group who have found a newish skeleton on the path. He has no choice but to take charge until the local authorities arrive. When they throw up their hands and call in Scotland Yard, of course Pollard is selected to investigate since he already knows the area and its people and was first on the crime scene.

One of the village residents objected strenuously to the re-establishment of the path, as it runs near his property. He is eccentric and offensive enough to draw attention to himself as a likely perpetrator until his absence from the area during the critical timeframe was firmly determined. Then an anonymous caller reports the car of a well-known young architect was seen near the site. Pollard patiently sifts through reports and interviews and about two-thirds through the story links the death he’s investigating to an earlier death that was believed to be accidental, which rearranges the supposed motive for the killing and the list of suspects entirely.

This is a pleasant classic police procedural set in an historically interesting area of England. What I was beginning to consider an unremarkable tale turned grim late in the book and I was riveted for the remainder of the story.

Elizabeth Lemarchand released 17 Pollard and Toye police procedurals between 1967 and 1988. These books are recommended for lovers of Catherine Aird’s Calleshire Chronicles and Dorothy Simpson’s Inspector Luke Thanet mysteries.