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.