Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Dark Garden by E.R. Punshon

The Dark Garden by Ernest Robertson Punshon (Gollancz, 1941) is the sixteenth 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 rural environs of the Wychshire county police force. In this story he is still being regarded as an outsider by his police colleagues and is trying hard to fit into the office. His supervisor Colonel Glynne, chief constable of the county CID, is out on sick leave, which gives Owen charge of the office as well as responsibility for investigating any crimes that come to his attention. He is in no frame of mind therefore to tolerate much nonsense when a local farmer visits Owen one day, demanding action against a local solicitor who manages a trust for the farmer’s wife. The farmer regards the money as his own and he has plans for it, but the solicitor won’t release it. Owen explains to the farmer that no law has been broken and the farmer leaves angrier than when he arrived. A few days later he learns that the farmer has been issuing threats against the solicitor, and at least a few people are taking them seriously. Owen decides to let the farmer know that what he’s doing is actionable and consequently is pulled into the troubles of the decidedly dysfunctional solicitor’s office.

After the solicitor in question disappears and then is found dead, Owen identifies so many potential motives and so many possible culprits that he is overwhelmed.  In addition to the unhappy farmer, the solicitor has entered into an extramarital alliance with one of his staffers, which has made one of the articled clerks deeply jealous. The solicitor’s partner would be happy to have the law practice to himself, and the managing clerk has been promised a partnership that has not materialized. The list goes on and on.

Because of all the suspects with valid motive and opportunity to commit the crime, the actual perpetrator isn’t clear until the very end of the tale, although I thought there was a strong case against him well before then. All in all, a solid Bobby Owen story. I was sorry not to see much of his wife Olive though, her managing around his work schedule and wartime conditions is always interesting.

This review is based on the Kindle version of the book, with an introduction by noted crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Hal’s Own Murder Case by Lee Martin

Anne Wingate (Martha Anne Guice Wingate) has written multiple mystery series, including one of my all-time favorites. Under the name Lee Martin, she created the memorable character of Deb Ralston, a detective on the Fort Worth police force, with three adopted children and a husband in career crisis. One of the threads throughout the 13 books published between 1984 and 1997 is Deb’s discovery of and eventual conversion to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Since Wingate is an adult convert to the LDS church, it’s easy to believe there’s a degree of autobiography in these stories.

I have read all of the Deb Ralston stories more than once and some many times. (For those interested in genealogy, a couple of them focus on family history and research.) I think Hal’s Own Murder Case (St. Martin’s Press, 1989) is among my favorites. After adopting and raising three children, Deb in her early 40s is pregnant and on leave, expecting to deliver within a few weeks. Hal is Deb’s youngest child and only son. His attention deficit disorder in addition to the usual teenage angst makes him utterly maddening, such as when Deb discovers that he and his girlfriend Lori have decided to hitchhike to New Mexico during their spring break without telling anyone. Deb is conjuring mental images of slow and painful punishments while she begins her search, when her husband, in the hospital with a broken leg, gets a call from the police in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Hal is being held there as a potential murder suspect. She is in no condition to chase after the wanderer but since her husband is immobile, she has no choice.

She arrives in Las Vegas to learn that the body of a stranger was discovered in Lori’s sleeping bag and that Lori has disappeared. The murder was committed with a hunting knife that belongs to Deb’s husband. Hal was found disoriented and covered with blood. The local police were confident they had found the culprit and that they would find Lori’s body soon. Deb joins forces with Police Chief Alberto Salazar to find Lori and get her runaway son out of jail. The exchanges between scatter-brained Hal and practical, grounded Chief Salazar are wonderful pieces of dialog.

These books are excellent late 20th century police procedurals, before the explosion of IT and the internet re-invented investigative techniques. The characters are some of the strongest I can remember seeing; it’s easy to think I might run into Deb at the grocery. The ending is unexpected, when Deb’s professional work sharply coincides with her personal life. Highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Cinnamon Murder by Frances Crane

Frances Kirkwood Crane (1896-1981) wrote 26 mysteries between 1941 and 1965 with private investigator Pat Abbott and his wife Jean in the leading crime-solving role. The Abbotts were based in San Francisco but travelled constantly so the stories are set in a range of locales. All of the books have a color in the title, except for The Polkadot Murder, which, to be strictly accurate, is a pattern, not a color.

The Cinnamon Murder (Random House, 1946) is the eighth in the series, and the Abbotts are vacationing in New York City. After 10 days they are ready to go home. They attend one last cocktail party where they become enmeshed in the problems of Brenda Davison. They meet Brenda’s brother-in-law and her sister-in-law and learn that Brenda’s husband, their brother, died in an aircraft accident a few years previously. They also learn that the surviving Davisons’ father left a sizeable estate to his grandchildren, skipping a generation and making Brenda’s 3-year-old daughter immensely wealthy. Neither of the Davisons like Brenda but they like the money she controls as her daughter’s guardian, thereby setting up significant tension in the family. The child was quite ill earlier in the year, and Brenda believes that someone tried to poison her.

Between worry about her child and being convinced the Davisons are trying to make her look like an unfit mother, Brenda is upset and hysterical in almost every conversation she has with the Abbotts. Pat is intrigued enough to postpone their departure from New York to look into the situation. They seem to never sleep and, during one of their early morning investigative excursions, find the body of a woman with the same cinnamon-brown nail polish that Brenda wears. Since the face has been mutilated, identification is made based on the nail polish and hair color.

The plot was probably fresh at the time this book was written but not so much 70 years later, as I recognized a couple of twists for what they were. One point that was not cleared up to my satisfaction was the taxi driver that followed the Abbotts around. He turned up at odd times for no reason that I could see.

I appreciated the precise references to colors, as I also tend to notice the exact shade I’m seeing. I would like to know what Schiaparelli blue is, though; a later reference said it is blue violet but I could not find a sample on the Internet. A doorman’s uniform was described as “faun-colored”, which I assume is an editorial error that someone should have caught.

Kirkus called it “sleek” and The Saturday Review said it was “readable.”

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Not Dead, Only Resting by Simon Brett

Simon Brett has been a mainstay of English crime fiction for 45 years. He has published some 60 volumes, in addition to writing for radio and television series. He received the Diamond Dagger Award from The Crime Writers’ Association in 2014 and the Order of the British Empire in 2016 for significant contributions to literature.

In addition to a handful of stand-alone books, he created four distinct series protagonists. Bright Young Things Blotto, the Honourable Devereux Lyminster, and his sister Twinks, in the 1920s; retiree Carole Seddon, who finds her choice of a retirement village has far more crime than she expected; Melita Pargeter, who relocates to a seaside retirement hotel after her husband’s death; and Charles Paris, an actor frequently out of work who drinks a little more than he should.

Charles Paris is perhaps my favorite of the four; I love mysteries set in the theatre. In Not Dead, Only Resting (Scribner, 1984), the 10th in the series, Charles is out of work as usual and looking for ways to pay the bills while he waits for the casting call he knows will come. He jumps at the chance to join friends at the swanky restaurant named Tryst for a meal he doesn’t have to pay for. While he’s there, the gay couple who own and run the restaurant quarrel publicly. When the murdered body of one is discovered a few days later, the other, who has disappeared, is assumed to be the culprit.

Charles is enlisted by the cousin of the vanished restaurant owner to clear his name. This unofficial investigation takes Charles to a country villa in France and to gay escort services and many places in between, always fortified first by strong drink.

A nicely layered plot with murder, blackmail, and criminal assault; lively characters, one of whom uses Cockney rhyming slang so often he’s hard to understand; and an unexpected ending, all woven into a detailed backdrop of the realities of the acting world.

This book was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger Award in 1984.