The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen (Frederick A. Stokes, 1933) is the sixth mystery written by cousins Manfred Bennington Lee and Frederic Dannay. The series began in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and ended in 1971 with A Fine and Private Place. A collection of short stories was released posthumously in 1999.
Buck Horne was a star of the silent Western movies for years but eventually the casting calls stopped. His foster daughter had learned all of his shooting, roping, and riding skills and became a cinema star in his place. Buck yearned for the spotlight again and, in a bid for a comeback, enlisted the assistance of his old friend Wild Bill Grant, a former U.S. Marshal, who cast him as a star in his traveling rodeo. The massive indoor sports arena in New York was rented for a week’s worth of shows, and Grant moved his performers, their horses and caretakers, and all of the supporting staff and gear needed across the country to New York.
Ellery Queen and his father Inspector Queen were given tickets to the opening night and were on the spot when Buck falls off his horse during an early gallop around the stadium floor in front of a crowd of some 20,000 people. A bullet hole is discovered in the body and Inspector Queen takes over what is obviously a homicide scene. Inspector Queen focuses on the search for the murder weapon, while Ellery Queen focuses on the people closest to the dead man.
I thought this was a clever idea for a story setting. The juxtaposition of the Old West and that quintessential city of cities New York is incongruous, as no doubt it was meant to be. The idea of cowpunchers on the loose in the city that never sleeps evokes visions that are hard to forget. The attempt to reproduce Western dialect was strained but I got the point.
The mystery itself was convoluted and the solution was a surprise. Despite Ellery Queen’s statement midway through that he knew who had committed the murder, I didn’t feel as if all the clues were present from which to reach the final answer. Inspector Queen was remarkably patient with his son when he made these pronouncements. The writing was florid and could have been tightened up to good effect. Probably not the best choice for a first Queen read. Still, an entertaining story with some original characters.
Murder Jigsaw by Edwin and Mona Radford (Andrew Melrose, 1944) was the second title in their series that featured Dr. Harry Manson, who was a Chief Detective-Inspector of Scotland Yard as well as the lead scientist in Scotland Yard’s Crime Research Laboratory. It was published the same year as the first one, Inspector Manson’s Success. Dean Street Press has re-released six of the Radford mysteries. Murder Jigsaw has an informative introduction by crime fiction historian Nigel Moss. In this early story, Manson’s scientific and deductive skills are described in detail, laying the ground for future books. Moss states that the Radfords modelled him after Dr. John Thorndyke, R. Austin Freeman’s series detective and that they wanted a police representative to move away from the prevalent amateur detective.
The site of action is Tremarden Arms, a picturesque hotel in Cornwall known for its access to fine fishing waters. A curmudgeon of a retired Army colonel is found drowned in a river with his fishing tackle on the bank nearby. The death is assumed by everyone to be an accident. Dr. Manson, however, at the hotel for a short vacation, visits the scene out of curiosity and sees enough to know that the death was not accidental. The ensuing investigation maximizes the use of forensic procedures and tools as they were known at the time. At a couple of points in the story, the Radfords pause the narrative and invite the reader to assess the clues and decide who the culprit is.
Dr. Manson learns that the colonel was almost universally disliked, and suspects abound. He finds it particularly awkward that some of the hotel guests he has known for years through their mutual fishing interests are among the most likely perpetrators. The colonel defrauded two of the hotel guests, one of whom lost his home because of it, and he appeared to be blackmailing another hotel guest. All in all, not a loss but Dr. Manson is sworn to uphold the law and goes full out to collect and analyze evidence and to identify the murderer.
The Radfords via Dr. Manson were up to date on current knowledge in regards to fingerprinting; one of the last chapters of the book gave a thorough explanation of the science as it was understood at that time. Emphasis is definitely on scientific methods and logical thinking in the solution, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. Completely unrelated, just the mention of Cornwall invokes images of seaside villages and picturesque scenery in my mind, and the description of the countryside around the hotel was especially appealing. An interesting, cerebral read.
Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867–1944) was a well-known book cover designer with some 270 books to her credit, working for A.C. McClurg, Scribner’s, and other publishers. Her covers generally had a plant theme and were in the Art Noveau style. Authors for whom she designed include Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charles Dickens, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry van Dyke. When dust jackets rose in prominence, she began writing her own books. From 1911 to 1914, she traveled throughout the Western United States and Canada, discovering several species of flowers as yet unidentified. The results of her research were compiled in her Field Book of Western Wild Flowers (1915), which is considered the first comprehensive guide on the subject.
After that, she wrote three mysteries, the first of which, Murder in Stained Glass (Random House, 1939), was no doubt informed by her father’s and sister’s extensive work in stained glass. In her sole appearance Miss Trumbull of New York visits a school friend in a small New England town. Expecting a tedious stay, she is pleasantly surprised to find a lively young cousin staying with her friend and that the cousin has an attractive young neighbor. The neighbor’s father is Frederick Ullathorne, a noted stained glass artist, known for his temper as much as his talent. The privacy-loving Ullathorne has just moved his studio to the small town to get away from the noise of New York City.
Mr. Ullathorne hasn’t been in the area long but his irritability and unpleasantness has managed to upset many of the locals. When he is murdered in a particularly gruesome way, there are any number of suspects for the authorities to consider. Miss Trumbull is not impressed with the detective leading the investigation so she undertakes her own.
This is a traditional mystery, much in the style of Agatha Christie. Miss Trumbull tends to ask a number of questions, heedless of the danger she is putting herself into. A friend warns her against getting involved, but in true cozy heroine style, she persists until she finds herself in a confrontation with the murderer. A fine comfortable read.
Cover from the 2015 reissue by Lost Crime Classics.
Stephen Greenleaf published 14 private investigator mysteries between 1979 and 2000. Each book focuses on a social issue: Southern Cross talked about the Civil Rights movement and Strawberry Sunday is engrossed with migrant farm labor. His protagonist John Marshall Tanner, who lived and mostly worked in San Francisco, is thoughtful and literate, with the usual inability to commit to a long-term relationship. The series was critically well regarded but never achieved significant financial success, and Greenleaf wrapped it up with book 14. Ed Lynskey wrote an excellent essay that summarized each of the 14 books and included an interview he’d conducted with Greenleaf by email. See it on Mystery File.com, http://www.mysteryfile.com/Greenleaf/greenleaf.html
In Blood Type (William & Morrow, 1992), #8 in the series, Tanner drops into his favorite watering hole, an unobtrusive bar that allows some of the regulars to congregate in a back room. His friend Tom Crandall is often there, reading, but this particular night Tom has something on his mind. The two generally do not share the details of their personal lives but Tom confides in Tanner that a well-known business man is in the process of stealing Tom’s wife. He wants Tanner’s advice on what his legal options are; Tanner is sorry to tell him that there really aren’t any. A week after this upsetting discussion Tanner finds Tom’s obituary in the newspaper.
The police aren’t sure how Tom died and want to write the death off as suicide so Tanner sets out to learn more. He interviews Tom’s widow, his mother, his work partner, and others, acquiring much more insight into Tom’s life, as well as more about the medical clinics and plasma banks in the low-rent areas of San Francisco where Tom found himself much of the time. This section of the book provides a worrying view of the way blood banks collected their product then. Subsequently, fortunately, practices have been upgraded.
Much of the story describes the steps of the investigation and Tanner’s thought processes, it is not fast-moving, no car chases or shootouts to speak of, although Tanner finds himself in danger more than once. Some readers will find it too leisurely in its pace. I consistently find his introspectiveness and social conscience appealing. I highly recommend these books to readers of private investigator series.